Dana Marlowe, Founder of I Support the Girls | Image Courtesy of Dana Marlowe
Four years ago, Dana Marlowe found herself with a few unwanted pounds gone but in turn, a pile of bras that no longer fit. Encouraged by a salesperson to donate rather than toss, the Maryland mom/entrepreneur took up that challenge and not only made her personal donation but began to look into the need and supply market of this space. Fast forward to today where that that small, random act of kindness has transformed Marlowe into “The Bra Fairy” with her own non-profit, isupportthegirls.org, collecting and supplying bras and feminine hygiene products to women and girls impacted by homelessness, domestic violence, natural disasters, and more. It’s become a family affair, with Marlowe’s husband and two sons helping raise awareness in addition to packing hundreds of boxes every month. How did Marlowe get here? What does it take to go from a basement passion project to full out social mission? What can we learn from her challenges and successes? In a recent interview with Aspire, Marlowe gave us all the details. Here are excerpts:
Q. During the government furlough earlier this year, you got some attention for helping out the affected federal workers.
For us, the furlough was a couple hundred mail outs. But for recipients, it was an elimination of the worry about a three months’ supply of menstrual products for themselves or their teenage daughters. This allowed families to reallocate their budget expenditures for other things. Last year I Support the Girls, during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, in just four weeks, we donated 352,000 products. When we’re using that as a scale, it was a blip on our donations. But one unaccommodated period is one too many. What I think people forget, and the furlough reminds us, is that there’s a lot of people who are living paycheck to paycheck. Missing one paycheck can really cause a bad spiral. Or when one missed paycheck is coupled with a car accident, or a medical emergency, most people don’t have savings. The situation can be quite severe.
Q. Does your entrepreneurial background help you do this? Is it that entrepreneurial risk taker in you that enables you to take this big social cause on?
As an entrepreneur — [Marlowe is the Founder and Principal Partner of Accessibility Partners, an IT Accessibility Consulting firm] — there are always elements of being able to take those risks and knowing you might fail. That’s part of the process, so I accept those terms. My brain is wired to view situations in two questions: What’s the problem and what is solution? Then I have follow-up questions: How can we improve this? How can we do this better? How can we provide a more impactful, effective solution? That’s where I come to the table with my views and my perspectives. The risk taking is inherently present in most entrepreneurs. Naturally, there are some accidental entrepreneurs, but I took a deliberate risk to expand the concept of I Support the Girls, even with our accidental founding. When I saw the high supply and the high demands, I just had to build out the infrastructure to marry the two. That was the part when the entrepreneur in me kicked in and went to overdrive. Nationally, we have 50 affiliates and global support. I have a National Director of Affiliate Outreach in Indiana, a Director of Operations in Colorado, a Director of Communications in Israel, a Graphic Designer in Argentina, and allies and advocates across the world.
Q. Do you think of yourself as a Trailblazer?
No. I don’t think of myself as a Trailblazer. I do think of myself as somebody who is usually the one who will speak up if I see an injustice. I will speak up if something is not right. Here’s an example. When you called, I was in the middle of an email follow-up. I have two sons who are ten and seven years old. I don’t regularly email my kids’ teachers. I’m not the most involved in classroom stuff. I’m not going to PTA meetings. But here’s the gist of the email I wrote last night to my son’s teacher: “Hi Elizabeth, last night, Micah [my 10-year-old] mentioned the classes this week that were discussing inventors. The inventors he mentioned to me were George Washington Carver, Henry Ford, Orville Wright, Eli Whitney, Albert Einstein, and Ben Franklin. … I’m curious as to what the list of female inventors you are teaching looks like?”
She wrote back something that included: “…We unfortunately only found one woman, Madam C.J. Walker, to put on this list. Believe me, we tried. If you have other women inventors during the industrial revolution with research information appropriate for fourth graders, we would love to use her or them in the future. We have hit roadblocks on this in the past since women didn’t have equal rights, it’s challenging to find women inventors back then. This is not a big project so it’s not worth switching anyone this year. Thank you for raising this point. It is one that we discussed but it’s always good to try to find more females.”
