Sustainability Alumna Advances Purpose-Driven Startup Business
McKenna Avery (‘20) V.P. and chief sustainability officer of Hempress Hygienics talks about her path and plan for the future.
By Leslie L.J. Reilly
When McKenna Avery was a high school student all she could think about was sustainability. She was part of the Redlands High School ASB and created all the waste management plans for events. She even restructured sourcing guidelines for campus purchases and developed refillable water bottle stations.
She asked her best friend for advice on what to study in college — biology, environmental science, or sustainability? Her friend answered, “Are you kidding me? All you care about is sustainability.”
Upon high school graduation, Avery chose SDSU’s interdisciplinary sustainability program,
before she really understood that San Diego was such a hub of environmental and sustainable
ideology. And, before she knew it would lead her to entrepreneurship opportunities
aligned with her passion.
Courses, Internships, and Connections Lead to Success
“The Sustainability and Culture course with Savanna Schuermann was really impactful because it helped me understand that there are so many things to consider when dealing with other cultures and their infrastructure,” Avery said. “Matt Lauer’s courses helped me see that there are always trade offs — whether it be energy, water, or waste. One must analyze all of these areas in manufacturing.”
For three years, Avery interned as the outreach coordinator for SDSU's Office of Sustainability where she learned about sustainability measures that can be applied to her business now. She worked on greening campus through procurement change, campus events, a speakers’ series, climate action research, zero waste programs, and climate action policy for the university.
Avery received a Mundt Peace Fellowship to intern in Cambodia during the summer of 2019. Her work with the Culture and Environment Preservation Association (CEPA) helped her understand more intimately the issues associated with composting facilities at an eco-tourism site. “It further illuminated that I want to be a part of the initial change rather than trying to figure out a solution for waste problems,” Avery said. She learned about infrastructure and regulations during that summer and could later apply those lessons to her business. “It helped me see how products are accessed and trash is managed in another country.”
Today, the entrepreneur is finding success with the company she founded with two friends,
while she was still a student. She met her two business partners at a friend’s house
and when a conversation took place about a sustainable women’s hygiene product company,
she said, “I’m all in.”
Pitching the Product
A biodegradable and sustainable product in the women’s hygiene category is a niche market. By using hemp, Hempress Hygienics is offering a product not available elsewhere.
“Hempress Hygienics is revolutionizing the feminine hygiene industry by producing the first 100% hemp tampon alongside pads and liners,” Avery said. “Our products are biodegradable, plastic-free, and contain zero chemicals. We use hemp because it has a quarter of the carbon footprint of cotton, uses one-fifth the water, and is naturally antimicrobial — meaning it doesn’t need any chemicals to grow unlike our main competitor cotton, which is the No.1 crop using pesticides and herbicides.”
In her pitch at the San Diego Angel Conference and most recently at the ZIP Launchpad Pitchfest, Avery said, "Last year, 5.8 billion tampons were sold in the U.S. alone. When considering the plastic applicator and packaging, that’s equivalent to more than the entire Titanic in waste. In addition to the plastic waste, feminine hygiene products also contain dozens of chemicals that are not disclosed to the women using them.”
Although the company didn’t win funding at the San Diego Angel Conference, pitching proved valuable in that Avery’s team networked with other entrepreneurs and made connections with investors who ended up helping them raise $200K in seed money to finance their launch. “One CEO in the contest promised to introduce us to the producers of Shark Tank, after we begin making sales,” Avery said.
Avery’s company received a cash award of $500 from the ZIP Launchpad Pitchfest competition
in April and more than $5,000 in funding and grants from ZIP Launchpad this semester.
In 2019, they applied and won a grant from the Sambazon Greenhouse Initiative.
Moving the Business Forward
Avery has the final product prototypes in hand and her team is currently conducting trials with manufacturers to determine which iterations match their vision. The plan is to have product roll-out by the end of the year.
Future ideas to expand the business to household consumer goods are in the works. Diapers, napkins, paper towels, gauze and medical supplies might be the next step in building biodegradable product lines.
At SDSU Avery is most grateful for all the connections she’s made. “When you lean into the opportunities, the world opens up,” she said.
For more about Hempress Hygienics, visit www.hempresshygienics.com and follow @hempresshygienics on social media.