By Karen van Kampen
Fresh out of business school, 24-year-old Carinne Chambers-Saini set out to revolutionize the menstrual care industry. She teamed up with her mother, Francine Chambers, to create the DivaCup, a reusable silicone menstrual cup that collects rather than absorbs menstrual flow.
“I thought, we are going to change the world with this,” says Carinne. “I had a completely unrealistic view of how things would evolve. No one would take us seriously.” It took a year to find a supplier willing to develop and manufacture the DivaCup, and another year for the approval process as a class II medical device. Then came the biggest hurdle: getting the product listed. “The retailers just laughed at us and said, we’ll never carry this,” says Carinne. “That was definitely one of the hardest blows because we were so excited about the product and we knew what we had.”
In 2003, DivaCup was turned down by all mass-market retailers. But the mother-daughter duo never gave up. “You keep going, no matter what,” says Carinne. “That’s the grit that people talk about.” Years of patience and hard work has paid off. Today, DivaCup is sold in 60,000 stores in more than 30 countries, bringing the menstrual cup to the mainstream, and its CEO and co-founder is being recognized as an industry trendsetter. Carinne was the 2019 winner of the TELUS Trailblazer Award (now the Innovation Award) — a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards, that is granted to an entrepreneur with outstanding leadership who has set standards for originality, quality and successful management.
The daughter of two entrepreneurs, Carinne says the creating part of business has always excited her. In high school, she worked at her mother’s jewelry store in Kitchener, Ontario, helping with buying and creating custom pieces. In 1992, Francine saw an ad for a menstrual cup. “That started the whole journey,” says Carinne. Reflecting on their own experience with a menstrual cup, as well as customer feedback, Carinne and Francine set out to create an improved, modernized version.
The initial setbacks with mass-market retailers proved to be a blessing in disguise. Carinne and Francine were running the business from home, assembling packages in their basement, and realized that they weren’t ready for mass market. They focused on the natural market instead, and gained a loyal following at eco shops, natural food and outdoor adventure stores. It took five years to get listed in every Whole Foods region in Canada and the U.S. By 2011, DivaCup was listed in 3,000 natural and niche stores in Canada and the U.S.
“We had to change our story and show retailers how the DivaCup could bring profit into the category, and how it was a destination product that people would be looking for.”
Diva International began building its team, setting up its headquarters and taking the business to the next level. Carinne stopped doing sales meetings with her mom. “It’s hard to get taken seriously when you are your own sales team,” says Carinne. “You just don’t have the credibility.” Then came an opportunity that would catapult DivaCup into the mainstream.
In 2012, a company had pulled their ad from the jumbotron in New York City’s Times Square at the last minute. The rep trying to fill the space was a fan of the DivaCup and called Carinne with the opportunity. The ad would run four times an hour, 24-hours-a-day for a year. It was a lot of money, “but something in our gut kept telling us we have to do it,” says Carinne. “As an entrepreneur, your best asset is your gut and intuition.”
A new buyer for Shoppers Drug Mart saw the DivaCup ad in Times Square, and suddenly Diva International was viewed as a real player in the industry. “We had to change our story and show retailers how the DivaCup could bring profit into the category,” says Carinne, “and how it was a destination product that people would be looking for.” In 2013, they brought on Shoppers Drug Mart as their first national account.
With Shoppers on board, they approached other mass-market retailers with their success story. But there was still a lot of work to be done. It took five years to bring on the remainder of the mainstream retailers — including CVS that in 2015 started carrying DivaCup in almost 10,000 locations. Yet being listed in the mass market isn’t necessarily the magic bullet that will solve all your problems, cautions Carinne. To succeed, “you have to build the demand and build the market for your product,” she says. For Diva International, this includes investing in education on women’s health and menstruation, which has become one of its core missions.
The DivaCares program aims to expose the global issue of period poverty in which girls and women lack access to menstrual products. “It is happening in North America, right here in Canada,” says Carinne, who points out that one in seven girls in Canada has left or missed school due to lack of access to period products.
DivaCares also fights discrimination around menstruation by helping to normalize the conversation. At home, Carinne talks openly to her daughter and son. “Boys need to be part of the conversation,” she says. “It should not be something that’s reserved only for girls. It just propagates the taboos and shame around it.”
As a certified B Corporation, Diva International uses its brand as a force for good, says Carinne. As an entrepreneur, she says it’s important to “think about how your business can become a vehicle for contribution and change in the world.”