Hannah Wilen E’20, MSQM:BA ’22, is the founder of Capd Period, maker of the first menstrual cup that can be emptied without removing. She recently won the 2023 Westly Prize for Young Social Innovators, a $40K prize that will enable the distribution of 10,000 CapdCups to menstruating people in Uganda. Hannah spoke with Duke I&E about her founder’s origin story, challenges she’s faced, and how her Duke experiences shaped her career journey.
You studied engineering as an undergraduate student at Duke, then got your Masters of Quantitative Management from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. How has what you learned in these different courses of study helped shape your career?
Studying engineering as an undergraduate student at Duke provided me with a strong foundation in the technical skills necessary for the product design and development of CapdCup. I spent a lot of time in the Co-Lab Studio, where I 3D printed school projects as well as fun personal projects. At Fuqua, I learned how to use data and analytics to drive business decisions and inform our go-to-market strategy for CapdCup.
Tell us about Capd Period. What led you to found the company, and what milestones are you most proud of so far?
I’ve struggled with my period ever since I was a young girl. Disposable pads and tampons caused irritation (and suck for our planet), so I switched to menstrual cups. Menstrual cups were a solution with a catch; what I found was that menstrual cups are virtually impossible to use outside of the house.
So I founded Capd Period and created our first product, CapdCup, the world’s first sustainable menstrual cup that can be emptied without removing it from your body. Originally designed for use in regions with minimal access to clean water, CapdCup also enables women who can’t access disposable menstrual products to attend school and work on their period. Our mission is to help all people who menstruate focus on their lives instead of their periods—because being able to manage your period with dignity should be a right, not a privilege.
This month we won the $40k Westly Prize, which awards young social innovators who have developed innovations that solve significant community challenges. We also won the WomensNet Distinguished Business Award that recognizes high-impact women-founded companies.
When did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur, and what were the most important traits and skills you developed in order to start Capd Period?
I actually never thought I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I still don’t consider myself an entrepreneur—I’m just a problem solver! I saw a huge problem that so many people who menstruate face (including myself!), and I also saw that there has been very little innovation in menstrual health compared to almost all other industries. The most important thing I learned at Duke, both at Pratt and at Fuqua, was how to approach solving hard problems. I leveraged this skill heavily when thinking about how to change the fundamental design of the menstrual cup, which hasn’t changed in almost 100 years.
I think it’s also really important to be passionate on a personal level about the problem you’re solving. That’s how I’m able to stand in front of a room full of people who don’t menstruate and talk about periods, blood, CapdCup, the reproductive system—basically anything and everything that might be considered “taboo.” That reflects in Capd Period as a company, too. As a B-Corp pending brand, we’re fighting period stigma by providing menstrual health education on our social media and through our global non-profit partners.
Can you describe a key challenge you’ve faced in your entrepreneurial journey and how you addressed it?
The biggest challenge I faced when starting up Capd Period was figuring out how to develop a new medical device with no funding. I’m really proud of the fact that we were able to bootstrap the entire development of CapdCup. I mentioned how I used to 3D print projects at the Duke Co-lab; that’s actually what gave me the idea to buy a used 3D printer to do all the prototyping of CapdCup in my house! We became patent-pending in October, and my co-founder, Neil Bhatia, and I wrote the patent ourselves to save money. That’s another thing I learned from Duke Engineering—how to accomplish a lot with limited resources!
How else have your Duke experiences and network supported your journey?
One of my favorite experiences in undergrad at Duke was when my friends and I built a robot to “crush, kill, and destroy” other robots in a Battlebot competition. I really enjoyed being part of a community that was so focused on innovation and collaboration. As a business analytics student at Fuqua, I appreciated Duke’s emphasis on entrepreneurship, innovation, and ethics, which helped me to gain a better understanding of the role of startups in creating positive change in the world. It was inspiring to be part of a community of like-minded individuals who shared my passion for making a positive impact on society.