Phuong Mai was a management consultant who traveled—a lot—and was ruining her spine with every over-sized, heavy bag she lugged over her shoulder. A collar bone injury from yes, the weight of her bags, was the last straw. There had to be a better—and more stylish—way for business women to take along everything they needed without risking spinal injuries. And so, it was a no-brainer for Mai to start making her mission a reality and P.MAI, her line of luxury women's backpacks, was born.
“What I see these backpacks doing for hand bags is what ballet flats did to heels ten years ago," she explains. “Ballet flats in the work place were just smarter and more comfortable, but a professional alternative to the pump. When Tory Burch came on Oprah with her ballet flats, it was like, 'Oh that's genius.'"
Now that Mai works on P.MAI full-time, she's a true champion of female entrepreneurs as she's recognized that when brought together, they're a force to be reckoned with. Here, Mai shares her best tips, thoughts and observations for any woman currently in business for themselves—or about to take that leap.
What's one of the biggest lessons you've learned as an entrepreneur?
This is my first company and I've learned that female founders are a unique tribe. It's grown over the last few years with the Lean In movement, Girl Boss and this pride that women now have be more vocal about being a feminist all while taking calculated risks to pursue what they want. I'm all about that and want others to hopefully feel inspired to look inward and wonder, 'Well what would it take for me to do it too? How could I get started?' I've been very honest that it's not all glamorous and that's why I tend to ask other entrepreneurs about their initial struggles and how they dealt with them because I want people to have a very authentic impression of what it takes—but then also know they're not alone.
How do you recommend getting a business idea—and support network—off the ground?
Be calculated in the risk, be smart and understand what problem you're trying to solve. Start testing it out in small ways and be prepared for rejection. Every artist knows that they must be ready for criticism the moment they put a painting up. As an entrepreneur, it's the same way. Don't let it stop you but know it will happen and seek progress over perfection. It's okay if you're not perfect. You'll realize even the most put together people aren't put together at all. They say that in different moments, people are like ducks. They're calm and unruffled on the surface but really, they're paddling like crazy underneath. You'll find the more honest you are with yourself and the more willing you are to share your struggles—people not only relate but will genuinely want to help you—and it would be silly to turn your back on that.
You're a team of one—how do you stay sane?
Unfortunately, I don't have the luxury of my own team yet but it's certainly a goal of mine in the coming future to build that out. So, how do I bounce ideas and how do I keep sane as a founder? The answer is I have fellow entrepreneur friends that I lean on who I can always text for thoughts, advice and even quick pow wows. I'm active in female communities—no matter where I am.
I've lived in San Francisco for the last five years and that's where I have most of my entrepreneur friends. But, that doesn't stop me from reaching out elsewhere. Recently, I was in Toronto and I wanted to see what their start-up scene was like. Well, I had recently met this one woman in line at a Hillary Clinton rally who worked for a Canadian accelerator. So, I reached out to her, she just powered off like four emails and I ended up meeting with a couple of great women. It's just a matter of putting yourself out there. Ask for help and pay it forward.
With so many groundbreaking medical advances being revealed to the world every single day, you would imagine there would be some advancement on the plethora of many female-prevalent diseases (think female cancers, Alzheimer's, depression, heart conditions etc.) that women are fighting every single day.
For Anna Villarreal and her team, there frankly wasn't enough being done. In turn, she developed a method that diagnoses these diseases earlier than traditional methods, using a pretty untraditional method in itself: through your menstrual blood.
Getting from point A to point B wasn't so easy though. Villarreal was battling a disease herself and through that experience. “I wondered if there was a way to test menstrual blood for female specific diseases," she says. "Perhaps my situation could have been prevented or at least better managed. This led me to begin researching menstrual blood as a diagnostic source. For reasons the scientific and medical community do not fully understand, certain diseases impact women differently than men. The research shows that clinical trials have a disproportionate focus on male research subjects despite clear evidence that many diseases impact more women than men."
There's also no denying that gap in women's healthcare in clinical research involving female subjects - which is exactly what inspired Villarreal to launch her company, LifeStory Health. She says that, “with my personal experience everything was brought full circle."
“There is a challenge and a need in the medical community for more sex-specific research. I believe the omission of females as research subjects is putting women's health at risk and we need to fuel a conversation that will improve women's healthcare.,"
Her brand new biotech company is committed to changing the women's healthcare market through technology, innovation and vocalization and through extensive research and testing. She is working to develop the first ever, non-invasive, menstrual blood diagnostic and has partnered with a top Boston-area University on research and has won awards from The International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Northeastern University's RISE.
How does it work exactly? Proteins are discovered in menstrual blood that can quickly and easily detect, manage and track diseases in women, resulting in diseases that can be earlier detected, treated and even prevented in the first place. The menstrual blood is easy to collect and since it's a relatively unexplored diagnostic it's honestly a really revolutionary concept, too.
So far, the reactions of this innovative research has been nothing but excitement. “The reactions have been incredibly positive." she shares with SWAAY. “Currently, menstrual blood is discarded as bio waste, but it could carry the potential for new breakthroughs in diagnosis. When I educate women on the lack of female subjects used in research and clinical trials, they are surprised and very excited at the prospect that LifeStory Health may provide a solution and the key to early detection."
To give a doctor's input, and a little bit more of an explanation as to why this really works, Dr. Pat Salber, MD, and Founder of The Doctor Weighs In comments: “researchers have been studying stem cells derived from menstrual blood for more than a decade. Stem cells are cells that have the capability of differentiating into different types of tissues. There are two major types of stem cells, embryonic and adult. Adult stem cells have a more limited differentiation potential, but avoid the ethical issues that have surrounded research with embryonic stem cells. Stem cells from menstrual blood are adult stem cells."
These stem cells are so important when it comes to new findings. “Stem cells serve as the backbone of research in the field of regenerative medicine – the focus which is to grow tissues, such as skin, to repair burn and other types of serious skin wounds.
A certain type of stem cell, known as mesenchymal stem cells (MenSCs) derived from menstrual blood has been found to both grow well in the lab and have the capability to differentiate in various cell types, including skin. In addition to being used to grow tissues, their properties can be studied that will elucidate many different aspects of cell function," Dr. Salber explains.
To show the outpour of support for her efforts and this major girl power research, Villarreal remarks, “women are volunteering their samples happily report the arrival of their periods by giving samples to our lab announcing “de-identified sample number XXX arrived today!" It's a far cry from the stereotype of when “it's that time of the month."
How are these collections being done? “Although it might sound odd to collect menstrual blood, plastic cups have been developed to use in the collection process. This is similar to menstrual products, called menstrual cups, that have been on the market for many years," Dr. Salber says.
Equally shocking and innovative, this might be something that becomes more common practice in the future. And according to Dr. Salber, women may be able to not only use the menstrual blood for early detection, but be able to store the stem cells from it to help treat future diseases. “Companies are working to commercialize the use of menstrual blood stem cells. One company, for example, is offering a patented service to store menstrual blood stem cells for use in tissue generation if the need arises."