From Elite Athletes to Startup Founders: How Sports Empowered Two Femtech Entrepreneurs to Build a Better Tampon

A college class project morphed into a business, and it has these superstar athletes set on disrupting the menstrual product space.

Sequel's co-founders Amanda Calabrese (left) and Greta Meyer met as Stanford undergrads in 2018. (Images courtesy of Sequel)
Sequel's co-founders Amanda Calabrese (left) and Greta Meyer met as Stanford undergrads in 2018. (Images courtesy of Sequel)
By Rae Witte
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9 minute read

Getting a business off the ground requires long hours, constant change and a bit of self-sacrifice in hopes of a big payoff. Founders and early start-up teams are building something from scratch. This requires huge ambition, mental fortitude, agility, resilience and extreme determination.

Coincidentally, these same characteristics can also be found in other high-performance individuals, like elite athletes. How would you describe Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan or Serena Williams?

Amanda Calabrese, 24, and Greta Meyer, 25, were classmates – and elite college athletes – at Stanford, before graduating in 2019. The friends studied product design engineering, and together, they founded a women’s health startup called Sequel in 2020. Their first product is a reengineered tampon, with a proprietary spiral design built by leveraging the principles of fluid mechanics to absorb more evenly than the vertical channels of the traditional models. Based in San Francisco, Sequel has about 15 employees today, and it has raised about $5 million in funding from investors like Pear, MaC Venture Capital and Dorm Room Fund.

From the sports field to the classroom

Meyer played for Stanford’s women’s lacrosse team, but her athletic career stretched back to high school. “I did soccer, did lacrosse and then also did indoor track, which was really fun, and a great way to train in the offseason,” Meyer told The Org. “That was really important for me, to diversify and not just be one sport athlete.”

Calabrese emphasized Meyer’s caliber. “She qualified for New Balance Nationals for high school track ... that's the pinnacle of high school indoor track and outdoor track. Also, just being recruited to Stanford for lacrosse is an incredible, incredible feat,” she shared.

Though quick to hype up her business partner’s athletic accomplishments, Calabrese has carved out a lane of her own. For more than 15 years, she’s been a Surf Lifesaving star, a sport in which athletes perform surf and lifeguarding services competitively.

Calabrese started this training at the age of six,and she also played on the field hockey, swim and track teams through high school. This summer, she won her sixth national title in the Surf Lifesaving event known as Beach Flags, becoming the winningest male or female in the U.S. in the history of the sport.

A class project turned startup

As seniors at Stanford in 2018, the two were randomly paired together for a 10-week class project where they’d build a business plan. Calabrese remembered her excitement to work with Meyer, although she admitted she was a little intimidated by her — and also not in the best headspace at the time.

She had just come back to school after competing semi-professionally in Australia, and taking some time off Stanford. She was questioning her relationship with her sport and how to proceed in it following some “weird boys club stuff.”

Calabrese recalled walking to her bike after class when Meyer approached her about the project. “[Meyer] was like, ‘Hey, I think we should work in the menstrual space. I think this would be super interesting. Period products suck. I know you agree with me,’” Calabrese said. “We both have these athlete backgrounds, so we decided to approach it from that lens.”

And, Meyer was right. Calabrese had dealt with poor period products for years, which had impacted her athletic career. “I've had moments where I'm running up the beach out of the water in a race, and there's leakage down my leg,” Calabrese said. “There's always cameras everywhere, and you're wearing this tiny little bikini racing, and I can't think of anything worse.”

These recent experiences weren’t the only factor solidifying Sequel’s direction. “It’s also about education, and thinking about how I felt that urgency of ‘I have to use tampons right away’ when I was younger.”

Like many young women that swim competitively, their teammates coached them through inserting tampons for the first time. “I remember getting my period for the first time and we were at this swim meet. I was on a relay with all the older girls, and we were trying to qualify for states,” Calabrese said. “It was all of the older girls standing around the stall in the bathroom shouting directions.”

Between their shared experiences, it seemed obvious that period products were the direction Meyer and Calabrese would take for their class. The next hurdle: selling the idea to their four male classmates and project partners.

