Melissa Harris' Chicago Confidential
December 6, 2012
Ameet Mehta hooked his audience at the Chase Auditorium on Wednesday with this opening line: "We're two males in our early 20s starting a feminine hygiene business."
With that, Mehta launched his "Shark Tank"-esque pitch to potential investors at Impact Engine's inaugural Investor Day. The incubator works to foster social enterprises — companies that try to do good and make money at the same time.
Seven such companies debuted Wednesday, vying for investors' attention and money by deploying everything from a product demo of a water-filtration system to a video endorsement from British billionaire Richard Branson.
Mehta sought $330,000 to help his company, Azadi, build its ability to distribute feminine napkins in rural India. He met co-founder Dhirendra Singh while working in India for the Vidya Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit that gives scholarships to gifted children in India so they can stay in school.
"That's when we met Puja," Mehta said. "She is a 13-year-old rock star. She got good grades. She had family support. And she had that bubbling energy we were looking for in a young child. … A few months later, I find out that Puja has dropped out of school. … It turns out that Puja had become a woman now, which means she had started menstruating, and had to drop out of school."
Mehta, a 23-year-old DePaul University graduate, didn't get it. Why would menstruation cause a girl to drop out?
"Through conversations with a school administrator, I learned that Puja used a cotton rag to manage her period like many of the other girls in her school," Mehta said. "Being a 13-year-old child, she was less worried about the health and hygiene issues associated with using a cotton rag and was more worried about the rag leaking and causing embarrassment. To avoid this nightmare, she stayed at home one week every month."
That caused her to fall behind in school, and her parents thought it best for her to withdraw. Mehta told the audience — a lot of men in collared shirts — that menstruation was "a key driver" in rural India's high dropout rate and characterized it as "monthly house arrest."
Mehta asked: "Can you imagine adding these days back into the lives of these women?" Then he flashed a picture on the screen of a typical retail outlet in rural India. Two men with worn faces sat on wooden stools inside a 5-by-5-foot shack.
"Given the cultural sensitivities around menstruation, would women feel comfortable buying a feminine hygiene product from these guys?" he asked. "The answer is no. … The end consumer will simply not buy from the current distribution channel."
So Mehta and Singh are launching the Mary Kay of sanitary pads in rural India. Women will sell to women. Mehta plans to recruit saleswomen through nonprofits working there.
The product, which is biodegradable, will also have an elastic waistband to hold up the pad. Mehta said the goal is to sell the pads for 43 percent less than competitors and have the female entrepreneurs keep $14 of the $100 in sales Azadi estimates each woman will generate per month.
The venture, though, seems impossible to manage from Chicago. Indeed, after Mehta's presentation, he confirmed that once he and Singh raised money here in early 2013, he would move to India. Mehta phrased it this way: "Then we're peace out."
After all, "Azadi" means "freedom" in Hindi.
Auction price not final
The sale of a Norman Rockwell painting at a Chicago auction for $2.8 million Saturday has not been finalized, according to multiple sources.
Susanin's Auctions, the auction house responsible for the sale of "Willie Gillis, Package From Home," remains in negotiations, according to two sources.
Chicago-based CNA Insurance has owned the painting since at least 1970.
An out-of-town art dealer posted the winning bid by phone Saturday, according to one source. But it appears that the bid did not meet the seller's $3 million reserve price, or the minimum price the seller was willing to accept, according to another source.
CNA spokeswoman Jennifer Martinez said that as of Wednesday, Susanin's had not presented the $2.8 million offer to company executives for their approval.
"Since CNA does not have an art collection and is not a collector of investment-quality art, the company decided to sell the painting at auction," Martinez said. "At this point, there is no confirmed sale."
The auctioneer, Sean Susanin, declined to comment via email on the auction, saying he would do so when the sale was finalized.
If the deal goes through, the price would crush the record for a painting sold at a Chicago auction. That was for a Vincent Van Gogh still life that sold for $1.43 million in 1991. If the sale of the 50-by-39-inch Rockwell is privately negotiated or falls apart, then the 1991 mark will stand.
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