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How to take a billion dollar idea and turn it into a reality with Cora founder Molly Hayward

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

Imagine not being able to go to school or work because you don’t have the products you need during your period.

Imagine having to use dirty rags instead of tampons or pads and being forced to drop out of school in elementary - all because of your period. For millions of women and girls around the world - this is a reality. Enter Cora.


Cora is a purpose driven fem-care brand that’s on a mission to build a better future for all women, all around the world, founded by Molly Hayward. Molly is one of those sparkly women I felt like I could chat to for hours about her mission over the last decade and what she’s managed to build with Cora. An elevated period brand for the modern woman, with a major social 1 for 1 give back scheme to girls in need.


Since 2016, Cora has donated well over 10 million pads and has helped provide reproductive health education to roughly 15,000 girls in Kenya and India. This is one of the most inspiring women I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing and I hope you love the episode.


Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!


Cora started for me out of a place of real confusion and personal, sort of,


I think.


Crisis, almost, so I was actually coming out of the first company that I had co-founded, so I started a sustainable clothing company way


Back for about


10 years ago, and I was really interested in ethical fashion and sustainable fashion and actually lived in London for a time that was really the hub of ethical fashion at that time. And I really was so interested in the opportunity to contribute to that industry being more environmentally sustainable, more ethically sort of aligned, I think.


And you


Dove right into that and after a couple of years really realized it was going to take me so long in that particular industry to make the impact that I really wanted to


Make.


And I think as a I was so young, I think as a twenty two year old, I was like super impatient and I just couldn't really see the forest for the trees. And so I kind of made the choice


To


Sell my share back to my business partner and just move on because I was like, I need something that I can really sink my teeth into and start to feel some really real results. But I didn't know what that was. And prior to that, I had been involved in a couple of other startups. And really I loved the idea of the the way that business could be used for social good. And so that was my


Whole sort of driving


Level of interest for a driving force in my interest in business was not necessarily business persay, but being able to use that as a vehicle for doing doing good in the world, creating some sort of change. And so I was really at this crossroads. Like I moved back from London.


I was back in the US.


I had no idea what I was going to do or what my next project or venture was going to be. And a friend sort of called me out of the blue and was like, hey, I know you have always had a really specific interest in women and girls and economic development. That's what I studied in college and said, I'm going on this volunteer trip with this organization to Kenya. They're focused on women's health and girls education, and they have one seat left on their plane, like, do you want to go? And it was like a month or something. And I was like, yes, sign me up. And so I went thinking just like I wanted


To kind of


Have a new experience, get back to a place of service and kind of honestly get out of my own head. And I got there and saw


All of


This amazing investment being made into girls education and women's health. So they were building schools and clinics, providing girls with uniforms and school supplies. And then as I got to know a lot of the girls in the community,


I was sitting with


One of them one day and she basically told me that she was home from school that day because she had her period but couldn't afford


To buy iPads.


And then and that was basically what she and all of the other girls in the village would do.


And I was sort


Of stunned,


Like my


Immediate reaction was like, OK, I'm here with this non-profit organization. Let me write a check to them. Like, I can make a contribution every month. They can earmark those funds for PAD's. The girls here in this village will have what they need each month.


And then,


Like the entrepreneurial lightbulb sort of kicked on. And I was like, hang on a minute. There are probably millions of girls all over the world like this girl and these girls.


And there are


Probably millions of women like me who would have that same sort of visceral, empathetic reaction to hearing that and feel like, you know


What, I can give


A small amount each


Month, like the


Cost of a cup of coffee or a latte every month to make sure that a girl has much needs during her period. I think, number one, because we've all just had that experience of like not having a tampon or pad when we needed it. And it's like you can't you can't continue with your day until you have addressed this issue. So we all know how essential those products are to our ability to just function out in the world.


But equally, it really


Struck me that there I think there is this growing consciousness that it is


The education


And empowerment of women and girls all over the world that is really going to ultimately begin to solve some of our greatest world problems. So taking kind of that feeling and that understanding and that instinct about the desire to connect


Women in need


With women in my own society, it more for me into this idea of creating a brand that really showcased and highlighted this issue and gave consumers a way of engaging with it. So. Product. Their products in the US, as they normally would, but we would use our profits to be helping to provide pads to girls in in places like Kenya and we now we have partner in India as well, and we also give here in the US. So it really evolved from there. So I came back to the US from Kenya and really started to build that brand and knew that I wanted to not just kind of have that social mission, but also create a line of products that with natural or organic, the brand. I wanted it to feel modern and design led. I wanted to kind of change the experience from one that felt kind of like neutral or negative that I think most experiences historically have made you just feel like you're a 13 year old girl over and over and over again. LABRA Totally. And I really wanted to elevate the experience and just create what I felt like was a brand that represented all the different values of the modern woman.


