Starling Portrait Series: Celia Hodson ‘on a mission to eradicate period poverty in the UK.’

More often than not, business is about looking at how things have been done before and having the courage and imagination to reinvent the rules. That’s what Anne Boden did when she created Starling Bank, an app-based bank for personal and business current accounts. Born out of her determination to give customers control over their money, Starling strives to be fast, adaptable, friendly and supportive – just like a murmuration of starling birds.

Starling is all about questioning old logic and disrupting the established order. That’s why it’s built an app-based bank to suit the lifestyles of millions of people who live their lives on their phone. With no branches, it’s able to offer 24/7 customer service. Another example is its sleek debit card, which has a vertical design and is reflective of the way we use them today: inserted into card machines, ATMs or tapped to make a contactless payment. Portrait makes sense.

In this series, we’ll be shining a light on other Great British entrepreneurs who, like Anne Boden, are pioneers of change.

In the second edition, we meet Great British Entrepreneur Awards 2019 winner Celia Hodson, who runs Hey Girls.

© Sandy young Photography / scottishphotographer.com

Changing the face of periods, period.

Founded by Celia Hodson, Hey Girls is a social enterprise which offers environmentally friendly and biodegradable period products. Using the ‘buy one, give one’ model, Hey Girls’ mission is to eradicate period poverty in the UK, and since launching early in 2018, along with its customers, has donated more than seven million period products.

“I remember standing in the queue at the supermarket – they told me my shopping came to £14.33. I looked in my purse and counted up just over £12. I had to put the tampons back. I had to feed my family.”

I couldn’t park the idea

By the time Celia was a single mother of three she was no stranger to a tough life. Although growing up in the Lake District, swimming in the lakes and walking the surrounding hills might sound idyllic, Celia admits it was far from perfect.

A brutally strict father whose job in construction didn’t bring in a steady income forced her mother to shield Celia and her sister from the harsh realities of their lives. Luckily, she was able to draw inspiration and support from her grandparents, who she recalls were once described as “the next best thing to angels” by someone in the village.

“My grandmother was very caring and a pillar of the community,” Celia says. “She’d help everybody and share what she had.” It’s easy to see where Celia got her desire to help people. Long before launching Hey Girls, she developed a career providing support to social enterprises through business planning, leadership advice and building networks.

“It was never an aspiration to run my own business or social enterprise,” she says. “I just sort of fell into it. And I didn’t fall into it until later in life. I’m nearly 60, so to start a social enterprise when you’re not far from thinking about retiring seems an unusual thing to do.”

Once the idea of Hey Girls came to Celia, that was it. “Some people get an idea and think ‘maybe’, but park it for a while. I couldn’t shut down the idea for Hey Girls. I couldn’t park the idea of eradicating period poverty.”

Since then, it has been a whirlwind journey for Celia. She spoke about the idea with her children and was amazed at how quickly they got carried away as more ideas developed. In no time at all, Celia was hosting focus groups, talking to women about the perception of periods and the quality of period products already on the market.

“Our community was the lead in steering Hey Girls and how it was built,” Celia says. “Once we got going, I realised that in order to create what the community wanted, we had to use the ‘buy one, give one’ model.”

Living out of jam jars

Celia’s three children were all under the age of eight when she became a single mother. It prompted a very sudden and very significant change to all of their lives. And one which she had resigned herself to.

“I had to figure out how I was going to cope, what that looked like, what it looked like for me and what it meant for the family,” Celia explains.

“It was really tough, really really tough. I didn’t have any savings. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have furniture. I thought ‘this is it now, this is my life’.

“The money I got barely covered any sort of existence. When you get a bill in, you just don’t have any money for anything else. It was shocking. You get creative and resourceful but it was a massive shock for the children too.”

She adds: “You feel fragile, like you have a complete lack of independence. You can’t access [period products] when you’ve got virtually no money and are forced to make decisions about what to buy.”

It was a balancing act for Celia. On the one hand she wanted to protect her children from  realising exactly how tough life was for them; on the other she wanted  to teach them to understand their situation and the value of money. She used jam jars for each outgoing. One for food, one for electricity and one for school things. Every week, Celia would collect her benefits from the Post Office and split it between each of the jars.

“The kids could see exactly how much we had,  and we’d make decisions together. If one of them needed something for school, we knew we would be eating beans on toast for the next week.

“That helped them understand. It was there for them to see that we didn’t have money. Sometimes it would just be a few coins in a jar. It wasn’t easy and it’s not easy for families now. That was the main driver for Hey Girls. I didn’t want anyone to go without period products because they couldn’t afford it.”

Beautifully-made, sustainable, biodegradable

Processed with VSCO with hb2 preset

Having moved to Scotland and settled happily in the seaside town of Dunbar outside of Edinburgh, with some savings, a personal loan and a few small grants to fund the launch, Hey Girls became a fully- fledged Community Interest Company (CIC) in  .

Celia quickly learned just how much support she would need from those around her to make it a success. She spoke morning and evening with her youngest, Kate,  about the next steps, while elder daughter, Becky, was on hand to advise from Sydney. But it wasn’t just her closest family that helped. Celia is an enormous advocate of LinkedIn and using networks. Admitting there was a lot she didn’t know about running a business, she sought advice, knowledge and experience from those that did, and immediately found herself immersed in comments of support and nuggets of wisdom.

“People were very generous with their years and years of experience. We pulled in a lot of support on everything from managing contracts with supermarkets to looking at the business plan and finances.”

