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She created ‘period-proof underwear’ to empower women. Now she’s accused of sexual harassment.

Miki Agrawal, co-founder and chief executive of Thinx, a company that sells leakproof panties. (Courtesy of Thinx)

The company was founded by a self-described feminist with a mission of empowering women.

Miki Agrawal created Thinx, a wildly popular line of “underwear for women with periods,” sleek panties that never leaked, never stained, and absorbed five teaspoons of blood — what Thinx’s website describes as “period-proof underwear.” The company — made up of mostly female employees — was lauded for its body sensitivity in its advertisements, and Agrawal frequently touted its workplace culture as an open, safe space where nothing was too taboo or uncomfortable to discuss.

“My favorite thing to talk about is the things you’re not supposed to talk about,” Agrawal said in a video advertisement for the company’s products. As the chief executive of a company encouraging open conversations about menstruation, Agrawal’s no-boundaries mentality made sense.

But according to recent media reports, this approach also carried over into the workplace, creating a disturbing, invasive company culture. Late last week — days after Agrawal stepped down as chief executive of Thinx — a former employee filed a complaint accusing her of sexual harassment, New York Magazine reported. According to the complaint filed with the City of New York Commission on Human Rights, and interviews with other employees, Agrawal allegedly touched an employee’s breasts and asked her to expose them, routinely led video conference meetings while naked in bed, and frequently changed clothes in front of employees. She joined a meeting through FaceTime while sitting on the toilet, at least once.

She allegedly commented on an employee’s breasts and nipple piercings, discussed her sexual exploits — including polyamory — in detail, and expressed her interest in entering a sexual relationship with one of her employees.

Agrawal, 38, responded to the accusations in a “personal statement” on Medium, saying that the company had contacted a third-party legal team to investigate each allegation. “They all came back false and without any merit,” she said. She wrote that like any co-founder and chief executive, she did “the best I could under these crazy circumstances,” admitting she made a “TON of mistakes along the way.”

“To be crystal clear, I know I’m passionate and oft unruly in my ways (as a taboo breaker must be), but I have never, ever crossed the line in the inflammatory ways described,” she wrote.

In a not-so-timely coincidence, Agrawal was scheduled to speak this coming Thursday at the New Orleans Entrepreneur Week’s Women’s Summit, following a discussion on “Navigating Sexuality at Work: Finding the Line Between Harmless and Harassment.”

Agrawal, who planned to give a “fireside chat” highlighting issues women face in the workplace, will no longer be participating in the conference, one of its organizing groups confirmed Tuesday.

The company’s troubles began unraveling about two weeks ago, when reports emerged that 10 people had left the 35-person company since January. Agrawal announced she was stepping down as chief executive. She instead called herself the “SHE-E-O” and said she would remain the face of the brands.

“I’m not the best suited for the operational CEO duties nor was it my passion to do so,” she wrote later. “My head is high.”

Why your daughter may never need to buy a tampon

Shortly after her announcement, Racked published a piece titled: “Thinx Promised a Feminist Utopia to Everyone But Its Employees.” It cited a half-dozen anonymous Thinx employees, who described a company culture riddled with substandard pay, feeble benefits and minimal perks.

Many of these concerns were exacerbated by the company’s lack of a designated human resources manager, making it difficult for employees to resolve disputes. Agrawal later clarified in her Medium post that Thinx would be hiring a human resources manager in addition to a professional chief executive. Employees complained about the company’s parental leave policies, which failed to reflect the company’s feminist stance: two weeks leave at full pay plus one week at half pay for the birthing parent, and one week leave at full pay plus one week at half pay for the non-birthing parent.

Numerous sources told Racked they either took a pay cut or accepted a below-market-rate salary because they wanted to work for the company. When they later attempted to negotiate higher pay after being promoted or given more responsibilities, they were dismissed as ungrateful or told salaries were nonnegotiable. The only two employees who had evidently successfully negotiated higher salaries were men.

“It honestly felt like a middle school environment: pitting people against each other, calling us petty children and immature and that we’re all these millennials that don’t know anything — meanwhile we’re being paid easily $30,000 under industry standard salaries,” one employee said. “It was truly like being in an abusive relationship.”

Some of these allegations paled in comparison to those outlined in the sexual harassment complaint reported in the New York Magazine story. In the complaint, Chelsea Leibow, the 26-year-old former head of public relations at Thinx — known for her distinctive Thinx PR emails, claimed Agrawal regularly touched her breasts, sometimes in front of others, and “molested at least one other female employee’s breasts.” Agrawal denied any breast-touching.

“I felt that Miki objectified my body when she declared that she was ‘obsessed’ with it and made very detailed comments about my breasts,” Leibow said. “It also seemed like a way for Miki to assert her dominance over female employees by simply doing whatever she wanted to do without asking, and showing she could get away with it.”

On one occasion, Agrawal delved into a discussion with employees over the topic of polyamory, saying she was considering trying it and asking individual employees if they had ever tried it before. (Polyamory is defined as “the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time.) She also openly discussed and later wrote about her experience with group sex at Burning Man in a public post on Medium.

“The power dynamic was such that people wouldn’t feel comfortable saying they didn’t want to be asked that,” one employee told New York magazine. Separately, according to the complaint, Agrawal had expressed interest in a sexual or romantic relationship with another female employee. A number of current and former employees said Agrawal often told her assistant, a lesbian, how attractive she found her.

One employee clarified that she didn’t believe Agrawal was actually pursuing a sexual relationship with anyone at the company.

“She’s not a predator and it’s not malicious, but that doesn’t make it right,” she said. “And it all boils down to the fact that she has no conception of it not being right.”

Employees also alleged Agrawal regularly discussed people’s weights, either directly or behind their backs, which they described as “fat-shaming.” When employees suggested expanding Thinx’s plus sizes due to customer demand, Agrawal replied that anyone larger than a 3X ought to go to the gym and lose weight rather than purchase new underwear, sources told NY Mag.

“Creating safe spaces for girls when none of us feel safe in our own company?” one anonymous employee told Racked. “That’s absurd. That’s an oxymoron.”

Leibow, who was fired in December, said that while she was comfortable talking about bodily functions and feminism as it related to the company, “there should be boundaries in every working environment.”

“There are companies that deal with all sorts of issues,” Leibow said. “But that doesn’t mean that the CEO can use that mission to her own personal advantage to do whatever she wants, whenever she wants.”

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