“We joked that was the hardest part. We were like, ‘Listen, this is a really rich space. You guys know it's a huge market,’” Meyer said. Surprisingly, they were pretty open to it. “That's always the joke. They literally could care less about the solution, but just knowing how big the opportunity was and that it was a little bit taboo made it fun.”

The “red line” effect

For the assignment, the group was required to establish a business plan that they’d pitch to a group of investors at the end of the semester for feedback. Meyer and Calabrese took on the bulk of interviewing women and girls about their periods for market research, as it was so tied to their own experiences.

“We both obviously have a lot of athlete friends,” Meyer said. This afforded them a great foundation and headstart on their research. “These are literally issues that were talked about in the locker room at Stanford. We always talk about our white uniforms, and it was actually something that was always on our minds.”

These interviews helped the team decide where to begin — and where not to begin. Initially, they thought they’d start with menstrual cups, because they were getting a lot of buzzy press at the time. But their interview subjects said they were invasive and hard to learn how to properly use.

Pads were often deemed “fine,” but there was a common theme of failure about tampons. “We heard over and over again, ‘My tampon is leaking far before it's full. It's causing me anxiety, it's causing me to just not trust my products and it's also causing me to blame myself,” Calabrese said.

The self-blame was particularly illuminating. Meyer said they consistently heard statements like, “Maybe my vagina is shaped weird, or maybe I'm bleeding to one side too far and it's causing this.” Tampon users were blaming themselves rather than looking at the product as faulty.

This phenomenon intrigued Meyer and Calabrese, and they even named it: the red line effect. “It's crazy that you can interview hundreds of people, and everyone can identify with this one phrase,” said Meyer. “This is what really led us to wanting to work on the tampon.”

Moving the goal post

With such little innovation to the tampon in 90 years, one would assume that there are significant challenges in place, and both Calabrese's and Meyer’s competitive spirits and determination pushed them as founders.

The global tampon market was valued at about $3.5 billion in 2020, and it’s estimated to grow to $4.6 billion by 2027. Procter & Gamble’s Tampax holds the largest market share at 29% with Johnson & Johnson not far behind with just below 20% – two companies responsible for nearly half of the industry.

Large players still rule the menstrual product industry. Tampax first introduced the tampon as we know it today in the 1930s, and it has released innovations like the pocket-sized applicator or braided string to combat smaller leakages. Not only are there regulatory challenges involved with the approval of a medical device – which the tampon is considered – but Sequels’ reengineering of the grooves call for different manufacturing than all existing products on the market. “I think it’s those two super big hurdles to clear, but I think also because it is a taboo space,” Meyer said.

“A huge value of our company is that we've been able to manufacture this device that no one else has,” she says. “I think that we knew right out the gate that this was something we were going to have to do, and that we've gotten all of our investors on board with.”

Meyer and Calabrese have had to sell their idea many times – first to classmates, and then to investors. One of the investors from the class would be their first phone call when the time came.

“We gave them a call and said, ‘This is the progress we've made. This is what we intend to do. This is how we're going to do it,’” Calabrese said. Steve Schlenker would be an angel investor and Sequels’ first.

As elite athletes, Calabrese said, “You're always augmenting your goals in order to push them further out in front of you. For me, it was to win the National Beach Flags title, right? So, I did that. Okay, well, what's the next thing that I want to do? I want to win it two times. Okay, what's the next thing that I want to do?”

Sports have also helped Meyer become comfortable with being an underdog, she explained. That’s key for any startup founder, especially one in the tampon industry — where behemoths like Tampax have reportedly co-opted the ideas and innovations of smaller players.

And, this athletic spirit is also something they share with some of their investors. Meyer said some of the most recent and important coaching advice she’s received is from an investor, Adrian Fenty, who routinely does running races, swims and hikes. He told them to always train with people that are faster than them.

“When I'm thinking I might be embarrassed that I'm bad at this and it won’t be a good look, it reminds me I will get better doing it,” Meyer said. “It's also just a data point that you have and can improve rather than saying no to something or being too scared to try something.”

Perhaps the thing that sticks out the most about the pair is how they operate as teammates who highlight each other’s strengths, push each other and trust each other as they build a business. “I think we formed an amazing team, and [Calabrese] and myself also have all the respect in the world for each other,” Meyer said. “In sports, you play your position. I'm gonna play mine and I trust you 100% to do your job.”

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