And I also


Feel like at that time there wouldn't have been many people doing that. Like I know now there are lots of brands in the period space and fem


Care that back


Then, like it really was like a disruptive, forward thinking new way that, you know, they were brands doing the social impact moment, like Toms did the shoes and they were people doing that


But was doing glasses.


Yep, exactly. But no one doing it in this space.


Totally. Yeah. We were definitely one of the first and that was both a really exciting opportunity and also really daunting. And it was challenging raising money because there was like this sort of lack of proof that


This industry was


Ripe for change from a customer perspective. And so, like a lot of the work that I had to do was convincing people that, like, no women are absolutely, like, hungry for this type of a


Shift in


Their own experience


In this


At this very personal and intimate aspect of their bodies that's really just been


Ignored


And kind of dominated by like these huge corporations that kind of promote these outdated notions of womanhood like. And, yeah, that was kind of like the struggle at that time.


And I think also women were ready for like the subscription model, like we buy the same exact product every month, like why not get the convenience message? Like, why not get it delivered?


Silverleaf And so


You get back to the US, you have to think about like money. Obviously, it's a big start up capital sort of thing that you need. You have to potentially find your co-founder. What was that process in the early days? Yeah, I


Mean, I bootstrapped Corra for the first 18 months and really I was like using my savings. I was doing a bit of moonlighting, like I would find kind of like odd jobs in business that people needed


Help with and


Really kind of like strung it all together. But like, to your point, like, I didn't have enough capital to buy like a container load of my own product yet. And I was really to your point, it was such early days in this category


That I didn't even


Know if women actually wanted a subscription. There weren't subscriptions out there yet for this product. And so I ended up finding a wholesaler who didn't have any minimums. And so I would just order cases of like an existing product like seven or eight or get a product a generation


And basically


Reached out to like ten of my friends and was like, hey, I have this idea. If I let you customize a box of organic products


And I ship them to


You every month. And I also give a month's supply of PAD's to a girl in Kenya or India for every monthly box that I said you


Like, is


That something you would pay me for? And. Oh, really? Oh, my God, yes.


And so, like, literally


Just started


Up in my


Bedroom, like


Packing boxes


For these ten women.


And funny enough,


Like, I got to sit on stage with the CEO of Seventh Generation, like a couple of years ago and got to tell him, like, I totally, you


Know,


Sort of like ripped off your products, sold your soul, resold your product. And that's how Corre got started. But yeah. And then it just grew from there, like they told their friends and like the sort of initial customer base which I still considered such a test group started to


Grow and


I was making just enough money to kind of cover my costs like that. Really, I was still losing money every month, but it was this like validation. And I just had this feeling of, like,


You have to


Keep going. There were so many moments where, like, I was out of


Money, out of energy and


But I just had this feeling like, no, this is an important idea. This is this has legs. And like, you just have


To keep building on it.


And so, yeah, that was like the first year and a half was just like me pretty much by myself,


Kind of starting


To do everything and. Yeah, like ultimately ended up kind of doing like a Kickstarter campaign and got a bunch of new customers there and raised a bit of money from that. Not a ton, but in the early days, like I think I raised a little over thirty thousand dollars and that felt like a ton of money at the time. And and then funny enough, my co-founder and I


Met


Because I was invited onto like a TV show that was sort of like Shark Tank, but it was a little bit more like you would be mentored by these investors. And so I was on that show. And at one point one of the investors kind of pulled me aside and was like, hey, you know, I probably shouldn't be talking to you off camera, but I actually have a friend


Who is


Working on a really similar idea. And I feel like you two could totally team up and work together instead of potentially competing


And ended up connecting


With Morgan. And like, we just totally hit it off. And we were so aligned in terms of our values and our vision for the opportunity and the way we wanted to build the the brand and the company.


And and so that was kind


Of it like we that was summer of


Twenty fifteen. And yeah, we


Kind of like work together to take what I the customer base that I had and the brand that I had started to build. And we were able to actually go out and start raising real money at that point. And that was what allowed us


To start buying our


Own products and create all of our own packaging


And build a website


And build a subscription platform that actually sort


Of


Worked well. And and. Yeah, kind of. Kicked it off from there, we launched the brand officially in February of twenty sixteen


As a dicey business. Yeah.


