Photos by Sarah Waters
Nadya Okamoto, grew up in Portland, OR, and is a 20-years-old Harvard student on a leave of absence. She is the Founder and Executive Director of PERIOD (period.org), an organization she founded at the age of 16. PERIOD is now the largest youth-run NGO in women’s health, and one of the fastest growing ones here in the United States. Since 2014 they have addressed over 400,000 periods and registered over 230 campus chapters. In 2017, Nadya ran for office in Cambridge, MA. While she did not win, her campaign team made historic waves in mobilizing young people on the ground and at polls. Nadya recently published her debut book, Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement with publisher Simon & Schuster, which made the Kirkus Reviews list for Best Young Adult Nonfiction of 2018. Most recently, Nadya has become the Chief Brand Officer of JUV Consulting, a Generation Z marketing agency based in NYC. Read about her entrepreneurial journey and the importance of changing the cultural stigma behind menstruation!
BL: Nadya, could you talk a bit about your background?
Nadya: I grew up in NYC until I was about 9, and then moved to Portland, OR with my mom and two younger sisters. My mom still lives in NYC, and I’m taking a leave of absence from Harvard now to focus on my book and growing PERIOD.
BL: What is the mission for PERIOD and why did you start the organization?
Nadya: PERIOD strives to end period poverty and period stigma through service, education, and advocacy. My original goal for PERIOD was to have some sort of mobile service that distributed menstrual hygiene products to people who might need them. Even in 2014, people and mainstream media were still just getting used to a more open conversation about menstruation and period products. So, calling the organization “PERIOD” even a few years ago felt like a bit of a stretch, and I knew that we would get a few doors closed in our faces. Calling our organization “Camions of Care” (“camion” is another word for truck or caravan) was a subtle way of drawing attention before starting to discuss periods in a bold manner. Later on, we chose PERIOD because we wanted to break the taboo around menstruation and get people talking about it. If we didn’t do this, who would? It had to start with us.
My long-term goal is for PERIOD to continue leading the Menstrual Movement on a global level in the three pillars of direct service, social change, and systemic change. I truly hope to also maintain that this movement is youth-led and powered. I hope that we can act as a thought-leader in what this movement is. I hope that this movement can be so widespread that it is known as a key component of the general fight for gender equality — period products should be accessible for all, never treated as luxury items, provided for free in schools, shelters, prisons, and workplaces, and we should have open dialogue for people to talk about their experience with menstruation too. Our work stems from the fundamental belief that it is a human right to be able to discover and reach your full potential, regardless of a natural need — and we will continue our work to eliminate periods as a serious obstacle for all menstruators, starting with those who are experiencing poverty. We will continue to work on expanding and strengthening our chapter network in terms of the impact that they are making, continue to work with brands and partners to mobilize via social media and awareness campaigns, engage global audiences in activations like global conferences (our next one is in January), and think about how we can plan for systemic change towards menstrual equity.
BL: What have been some of the challenges with starting your own organization?
Nadya: Funding, especially when we were just getting started. Also, I started when I was 16, and now I’m 20, and I think overcoming imposter syndrome so that I can continue going for big asks and taking risks is something that I constantly have to overcome.
BL: What advice would you give girls who are dealing with these changes in their body?
Nadya: Know that everyone experiences these changes and everyone is different. What is happening to you is normal and natural and there is absolutely no reason for you to feel insecure or uncomfortable.
BL: Why do you think menstruation is something not talked about often?
Nadya: Because periods have seen as a women’s issue for so long, rather than a human issue. They are something girls whisper to their friends about, and sometimes we aren’t even comfortable with other women speaking openly about our periods. This idea that periods are associated only with women also excludes those who menstruate but don’t identify as women. Women are not the only people who menstruate. Looking at menstruation exclusively from the perspective of cisgendered women does not include the experiences of trans men and those who may identify as nonbinary. It is a cycle of shame and silence that has resulted in an extremely pervasive stigma that prevents those in need from asking for help.
BL: How does gender equity play in your organization?
Nadya: The menstrual movement isn’t just about periods. It is a vital step in a movement towards gender equality and equity. Access to menstrual hygiene management is integral in supporting menstruators all around the globe. Periods are the number one reason why girls miss school in developing countries, and that period-related pain is the leading cause of absenteeism in the US. People are embarrassed and grossed out by their own periods – this stigma negatively impacts young people’s self-image and confidence. In an even broader sense, menstrual health is a global issue. ALL people should care about this movement, regardless of whether or not they get their period, because addressing this movement is what will make global development and gender equality possible. It is so much bigger than periods.
BL: Can you tell me what you like to do for fun? What do you do with your friends?
Nadya: I love going to the gym and trying new workout classes, and I love to eat with friends.
BL: What are the top 5 things you can’t live without?
Nadya: My phone, Indian food, Spotify, Instagram, Cheese
BL: What advice do you have for teens who want to start their own organization?
Nadya: Just go for it! No matter what it is you want to do, you are capable and your voice needs to be heard. If you want to do something, take action! I talk about this in my book- it is so important to empower young girls and make sure they know they are not alone. If you want to do something, take action! Follow your passion and find your way. Ask questions, find a mentor, find a community, and if you can’t find it – build it.