Why This World-Traveling Food Stylist Quit Her Job to Start an Organic Tampon Company
It’s a natural jump from being an Ireland-based food stylist and chef to becoming a mom, moving to Singapore, and deciding to start an eco-friendly, organic sanitary product company, right? Wait, WHAT. That’s right. Meet Jette Virdi, the crazy inspiring former plumbing entrepreneur, hotel owner, food stylist, photographer, and mom that’s dead set on changing the tampon industry, one biodegradable, non-toxic tampon at a time.
Anjelika Temple here, Founding Partner and Chief Creative Officer. I met Jette a lifetime ago when we both attended The Unique Camp. At the time she was an artist, food stylist, and chef, embarking on launching her own line of home goods. Now, four years later, we’re both moms to fiery little girls, and it’s this particular role that’s inspired Jette’s latest endeavor, Ilo.
Launched just last month on International Women’s Day, Jette’s company Ilo aims to reshape the period industry from the ground up. Not only is her mission to create ethical, organic products, but she really wants to change the conversation about periods, to remove the stigma attached to it in so many communities, and to educate, inspire, and empower everyone with a period. In today’s edition of Creative Crushin’, read all about Jette’s creative journey, from creative-of-all-trades to founder/activist.
Brit + Co: First off, tell us a little more about your background.
Jette Virdi: I was born in the UK, but at the time, my parents were living in France, so I grew up in a tiny little village in the south of France and then we moved back to the UK when I was around 7ish. Then [I went to] boarding school up in Scotland and my parents moved around a lot, so I’d go to them during school holidays to places like Gabon, South America, and all over the world really.
After school, I went and lived on a sheep farm in New Zealand rustling them in the mountains and learning to dock their tails and lived out there for about a year, came back, and studied Psychology and Sports Science in Newcastle, then went off again traveling for a year round the world. I ended up living in Australia for a while and starting a business with my then boyfriend. Since then I’ve lived in Mexico and Ireland, and now I’m in Singapore with my fiance Tom and baby girl, Molly.
I’ve had an amazing life and upbringing so far and it’s definitely down to my parents! They were so open and always traveling and gave me the attitude that if you don’t like your situation, location, work, etc., you can always go back, but you should at least try. So, here I am, trying.
B+C: Before you founded Ilo, what did your career path look like?
JV: Haha, there was no career path! I’m very much one of those people who: wants to do something, do it, luckily things work out, get bored, and try something new. I’ve had a plumbing company in Australia, a sustainable boutique hotel in Mexico, and a homeware range in Ireland as well as owning a photography and styling studio.
B+C: It’s a pretty major jump to go from being a food stylist and chef to the founder of an ethical sanitary product company. Tell us about the turning point when you knew you just *had* to take the plunge and start Ilo.
JV: When we got pregnant back in 2017, we were looking to leave Ireland, and we, well Tom was applying for jobs all around the world and just seeing what came back. So I knew that I wouldn’t be styling and chef-ing and doing photography. Plus I just got really fed up with the freelance life — people paying you months late and so on.
But it wasn’t actually until I’d given birth that I wanted to start ilo. Having a kid is one of the most un-eco-friendly things you can do, and I was so freaked out that actually the original idea was to start a biodegradable single-use diaper company (most biodegradable diapers are only so in lab conditions) and we’d go into female sanitary products later. The technology just isn’t there right now for diapers so we pivoted and went straight to female sanitary products that are non-toxic, 100 percent organic, and biodegradable with the plan of getting our own team of scientists to create the technology in the future.
Part of my freakout was having a girl in today’s society and really taking stock of how to raise her where she can feel empowered, important, and part of society, and that really meant for me, how can we make every kid feel that way so that it’s a fully accepting society.
Sanitary products and menstruation are still so taboo and now with our gender ideas changing and becoming more fluid, there is such a need to be conscious and de-stigmatize such a normal bodily function.
B+C: What inspired you to start Ilo? Tell us about your company’s driving north star.
JV: Our mission at ilo is to celebrate every person with a period. We believe that you shouldn’t be putting chemicals into the most absorbent part of your body for month after month for over 40 years and that safe, non-toxic menstrual products should be available for everyone.
We are a socially impactful company that donates 50 percent of our profits to fighting period poverty and we really try to educate, empower, and inspire you about all things menstrual health and periods.
We do believe that people need to be made aware of the toxins found in menstrual products and be educated on why you should make the switch to your body. Recent research has linked their use with fertility issues, endometriosis, and other immune system issues. And frankly, periods just aren’t talked about enough, so society still has this yuck factor when it comes to talking about them, which needs to change if we’re truly going to be fully in love with ourselves and our bodies.
B+C: The birth of your daughter Molly sounds like a major part of your aha moment. What about motherhood and bringing a girl into the world has changed your approach to work/life/everything?
JV: It’s changed everything — and I know that is so cliché, but honestly, I never really understood how much it could have changed me until after. I‘ve never wanted kids, I never hung out with kids, I honestly didn’t know what to do with one. And while the breastfeeding, the knowing what she wanted came easy, I had really bad PND and it really affected me because suddenly I felt very un-free. I wasn’t able to be me and create and put all my energy into events or styling or new projects.
It actually really upset me and pissed me off that motherhood is just shown and promoted in such a “oh wow, I’m so fulfilled” kinda way because honestly, for me, being a mum does not fulfill me. She’s amazing and I love her but do I want to spend my entire day with her on a regular basis? No, I want to work and create and help people. And so that also has taught me with work that I need to slow down and my expectations of what I can achieve in a day have had to shift. I spend the mornings with Molly tech-free and we hang out. Then afternoons I work and at this moment while she’s still little is my life. I’ve found a new sense of being able to stop and just realize — I can’t do anything about this email now, I just need to do what I can. It’s a real head screw and one that I still don’t see many guys having to go through!