Oh so cool. I just love what you've been doing. When you were on that TV show, had you thought about getting a co-founder, were you even interested? We like I want to do this myself.


No, totally. I was definitely looking for it. It was really hard to find a person who was willing to quit their job and like who also had a passion for


Like curious


Like those two things are like the kind of specific. And so, yeah, I really struggled to find someone that fit the bill. And thankfully, the stars aligned and found that person. But it was definitely challenging for a while.


Yeah, I


Can imagine finding someone that you can, like, basically enter in this new weird relationship with that's going to last a really long time.


Totally. And that you have really complementary skill sets with like you don't want like two people who only know about marketing. You need you need like finance and operations and supply chain and like all of these other pieces. And so.


Yeah, yeah.


I want to talk more about the money stuff. When you went through your investment rounds, I think I read that you guys have raised like more than 60 million dollars or something. That's just amazing.


I think I think closer to


30 at this point.


Thirty crunch base is out of date,


Probably out of date. We don't like to publicize our fundraising feel like we've sort of.


Yeah, we're we're


A little more


Low key, humble,


Very humble. I want to talk about what the journey was like for you as a woman raising money and what it was like sitting in rooms with v.C going through that process as. Yeah, as a young woman.


Yeah.


You know,


I


Can't say that I ever felt sort of like. Directly. I don't know, I don't have a horror story like a lot of women do, and I'm pretty grateful for that. But but I definitely think that the category itself made those conversations a lot harder because the majority of people sitting in those rooms were men. And as a man, if you


Can't, menstruation


Isn't an experience you've had. And so it's really difficult to put yourself in the shoes


Of the


Woman and the consumer who wants and needs this product. When we would go into meetings and there was at least one woman, if not more, or the lead you see was a woman, like the conversations were so much easier because I didn't have to explain, like, why this was important or what the problem was or why there was a need, like women. Absolutely. It got to me they were like, oh my God, I hate going to. The brands are such that the experience is outdated, the ingredients are unhealthy. Like it just the conversations


Were a lot easier


When there was a woman in the room. And I think like in the early days, it just.


That first


Round


Feels like a


Million years ago, but we ended up.


With one or two


Institutional investors, but then a lot of them were like ended up being


Entrepreneurs,


People we knew who were early stage investors, wealthy individuals who were like


Who were


Sort of overanalyzing the situation, frankly, I think who were just looking at it being


Like, yeah,


This makes total sense. Like six billion dollar category. It hasn't seen any innovation in 40 years, consumer consciousness shifting towards healthier products, new brands kind of being taken up by consumers. I think that sort of higher level of thinking allowed them to get more comfortable with all of the uncertainty


That


Inevitably exists.


But, yeah, I think


That piece of it, like I just I found myself having to tell a lot more stories and really illustrate the problem for a lot of investors, again, who were men and just couldn't really wrap their heads completely around why this was so


Important.


Yeah. And do you think throughout that experience, do you have things, lessons that you like? I would do this again and I wouldn't do this again that you can share.


Yeah.


I think one of the things that


We did


That really helped take a lot of the pressure off the process and that I


Think I see a lot of entrepreneurs,


Male and female,


Kind of not do this is we never once went into an


Investors office and stood up at a projector and pitched. We would always somehow do it really informally. We would do everything we could to kind of get an introduction to someone from someone else in our network. Like there was never a cold email. So we always did it that way. And then we would oftentimes send our information up front and let them sort of go through the presentation. And that way we got on the phone and we could walk through stuff together. But it wasn't like, oh, let us have this really rehearsed kind of presentation. And it just made it more of a conversation. And I think it took a lot of the traditional pressure off and it changed the situation psychologically such that we didn't feel like we were going in there and we were like having to kind of perform and put on a show, which I think really like creates this weird power dynamic where it's this person is the one with the money and this is the person who needs the money. And even though that's like. True, in a sense, it sort of leveled the playing


Field, and I think that


Was a huge lesson and that's definitely a lesson that I would share and encourage others to kind of potentially heed is


Like going


In with a feeling like I have something truly valuable here and I'm offering you the opportunity to get involved and to potentially own a small piece of it. And here's what we've got going on. We're on equal terms here. Like you can say yes or no. You can decide if it's the right fit for you. But that, I think, really helped


To not


Make it feel like such a stressful process and ultimately


Ended


Up working, working out for us.


And probably they also got a really good sense of just who you are as a calm person and not having to be stressed being like, oh, my gosh, I've got to get this point right. And I'm nervous about standing up here in front of you.