So that was an hour ago. My response back to her, writing it right before you called, ‘I totally hear you. Thank you for your response. I just think the value of showing kids about women inventors is paramount for their age otherwise it normalizes behaviors and teaches that just men are inventors. Clearly the majority back then were men for a variety of reasons but if we don’t work extra hard on including women inventors into these lessons, it has a long-lasting effect on the students, both genders for generations to come. I’m grateful to see one woman on this list. I have gone ahead this past hour and researched 10 women who are all female inventors during the industrial revolution, with paragraph and bio links included…’
So, I heard from my son over dinner last night, as he was enthusiastically telling me that they’re talking about inventors in class. He’s the kind of kid that likes biographies, he likes science, he likes inventions. He’s telling me the names of these men, and it’s one after another. I said ‘Micah, there’s something missing on this list.’ Again, my 7-year-old is sitting their listening also. Micah asked, ‘What do you mean. These are the ones we’re talking about. I’m sure there are more.’ I replied, ‘Even on the list you told me there is something missing.’ I repeated the list and said very clearly, ‘There is something missing.’ He repeated out the list again in a different order and said, ‘What did they invent? There’s nothing missing.’ I said, ‘’Let’s listen to these names: Thomas, Orville, Eli, George, Wilbur, Henry… Do you see a pattern?’ And he said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Well, this is a problem. Where are the women?’ And he said, ‘Oh, no mom.’ So that’s why I wrote the e-mail to the teacher. I was literally doing that when you rang.
A trailblazer? No. But a disrupter? Oh definitely!
Q. It sounds like your point is that your ‘entrepreneurial’ or ‘trailblazing’ superpower is that when see a problem, you want to right it?
I just think of myself as someone who is going to recognize a problem and find a creative way to fix it. To me, the teacher was recognizing my input but was saying this is a small lesson. That because she’s only doing four lessons on this and has already done two… But come on. How hard is it for me to learn what women invented? In 15 minutes, I found a bunch of results online. If I really wanted to prove the point, I could have zapped out the email and said, ‘Here’s my really fast list, with 10 more.’ Again, I really like the teacher and I really like the school. I don’t really speak up unless I see an issue. This is a big issue for me, and I want to change that curriculum for more emphasis on women. Not just names of female inventors, but why this was a time when there were fewer – what caused that? How does that tie into what I see as social inequalities now?
"I don’t think of myself as a Trailblazer. I do think of myself as somebody who is usually the one who will speak up if I see an injustice. I will speak up if something is not right."
Q. So, back to the bras, you saw this problem when you found yourself with extra bras and went to donate and learned many women were in need. Were there others doing this already?
Our creation was an accident. In 2015, I walked into my local Soma [women’s lingerie & undergarment store] at Montgomery Mall [Bethesda, Maryland] looking for some new bras to replace my old ones which no longer fit after I lost weight. The sales associate at the boutique was the one who told me, ‘Hey, homeless women need bras.’ And I went home and needed to find out if that was true. I didn’t have any reason not to believe her, but I also didn’t know that. When I called the first shelter and the guy on the phone enthusiastically said, ‘Oh my God, yes we’ll take your bras. How quickly can you get them here?’ I asked, ‘What else do you need?’ and he responded with menstrual hygiene products. I wasn’t looking around for other organizations because I had already found one that needed the product. Little did I know how much need existed. While there are a few other wonderful organizations doing similar work to I Support the Girls, I wasn’t looking to compete. I just knew I had donors and places to bring products.
Q. It would have been easier not to do this. Is this part of the entrepreneur thing or what I would call trailblazer spirit but maybe you’re too modest?
Would it have been easier not to? Yes, there are a lot of times that I could have changed the direction and path of this multiple times along the way. The first being when the sales associate told me this information and I could have done nothing. I could have had my lunch and gone back to work. That’s option 1. Option 2 is I could have called the homeless shelter and spoken to the guy and after he said, ‘We need your bras.’ I could just bring them in myself and that was it.
Once I decided to do more, I made a Facebook page called I Support the Girls because my personal page got out of control. I couldn’t keep up with everyone, so I brought everyone to me. Within two days, I saw what happened, with my friends sharing and sharing and all the comments. I realized then this could be huge. So I did a collection for two weeks in the summer of 2015. I could have taken those donations and been done. That was the third point where I could have stopped this. But after the end of July what was happening was that so many people were messaging me through the I Support the Girls Facebook page. They were emailing me, saying ‘Oh my God, I missed the window, I have stuff to donate… I meant to do it, but we were on summer vacation or I was away, or I didn’t get to it, can I still do it?’
