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Meet Dignity co-founder Jacinta Gulasekharam

The Brief had the privilege of talking to Jacinta Gulasekharam, co-founder of Dignity NZ – a social enterprise creating access to period products for women in the workplace and those in need.

Jacinta shares her inspiring story and achievements as well as valuable advice to young women wanting to launch their careers and make a social difference.

Jacinta, can you briefly tell us a little about your background and career?

Kia ora! I’m originally from Feilding in the Manawatu. I moved to Wellington in 2016 to complete a Bachelor of Commerce majoring in Economics and Public Policy at Victoria University.

During that time I became involved with the students' association, Victoria Council and then worked first as a Business Development Manager at a software company Invoxy and consulting firm Sysdoc.

In 2016 I co-founded Dignity, a social enterprise with a mission to deliver period equity.

I led the Positive Periods campaign which resulted in the NZ government committing to free period products for students. Currently I’m the Partnership Manager at FlexiTime, supporting partners and enterprise clients. In my spare time I volunteer with the First Foundation as a mentor and lend my experience to grow the startup ecosystem.

In 2016, you co-founded Dignity NZ, a women’s well-being initiative that creates access to period products, in an effort to eradicate period poverty. What drove you to creating this important campaign?

Ever since I heard that women who couldn’t access period products would skip school or university, I’d wanted to do something to change that.

In 2016 there was an opportunity to be part of a business bootcamp which Co-Founder, Miranda Hitchings, and I signed up to. We went along and asked people about a time they'd been caught short and what the hardest part of that experience was.

We found that the largest frustration most people felt was unfairness when period products weren’t available when they were needed most.

We saw a gap for a tangible well-being initiative in the workplace to support diversity and needs for people on their period.

Dignity provides period products to businesses, who then supply the items freely to their employees. We also give away the equivalent products to those without access through schools, youth and community groups.

We launched Dignity NZ in February 2017 and now have a team of four, have provided over 32,000 sustainable period products and are represented in 50 workplaces across NZ.

What have been some of the highlights of your work through Dignity NZ?

Every time I see Dignity in a workplace bathroom it feels emotional and surreal. Having a business that had small beginnings in a student flat in Kelburn, to now being represented in major corporate businesses across New Zealand is amazing! We wanted this to happen but seeing it is a different feeling.

When we hired our first employee, Hester, as our Operations Manager, it felt like a huge milestone to grow the company and provide flexible, meaningful work to another person.

We love that key workers like nurses and teachers no longer feel they need to pay for period products out of their own pockets for their patients and students.

As part of your campaigning, you lobbied the New Zealand Government to provide free period products to school students, how was that experience for you and what were the results?

I’d been watching what was happening overseas for a long time and was amazed to see the UK, Wales and Scotland make period products free for all students in their countries. We’d been waiting for someone to do something similar here.

I had coffee one day with the president of the NZ Student Association who mentioned he was having a meeting with the Education Minister. I arranged to put together a paper with example overseas policies, current NZ period poverty initiatives and costings for a national period product scheme in schools for him to pass on.

Newshub was then keen to do a story so we realised this needed to be a bigger campaign. Our campaign, ‘Positive Periods’ aims to ensure all young people have a positive experience with periods.

The campaign launched in July 2019 and I appeared on the AM Show explaining our goals.

We had a weekly campaign working group, 30 supporting organisations and a petition that recieved 3000 signatures in 6 weeks.

We presented the petition to the Minister of Women in November 2019. Afterwards, a journalist asked the Prime Minister what she thought about period poverty. She said on the record to him that it was a personal priority of hers and it became an instant headline.

The next year, in June, she sat down with our Positive Periods working group to consult on a national roll out.

Finally, the Prime Minister committed to providing free period products to schools following the Government’s $2.6 million investment. The roll-out will begin at 15 Waikato schools and be expanded to all state and state-integrated schools on an opt-in basis in 2021.

I think the rollout shows great intent and direction but I’m a person that likes to see the results before declaring the win. I’m proud that there will soon be an official national program for period products. New Zealand will be a better place with this access being normalised and budgeted for, just like other school supplies.

You also take the time to mentor for the First Foundation, why is this so important for you?

I’ve always been a person that wants to use my skill set to give back.

From being an oldest child, having to work out the university world for myself, I'm able to pass that recent knowledge on to my mentee which is a delight

My parents are both nurses, and their caring, compassionate attitude has been drilled into me to always use my skills to help others.

It doesn’t take much time out of my life to be a mentor and the reward you get back is tenfold. It feels a bit like a trial run of parenthood for me getting to see my mentee experience a whole lot of firsts in her life! I learn as much as she does from the relationship.

What advice do you give to young women looking to launch their careers and make a social difference?

Be kind to yourself, treat yourself how you would treat your best friend or whānau. Your relationship with yourself is the longest you'll ever have, so treasure it and back yourself no matter what.

We need our young leaders to be the change they want to see. Create and start initiatives that matter to you. Shonda Rhimes has an awesome quote - “you belong in every room you enter” -and that had a profound impact on me.

Time is the most precious resource on earth, so spend this wisely and make a difference that will exist beyond yourself. Never doubt yourself and know that you are never alone!

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