So many start-ups are able to start very small. That wasn’t the case for Hey Girls, however. It couldn’t start with 20 packs at the local market on a Saturday, and 30 packs the next weekend.

“The community wanted beautifully made, biodegradable and sustainable products. We couldn’t white label something, we needed it manufactured specifically for us. When you do that, you realise you’re having to buy a container load of products, not just a few cartons,” Celia recalls.

“It was always going to have to be us selling pallet loads of products because that’s how we had to buy them. We had to work out if there was a market opportunity to sell them in bulk volumes quickly. Thankfully, there was and that’s growing now.”

The website launched in January 2018, and by August, Hey Girls’ products could be found on the shelves of Asda and Waitrose. In just eight months, it had gone from selling a few hundred pounds worth online to doing tens of thousands worth, with pallets of products going to supermarkets across the country. When you buy a Hey Girls product online, from a supermarket or from one of their many independent eco stores, you also buy one for a UK girl or woman in need too.

Growing, growing…gone?

Listening to Celia talk so openly and passionately makes you wonder why no one has ever  done this before. She admits looking at the big corporates and thinking that they could eradicate period poverty in one weekend if they weren’t so focused on shareholder value.

After securing contracts with supermarkets, Hey Girls turned its attention elsewhere. The supermarket shelves were an incredible step, especially at such an early stage, but Hey Girls needed to expand its focus to other areas if it was to really make a meaningful impact. It wasn’t long before Celia and her team secured contracts with the Scottish government to supply products to all local authority schools in Scotland. Now, it’s securing tenders with local governments in England and Wales.

“The really exciting thing is that we’re working with businesses now,” Celia says. “There’s been a shift around corporates and their attitude to periods. They’re realising that they provide soap and paper towels but aren’t giving free menstrual products. If a woman gets caught short at the office, the chances are she’ll go home. They’re seeing that it doesn’t cost much to put a few little baskets of products in the bathrooms.”

Law firms, banks, retailers and bars are all signing up to supply free period products to staff. In fact, BrewDog, which was founded by 2014 Great British Entrepreneur of the Year James Watt, has committed to providing free Hey Girls products in all of its bars across the UK. Working alongside Celia’s daughter Kate, each business matches with a local donation partner, adding to the 200 partners Hey Girls already works with right across the UK, from the Orkney islands to Guernsey.

No matter how much Hey Girls grows, however, the long-term goal remains the same for Celia. And it’s quite a peculiar one.

“For Hey Girls to close down is the ultimate goal. We were set up to eradicate period poverty and so we work towards that and hopefully people won’t need donated products in the not-to-distant future.

“Right now, we’re in a good place and it’s growing really quickly, but we’re ultimately trying to put ourselves out of jobs.”

Breaking down the shame

Picking out your biggest achievement is so often a conundrum for many entrepreneurs. Many can simply pick out the one thing that makes them most proud, but Celia is someone who struggles to pick out just one, especially after such a magnificent couple of years.

A huge sense of achievement comes from her efforts to make an impact beyond just the products. And it’s something that is catching plenty of attention.

She explains: “It’s not just about giving products away. A lot of people don’t know what periods are.

“Children might get 15 minutes of education here and there, but they need ongoing conversations about menstruation so that there isn’t a stigma and taboo around periods.”

Hey Girls runs education sessions for anyone that receives its products, whether it’s donation partners, schools or community groups. Importantly, they’re run for boys and girls, men and women.

“It’s so important to get young men to understand menstruation. It helps to break down the shame women face.”

Last year, Hey Girls launched the ‘Pads4Dads’ campaign, fronted by actor and activist Michael Sheen, centred around getting more men to understand periods. A father to two girls himself, Sheen said “it can be hard to start the conversation.”

Explaining the campaign, Celia says: “Whether they’re single dads or dads who are at home while mum is at work, when their daughter starts their period they need to be prepared and understand menstruation.

“We had men telling us they were ashamed that they didn’t know anything about periods. But we also had dads of young girls saying they wanted to prepare now in order to have that conversation when their daughters have their first periods.”

Despite her pride in helping to educate more people about periods, Celia believes that no achievement is bigger than another. Each achievement is significant in itself and contributes to the main goal.

“Not long ago,”a lady in her 70s or 80s stopped me in the street and gave me a little envelope containing £5. She said it was the winnings from her bowls season and she’d been carrying it around with her, hoping to bump into me in our little town. That was a beautiful thing that makes you realise the impact you’re having.”

She goes on: “Of course, it’s amazing going into a supermarket and seeing your products on the shelves. It’s even better when you stand there for a minute or two and someone comes along and buys one!

“Creating jobs has given me a huge sense of achievement, as well. We’ve created jobs for parents, giving them the flexibility to work around their lives. They can drop the kids off at school and leave again in time to pick them up, without a drop-in pay. They’re a really happy group of people because it’s so hard to find jobs that fit around children.

“I’m also really proud that Hey Girls has been built by a community. A group of around 50 people gave up a little bit of their time or knowledge to help us. Everything about us is all created in the community, which gives you a very warm feeling. I’m not Hey Girls. Our community is Hey Girls, the team is Hey Girls, and our supporters are Hey Girls.”

The Great British Entrepreneur Awards and Starling Bank are avid supporters of Celia’s mission to end period poverty in the UK. Starling Bank and the Great British Entrepreneur Awards are committed to providing all its female staff members, in all office locations, access to the period products they need, when they need it.