July turned into August and August was very busy for me and all these other people who still wanted to donate. August turned into September very quickly and September became all of these schools who wanted to donate and have collection bins. I thought ‘Well, I might as well keep it going until the end of September.’ Then it got out of control when I realized I have to get the products to where they are needed, they’re doing no good here in these collection bins. I was running along with my family during lunch hours and nights and weekends, doing porch pickups.
That was the next point where I could have been done with this. ‘Ok, we donated over 7,100 pads and tampons and over 1,000 bras. This was great. I could be done.’ This was a clear demarcation, but I decided when I saw my inbox and couldn’t use my phone because it was blowing up after the first Washington Post article came out, that this was a high supply and high demand issue. I needed to buckle down, roll up my sleeves and come up with a plan to bridge the gap. At that point, I thought, ‘Ok I think I might continue.’
All along, I thought this was just ‘Dana’s little bra project’ so there was no need for me to research other places because I had a place in mind that wanted the products. From November 2015, I did some research of what was out there. I did a very standard competitive analysis of the marketplace which I’m assuming other nonprofit startups do, but I don’t think it’s done as much as I think it should be done. What I found was everything was hyper-localized, meaning there were a handful at the time – four or five people doing bras or menstrual products but very localized to their community.
The Washington Post article, with its national reach, was a huge boost for us. I was no longer the lady collecting bras in suburban Maryland. Now, I was flying to give a presentation in Boston. Meanwhile, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of messages came pouring in around a few conversation points. I had to streamline. So I put together a FAQs list responding to all these messages and in the middle of night I bought the website https://isupportthegirls.org/. I bought a basic template package on WordPress. I had been taking photos all along those prior three months. I had The Washington Post article. I had the other relevant resource articles. I put it all together, typed it up in an email and woke my husband up at 5 AM. He says, ‘Are you about to catch your flight [to Boston]?’ I said, ‘Yes I am. However, I need you to create me a website.’ He says, ‘I don’t do website creation.’ I said, ‘Well, I bought the package that will help you design it and I wrote all the content. I sent you 12 emails. I printed everything out, it’s on your desk. I need you to help me out with this.’
And because he’s an awesome husband, he did.
Q. Did that go right to making this an affiliate program right away?
No, I didn’t know that right away. But what I did know is I had hundreds and hundreds of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, website, and phone messages that I could not keep up with. People all over the country had bras or menstrual products or both that they wanted to donate. And then I was also hearing, ‘Hi, I’m a director of a homeless shelter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and we need your products. Hi, I represent the transitional program out of a women’s correctional facility out of Indianapolis and I need your products, do you have any more? Hi, I’m a social worker at a refugee site and I need your products. Hi, I’m a caseworker at a domestic violence shelter, do you have products?’
But they weren’t localized to just the D.C area, it was all over the country and all over the globe, but so were the people willing to donate. At that point, I was the only one privy to all these messages and that’s when I looked around. There were some places that collected bras and they donated them to women in Guatemala, El Salvador, Ghana, so they can sell them and earn a living. There were some localized places that are doing this in Northern New Jersey or Northern Virginia or Detroit but that wasn’t what I was looking for. At that point I was looking for: ‘Who can manage this on a national scale?’ Incidentally, one of the very common emails was, ‘Hi, I want to do this and give back in my community; you’ve empowered and inspired me, and I want to be able to do this.’
I pondered: ‘What if I can come up with the resources to empower women to collect locally and donate locally?’ I basically put everyone who contacted isupportthegirls.org on hold to give me four weeks to let me figure it out. That was November. So from December, the very first woman I contacted to work with me was someone close geographically to me but in a very different demographic with a different social network. She’s in her mid-60s, at the time I’m in my late 30s, so we didn’t have overlap in that demographic. But she lived in Potomac, only about 25 minutes from me. I thought this way if she has any problems, I can zip over and help her. I didn’t know what they might be, but I just try to always anticipate what could happen. Over the course of that one month, December, she was able to collect another 1,000 bras and thousands and thousands of menstrual products. We identified a place in D.C. that wanted them, Bread for the City. She had a big party at her place to celebrate, for all the people who donated. I didn’t have the bandwidth to do that, or financial resources. She was very successful. I gave her the then-fledgling guidebook, I told her what to do, but I wasn’t actively soliciting for products. She did all of that. She reached out to a very different demographic because her friends are all at that time in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s.
