Miki Agrawal, the CEO of Thinx.
Among the many highlights of the Racked piece: Agrawal was accused of being inappropriate in professional settings (staff complaints were called a “coup”); being a hostile salary negotiator to her younger employees (“Oh you’re in your twenties, you don’t need a lot of money”); and coercing some of them to write fake Glassdoor reviews to offset other, bad reviews calling her “Trump-like” and “filled with Stalin-like paranoia.”
Like many Silicon Valley thought leaders, Agrawal chose Medium as the space to write her explanation. Agrawal has used the platform before to share advice and debunk criticism. Her previous heart-to-hearts on Medium include “My Lessons from Burning Man 2016” and “An Open Letter to Respectfully Quit Telling Me How to ‘Do Feminism’ (and to just support one another, please!)”
Unlike some CEO’s mea culpas, though, Agrawal shows little evidence of an intent to change. She kicks off her first paragraph with a disclaimer of being a “human being,” not a Thinx representative, and compared her ongoing plight to the culminating scene of “Braveheart.”
Earlier this week, Ladders wrote about how Agrawal’s mismanagement offered valuable lessons on how not to treat one’s employees. Agrawal’s explanation offers more lessons on what not to do.
“Yes, I have made a TON of mistakes”
In her Medium post, Agrawal admits she made “mistakes” while running her company, but on her personal Instagram, she still refuted the allegations in the Racked report, calling them a “classic ‘media take down'” and “baseless.” Instead, Agrawal said she was compelled to respond “to clear [her] good family name and simply share the truth of what actually happened.”
View this post on Instagram
At first i ignored it. It was clearly a one sided, ugly story. Then it mushroomed into a classic "media take down". We live in a culture where people love a good takedown story of the good ones who are changing culture and improving society. We're an easy target for press I learned, both good and bad! And yet, I still ignored it. But then my sweet Asian immigrant parents reached out to me from their trip to Morocco, concerned and upset. Apparently these absurd stories reached them too. (And btw, they are the prototypical parent types who don't follow pop culture or read smut). So I wrote this, not to acknowledge the baseless stories, but to simply share my truth of what actually happened. Pls read my Medium post entitled "My THINX ride". Hope you read with an open mind and if compelled, pls share. **this piece is by Miki, the human being, not Miki representing THINX. If you have any questions, please contact me on the contact form at mikiagrawal.com – I am already so grateful for the thousands of messages, emails, letters, notes, baby gifts and unbelievable show of support during this weird time. ❤️
Human resources as an afterthought
In the Racked report, one employee said the company’s $200 monthly healthcare premiums were so prohibitive that she couldn’t even afford birth control. Maternity leave was also well below the industry standard of 20 weeks with two weeks of full pay and a week at half-pay.
For a period underwear company founded to help women, employees were especially bothered by the company’s hypocrisy of not being able to help its own women.
Agrawal defended Thinx’s poor maternity leave policy with the rather flimsy rationale that no one was yet pregnant on the staff: “at the time we didn’t have any pregnant women on the team unlike now where we have 3, including me! :-)”
The protections of your employees should be built into the foundation of one’s company, not tacked on as an afterthought.
Explaining why employees had no human resources to deal with issues like health care, Agrawal said it was not a priority in the beginning as she was working to brand herself and the company: “I didn’t put HR practices in place because I was on the road speaking, doing press, brand partnerships, editing all of the creative and shouting from the rooftops about THINX so we can keep going.”
As Motherboard reported in 2016, when Silicon Valley startups leave out human resources, it’s women who disproportionally feel its lack: “companies, led by enterprising 20- and 30-somethings, reject the cubicled infrastructure of the offices of their parents’ generations in favor of an ostensibly open, ‘streamlined’ approach. In turn, the securities those older employers maintained—eight-hour days, parental protections, and incremental pay raises, for example—often disintegrate.”
Low salaries? #startuplife
Agrawal used “#startuplife” as her justification for why employees were being paid below market rate. She also mentioned that staff got bonuses to make up for their lower pay.
And yet, no amount of irreverent hashtags can justify underpaying your employees when your startup is raking in millions of dollars in revenue.
Things are changing at Thinx. Agrawal said Thinx has hired an HR manager who “will be putting much more rigid HR practices in place.” But although Agrawal said she is using the whole experience as an “opportunity to learn and grow,” she is not taking much responsibility for her actions, continuously reframing employee dissatisfaction as “HR issues” that “all of a sudden” and “kept happening.”
Some useful lessons for potential leaders
Show true humility to keep perspective: Agrawal started her post comparing herself to Braveheart and ended it by comparing herself to Theodore Roosevelt. Agrawal uses Roosevelt’s quote: “if (s)he fails, at least [s/he] fails while daring greatly, so that her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” This is heady company to keep. While maintaining inspiring role models is necessary, don’t share the pedestal with your idols until you’ve achieved what they’ve achieved: in this case, either the liberation of Scotland, or the creation of U.S. national parks.
Pay attention to what employees tell you: Under Agrawal’s logic, staff complaints were technical bugs, and not a built-in feature of poor leadership. That kind of view can only decrease dissatisfaction. Learn to shut up, and your company may actually improve.
Take responsibility: Dodging accountability is a losing game. Rather than quoting Roosevelt, Agrawal could have considered different kind of presidential advice. As President Truman recognized, when you’re a leader, every problem your staff has is your responsibility: “the buck stops here.”
Know when to step aside: Founders frequently have to know when to “fire themselves,” and let someone with operational experience take over. Agrawal said she has been replaced by an unnamed “professional CEO,” so she can go back to doing what she is better at: the promotion of “shouting from the rooftops about why period underwear is the bee’s knees.”
Good luck to whoever that new CEO will be. The consequences to Thinx’s mismanagement are piling up. CNN reported that Thinx cancelled its South by Southwest lineup for Friday and after the Racked report came out, model Tyler Ford came forward with their story of Thinx management’s “humiliating” transphobic mistreatment.