B+C: I imagine that time for self-care is hard to come by, even when part of your mission is such a caring, affirming, body positive one. How do you balance being a founder, being a mom, and being a partner with simply being yourself and taking care of you?
JV: One of the reasons we chose Singapore, in the end, is because we could afford to have a live-in nanny, and oh my goodness. I would honestly say this is the only thing that has saved me. Marilyn is part of the family and without her, I would not be as good a mum as I am, I would not be able to create a company like ilo.
We are so unbelievably lucky to have her. And honestly, even with her, there’s very little time. Right now, as soon as Molly’s in bed, I’m working again so it doesn’t really come easy. But I have put in place certain restrictions like we’re a flexible working company — and we only work Monday through Thursday so that Friday is family day.
B+C: Sometimes being a founder can feel a little isolating. What does your support system look like? Do you have mentors and peers you turn to for advice?
JV: It can be so lonely for sure! I had a really bad experience with a business partner so I don’t want to ever have that again, but I have mentors and business experts who have really taken me on. I moved to Singapore in April 2018, had the concept for ilo in August 2018, and by March 2019, I’d launched, which blew everyone away! But I’m just not one of those people who can sit around and really think and perfect, and think again. I’m an “if I don’t do it now, I know I won’t do it” person. So when we moved to Singapore, the mentors that were the real ground-shakers for me helped me to get it done. And some of them are so harsh, I laugh now at conversations I had with them when they basically told me that “I could either be successful or be a business with heart.” I remember saying, “Screw you, I can do both. The world needs companies that can do both and I’m coming back and will show you it can work.” And so far, I’ve proven them wrong, so fingers crossed it will last.
Favorite Quote: "I am my own keeper." - Unknown
Trivia About You: I absolutely hate feet!
Go-To Karaoke Song: "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" by Paul Simon
Late Night Snack: Jar of Nutella plus spoon
Currently Reading: Periods Gone Public by Jennifer Weiss Wolf and BFG by Roald Dahl
B+C: Do you still make time for baking, cooking, and styling beautiful foods?
JV: Honestly, no. We eat a lot of rice and veggies at the moment. We also don’t have an oven in our apartment so, that means no baking! However I have taken the dining out thing to a whole new level, and there’s a bakery just opened called MotherDough that literally has the best cookies. So, I figure, if I can’t make them, I’ll at least treat myself to something amazing!
B+C: Given that we met at a camp for creatives, I know that creativity is hugely important to you. In your current day-to-day, what does your creative practice look like?
JV: Pretty non-existent right now, to be honest. About the only creative outlet I have at the moment is styling shots to use for social or press.
Time is my enemy right now, and the fact that when I do have time, I’m so tired that all I want to do is sleep. But that’s okay. I know that this is temporary, and I’ll get back to myself when Molly is a bit older and maybe at pre-school three mornings a week. It’s been hard coming to that acceptance though! You know, rushing to style shots while she has a one hour nap and being unhappy with the outcome and then the learning process of “okay, just let it go right now.”
B+C: Back to ilo! Why do you think it’s so important to flip the script on how mainstream society talks about periods?
JV: Oh gosh. Where to begin?? Literally, there are so many reasons that the script needs to be flipped. But here goes with a few of the most basic ones:
1. Because no person - trans, non-binary, cis, woman should EVER feel embarrassed, upset, disgusted by having their period. By opening up the conversation we can show the generations to come that they shouldn’t feel any of those things about a natural bodily function.
2. So many people suffer from period poverty. One in 10 girls around the world cannot afford to purchase sanitary products regularly. Think about that. YOU know someone that can’t afford to, which means that when they go to school or work or are just out living their everyday lives, they have to worry constantly about whether this month then can afford to have hygienic clean sanitary products or potentially buy food. Let that just sink in for a second. I don’t want any kid, ANY kid, growing up in today's world to have to deal with that. Ever. There is no reason that they should have to.
3. As someone who bleeds, my life is worse off than someone who doesn’t. We have to pay luxury tax on period products, I can’t enter my temple when I have my period. In some communities, having my period means I’m diseased and unclean and would be made to sleep outside or not be able to cook for my kids. And while I’m 100 percent not saying I’m trying to change your religious beliefs, I am of the belief that we all need to be more accepting and change the educational learning and script around periods.
B+C: If you could give your younger self-advice, what would it be?
JV: Don’t judge your body too harshly, babe. You looked really hot back when you were 27 even though you thought you looked like an overweight hairy Indian woman. But that’s just the media, babe, trying to tell you you should look like a skinny white girl and that’s just never going to be you. You are worthy and beautiful and oh-so-bloody amazing.
B+C: What’s up next for you and Ilo? What should we be on the lookout for?
JV: We’re currently looking for investment and have launched our Go Fund Me page to try and raise £20,000.
We’re currently signing contracts with multinationals, so you’ll be able to get our products in supermarkets in Europe and Asia, which is massive as well as partnering with a couple of high-end hotels to offer our 100 percent organic cotton tampons to their guests. Then there is an educational program being organized to roll out into schools in 2020 to increase education around menstrual health.
We’ll also be introducing a menstrual product for teenagers and then a food product to help you with vitamins and nutrients throughout your menstrual cycle. Not much really ;)
Author: Anjelika Temple (Photography courtesy of Jette Virdi)