Then, I ran several pilot studies from women who reached out. I had them send me their resumes and I received hundreds of resumes as if this was a real job opportunity. I conducted phone interviews, and the very first women I spoke with was Rachel Hager in Indianapolis. Rachel and I chatted for a few weeks on how to make this a united front. What if I could make it more sustainable and replicable? I had a hunch it was replicable. And Rachel hit it out of the park. Her goal was to collect 3,500 bras before she turned 35 and she turned 35 that following December so she basically gave herself a little less than a year. But she didn’t collect the 3500 bras by her birthday. She collected them in 88 days.
So that February we took on I Support the Girls in Indianapolis. We also did pilot studies in Knoxville, Tennessee, Chicago, Illinois, and Cleveland, Ohio. All of them were very successful under the same guidebook, handbook, conversations with me. From there, Rachel Hager began overseeing the affiliates. At same time, I pulled in a bunch of friends. I’m never the smartest person in the room and I am very cognizant of that. I wanted to bring people whom I really admire who are much smarter than me into a room together. I had a full day summit. We met at a women’s co-working space which lent us their boardroom. I brought in a moderator, and all the smartest people I knew who are attorneys, business strategists, non-profit experts, and other professionals. It was primarily women: overall count was 14 women and two men.
I’m just bringing in people who have different skill sets and subject matter expertise than I and saying ‘Ok, this is replicable and scaleable. How do we build out the infrastructure so that we can help more women and girls in a more effective and efficient manner? Shortly after that, we became the non-profit, I Support the Girls.
"I’m just bringing in people who have different skill sets and subject matter expertise from me and saying ‘Ok, this is replicable and scaelable. How do we build out the infrastructure so that we can help more women and girls in a more effective and efficient manner?"
Q. How could you not see yourself as a trailblazer – all this from one phone call?
I think anybody would do this. I don’t think there’s anything special about this mindset. The only thing that makes me very special is that I’m incredibly blessed and lucky to have an awesome support network comprised of very smart individuals. It’s something I’m very cognizant of and grateful for.
Q. Was your mother like this? Did she show you how to be this way?
I have a very loving and supportive mother. I didn’t have overbearing or helicopter parents. They wanted me to do well, achieve in school, and get good grades. I wasn’t a straight A student. I wasn’t this perfect SAT scoring student. I grew up, though, in a community with amazing public schools that afforded me the opportunity to learn about a lot of different career paths and not everybody has that. This was the early ’90s – we had computer labs and we had writing workshops.
I was heavily involved in writing workshops. When I think back, I was very into arts and crafts. I noticed while there was an arts club, there wasn’t a crafts club. We had a very special arts teacher in my public high school who was teaching us how to make jewelry, how to make clay beads, how to do basket weaving, how to make and paint wooden boxes. The reason why I’m telling you this is that when I realized was there wasn’t an outlet, I started the crafts club in my school.
Q. Was that the first time you stood up and started something when you saw there wasn’t anything meeting a need?
Nope. One event that was more memorable ties more into standing up for injustice. Again, I went to a public school in New York [Rockland County] and this was elementary school. There was a special overnight class trip to this fancy mansion/nature center out on Long Island, but the school budget could only take half the grade, and that’s how it went on year after year. It was a total lottery. Your name was just drawn and either you got to go, or you didn’t. For kids who didn’t go, those two days, they got to do fun things in school. For those two days, they came up with crafts, activities and games so you didn’t feel like you were totally missing out. But I thought, why not raise the funds for the whole class? It wasn’t like some huge number. There were 80 kids, we needed 40. So, I wrote my first position, researched it, argued it to the principal.