Yeah, yeah. It's sort of. I mean. It definitely felt like it. Lent some credibility,


Like you look


You look a little more seasoned when you show up and you expect to be treated as an equal, then when you show up and expect to kind of be a supplicant and like,


You know, you


Come in wearing like your suit and you've got like a binder and you're like, don't do that. Like wear your jeans and your t shirt and just go in as who you are and share your story authentically, know your shit, know your numbers, know your you know your points.


But don't be


Afraid and certainly don't kind of go in thinking you're going to have to, like, grovel or or like convince someone that you're


Worthy. Yeah.


Great advice. Thank you. And I want to talk a bit about at some point, you were one hundred percent a day brand, a subscription based, and then at some point you I think it was around twenty seventeen that you decided to move into Target and you've since moved into some other retailers and shifted a little bit. Can you talk about that experience and why you decided to shift from the day to see model.


Yeah totally.


So back in


Twenty fifteen, twenty sixteen like to was super hot. I think consumers were like very into this idea of customization getting delivered to your door and convenience certainly for like the urban millennial like that was such an attractive proposition. And so that made a lot of sense for us. And frankly, as a business, that's a model where you have so much more control over the customer experience. And essentially all you need to do is like build a website and a bit of a marketing machine and like you're off to the races with retail, like that's a whole other beast. You have to go in and work with brokers and buyers and you have to convince them to take your product and how much and placement and all these sort of bigger negotiations. And as a small brand like you're competing for like a very limited amount of shelf space at any retailer.


You know, we started


Off as a brand because it felt aligned to like who we thought our initial customer could be, which was that really high expectation, highly discerning,


Conscious millennial


Woman.


But we knew from


The get go that actually in this category, roughly 70 to seventy five percent of women still preferred to buy their products in store. It was like, I don't want to pay a premium for deliveries to my door because I go to Target once a month anyway to buy other stuff and I just grab it there. And so we sort of knew that that was there was an existing consumer dynamic at play. So we knew pretty early on that we wanted to go into retail. I think we went we ended up just really fortuitously getting the opportunity


To meet


With the buyer in this category at Target really early on. So we had an advisor whose was a founder and whose products were in Target. And he


We


Basically got him to like take a box of our products with him to their headquarters in Minneapolis and kind of like, you know, make a make a secret drop.


Here you go. Take this.


But we


Ended up getting a call


From the buyer in


Our category at Target right after that. And she was sort, of course, been on my radar for a while. I would love to have a chat with you guys. We were sort of like, great, we're going to be in Minneapolis anyway next week be which of course, was not true. We but we wanted to meet in person. And so we ended up going in. And at that time, Target was actually and this is where the serendipity of timing is just something you can't control and you can't sort of predict. But Target at that time was actually just getting ready to launch the sort of their first natural set


In fem care.


And Cora was sort of like on their list of brands that they wanted to bring in. And so we went into that meeting and


We didn't


Know that was all happening. And so we sort of thought like, well, this will be an intro meeting and we'll get to know her. And then maybe we could probably be ready in a year to launch into retail. But we need a lot more time. Like we're we're still really young. And we went to that meeting and I think that meeting was in like May


And late May.


And she sat us down and basically said,


You know, I


Love Corey, I love the brand. I love what you're doing. Can you be on a


Shelf like


September 15th?


And we were like, oh, totally.


Yeah, that's not a problem at all.


Yes, and like basically


Like walked out of that meeting and we're like,


Holy shit.


Like, how are you going to be how are we going to do this? How are we going to get we didn't have retail packaging. We didn't like our supplier


At the


Time was in Europe. And so, like, it was going to be this whole thing. And somehow we pulled it off, like


You


Got product to shelf in 13 weeks, which


Looking back,


Was just totally nuts. But we did it. And like we've had this amazing relationship with Target ever since and have really grown our brand significantly there. And that has also catapulted into other retailers as well. So that was a huge turning point for Korea, I would say was getting


Basically


What was our ideal retailer like. We always said, if we could only go to one retailer, who would it be? And we were like, Target? Like, they're they're the cool retailer.


And it's amazing.


And that was


And I guess it like totally fast tracked your vision of going into retail by like a million percent because you were like, yeah, maybe in a year. We'll see. We'll see how it going. We'll see where we're at.


Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I was like, OK, no, we're we're we're doing this now I guess.


Oh my gosh, that's incredible. And I'm curious to know about where you are now. I mean, obviously, the state of the world is a little a little weird, but in general, before the pandemic and around now, what's been working for you in marketing and how you like acquiring new customers at scale, given the size of the brand that you are today?