I was a good kid, a good student. I paid attention but I wasn’t the best academically. I was very much an eager-to-please student. I thought, ‘This is important, why should only half the class have this learning experience? I think we should figure out a way to fund everyone.’ We started a petition and I remember not only getting the students, but I also got the parents to sign. With my mindset then, I reasoned that it’s not for me to figure out how we’re raising the money, I’m 12-years-old. Yet I was adamant. ‘You guys figure this out, but I’m going to tell you this isn’t fair because it only gives half the kids the experience.’ They took it to heart and that year we all went.
Q. What does doing all this – starting in sixth grade, and all the way up to facilitating this nationwide organization, which came to be in just a few months – what does it give you being part of this?
Part of the answer is, and it’s a trite cliché, but it’s hard to see the forest between the mountain of bras. I’m in the middle of running a global NGO and it’s hard to take that step back because I’m mired in 472 emails and phone calls and again a day job that I love and I’m passionate about. It’s hard to take that step back and see the good work on a wider scale.
Q. Take that step back, what do you see?
I see that anybody with the right group of people and the right direction can really achieve monumental social impact. I don’t think there’s anything inherently special about me putting it out on Facebook. I had a leg up as an entrepreneur to be able to recognize societal problems and want to fix them. I know that’s not something that everyone gravitates to but I’m also a suburban mom who’s also figuring out how I’m going to get one kid to a birthday party and one kid to a basketball game at the same time in different parts of town. And that’s normal.
What this has also shown us is the ability to empower other women to collect locally and donate locally, There’s several levels to this empowerment cycle. Joanna is the affiliate director in Cleveland, Corliss is the affiliate director in Phoenix, and Becca is the affiliate director in Detroit. We’re empowering them to empower the women in their community. It’s a simple ask, women feel good about donating and it’s a very easy thing do. We’re providing that platform for these women who are then providing that platform for women who want to donate in their community. Then, the empowerment continues when the women who are then receiving these bras and menstrual products get a dose of the dignity and worth that they deserve.
Q. Do you see more growth for this? Do you have a next step or is this enough?
I plan for more advocacy on menstrual hygiene products being offered for free, removing taxes in the 36 states that have taxes on menstrual hygiene products, and removing the taboo around menstruation. I regularly go speak to classes with 50 kids, to conference centers, and hotel ballrooms with several thousand attendees in the audience. Remember, I am just a woman with a period. I’m not a social worker. I’m not a medical professional. I’m literally just a woman with a period talking about why having access to period supplies are important and what that means for the women without. My advocacy knows no bounds.
Q. What would you do if you had unlimited time, money and resources?
Oh easy, remember I have this little day job thing that’s also my baby and passion so I don’t want to forget that, because that’s important. I Support the Girls happens during lunch breaks, drive time calls, and some weekend availability.
If I had unlimited, time, money and resources, I would hire a fundraising person and I would hire some additional support to really magnify this up. I would hire some more folks to help with logistics. Earlier this week, we received a quarter of a million tampons and pads from one of our partners. Currently, I have the logistics set up for that, they went to five different affiliates around the country who were on a waiting list because we receive a quarter of a million products every quarter, so we had that kind of locked down of what to do.
I don’t know how to do supply chain management. We need a location, a place with an address that can receive packages, not my local PO box. I’m hoping someone will read one of these articles and share, ‘Oh, I have a warehouse space’. We don’t need a lot of space, some massive warehouse. We just need a place with heating and air conditioning and lights, where we can put tables.
We also have volunteer requests from groups of folks who want to get involved and help out and do sorting and processing. Right now, we have my basement, my house, and a small storage unit warehouse in Rockville, but we can’t bring volunteer groups there. I need a more effective space.
Q. If all of this doesn’t make you a trailblazer, then who is? What does it take?
Harriet Tubman is a tremendous trailblazer. I see her as an inspiration as a female leader championing for human dignity. The very notion of equality and the right that every person has to be free. Me? I’m a woman with a period who wears a bra. I’m not solving homelessness. I’m not solving food insecurity. I’m not solving poverty. Those are the issues we work around, sure. But we’re providing dignity at a time when it’s needed to women, children, transgender and non-binary folks who are in need. I like to channel Harriet Tubman as motivation for what we do and aspire to her commitment to do hard work, no matter what odds are stacked against you.
*Interview has been edited and condensed.
Dana Marlowe | Photo Courtesy of I Support the Girls