Yeah, I mean, given our size, it's a huge range of initiatives. I mean, we


We


Try to approach our customer from like all of the angles where that she's looking to for new product ideas or inspiration. And so for us, acquiring at scale, interestingly, is like now so,


So tied to


Being on retail shelves like we have ready to see business and that business continues to grow really well. And so like acquiring customers, there is is all about the digital marketing.


And so we do all of the sort of


All of the things that most brands do to acquire customers, adds


Google. All the things


As Google, Instagram, like all of that, all of the things. And we do take a really data oriented approach to that. Like our data see businesses like super


Analytical and we're


Always just focused on optimization and like understanding our customer better and like, who is she and what does she want? How much is she willing to pay? Like, it's always this game of like testing and learning and testing and learning. But really in terms of acquiring at scale in this category,


Now, it is all


About retail distribution. And so us acquiring customers is really actually so tied. It's it's so it's kind of so basic. But like at retail, on shelf with a physical product, it's so much about the real estate that you have and also how you show up there. So like literally just like your packaging. And I think we've been successful on that front so far. And it's always an evolution


And we're


Always optimizing that as well. But like, we really took this approach of like we want to show up in this really sort of minimal, sophisticated way that really stands out from


Both


The old brands and the new brands that are still kind of like just putting a ton of pink in color all over their packaging. And it still feels kind of like girly and and a bit juvenile, like we really wanted to kind of like level up and try to


Create


Something more sophisticated and like


That's so that's just


Who we are and that's how we wanted to show up. And that's worked really well. But I would say for anyone who's working on a physical product or thinking about going into a retail environment like that's something


To


To really invest in and nail from day one


Is like packaging and


Like, how do you really stand out and create a brand that draws


People in?


Yeah. And I also imagine for you guys being a brand that's elevated for the young modern woman when she takes that home and sits it on her shelf, it's beautiful to be out. It doesn't need to be hidden or taken out of the books. And then the books thrown away.


Exactly. Yep. Yep.


Yeah. Wow. I love that. That's really, really cool. Really. The last kind of key question I ask before the six quick questions is what is your advice for anyone who has a big idea, Ms.


You know, I feel


Like my advice is just start to start working, just start putting the pieces together.


Like, you know, like I


Shared earlier,


Kyra,


To me was always a big idea from day one. It was a billion dollar idea even when sales were


A hundred


Dollars a month and expenses were like three hundred dollars a month.


But I


Just had this nagging feeling that


I couldn't not do it. The idea of


Not doing it was like I was leaving this huge opportunity on the table that I was not showing up in the world


And


Offering what felt like a really valuable solution for both women here as well as girls in need. And so I feel like when you have a big idea, it's like. Trust the building blocks


Are going to


Be really small, but that you're ultimately going to reach whatever is your sort of like Holy Grail or the sort of like fulfillment of your vision. I think


That having


Clarity of where you want to go is so


Important.


There are tactics I could share and there are like all of the things that sort of have to go right along the way. But I think the essence of a big idea is so rooted


In the


Mind and in your passion and in your ability to make that vision or


Idea other people's


Passions, too. You know, like that's how you build a team. That's how you bring on investors. That's how you find partners. That's how things start to magnetize and sort of like show up for you. And so, yeah, I feel like it's it's like hold the clarity of that vision and then start to just day by day, do the small things that build towards that as best you can. And you're not going to be great at everything, but kind of being willing to like be the marketer and the ops person and the finance person and the web developer and all the things for a while in the beginning, like, you learn a ton, too,


And


It's not going to be perfect. But I have faith in


In that


Idea. And no matter kind of where you're starting from,


What I would say


And I always think, like, if you just see vision, like when you're 10 years from now and you look back and all those tiny little steps they will have compounded to bring what you're actually working two to life, which is just so important to always remember the compound effect across anything like personal life. If you want to get fit, just go for that walk, even like to start small and the compound effect, you you'll get there totally.


It's like I was just thinking before we got on, I don't know what made me think of this. I think I was thinking about, gosh, how long have I been working on Quora and like,


You know, and it's been.


Like almost 10 years, not 10 years yet, but like eight ish, and


I was just thinking ten


Years to overnight success. Most people look at what you do and they think like, oh, you just got lucky and you have some special sauce and you've only been doing this for a couple of years. And how you do it so fast, it's like it's


It's it's taken


Some time.


Yeah. And it's like people forget the ups and downs as well. They forget that there was lots of bad moments where you really low and


You're like, totally.


Yeah, I've had plenty of those.


Question number one is what's your why?


Oh, my, why?


Was like I


Shared from the beginning was like, how do


I create


Something that can actually help girls in