Plus, challenges that women small business owners face
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Good morning and happy Monday! We’ve got a jampacked edition today, so let’s hop to it.

Leading us off is a profile on Alyx Coble-Frakes, who created a planning system that helps people who menstruate connect their periods with their business practices. We talked a lot about period shame, and at the end of our conversation, she also mentioned the importance of believing in yourself and your ideas. Wanting to help solve the problem of global menstrual inequity, Coble-Frakes initially thought that people would think her idea of a planner was "stupid" or "weird" when in fact, they only pushed her to do even bigger things, like create an app. I encourage you to read the full story on our website. Who knows – you may come away with some helpful life tips!

We’re also running an excerpt of coverage from a Punchbowl News discussion on economic challenges facing female small business owners from my colleague Joe Gardyasz. Here’s a not-so-fun fact: The federal government has only met its goal of awarding 5% of contract spending to women-owned businesses twice since it was established – in 2015 and 2019. Read Joe’s full story to learn more.

Lastly, per usual, we have a lot of good reads that are worth checking out, especially if you’re experiencing career and financial burnout, want to know how you can raise a feminist son, are interested in learning about the history of body image in the U.S., or need to be convinced that climate change is a women’s issue.

Have a great week!

– Emily Kestel, Fearless editor

How one Iowa woman is helping dismantle the stigma surrounding periods, one month at a time
The Agenda Period founder Alyx Coble-Frakes. Contributed photo.
Period shaming is pervasive: A 2018 study by Thinx revealed that nearly 60% of menstruators have felt embarrassed simply because they were on their period. Additionally, 62% admit feeling that they feel uncomfortable using the word "period."

Before she created a planner to help menstruators connect their periods with their business practices, Alyx Coble-Frakes was one of those people.

Thanks to a "horrific" sex-ed experience, along with being among the first in her class to get her period, Coble-Frakes said she was conditioned to not talk about her menstrual cycle at all.

Then in her 20s, she began learning about menstruation, hormonal health and reproductive rights for a project at Wartburg College. It was then that she realized that periods are normal and they need to be talked about.

"Whatever we’re ashamed of holds power over us," she said.

The big idea

When Coble-Frakes was building her health coaching business in 2018, a mentor recommended that she track her sales conversions in a spreadsheet.

After noticing that all of the "yeses" she received were clumped together in regular, recurring intervals – around the same time that she was ovulating – she couldn’t help but think that her period may be at play.

"This doesn’t feel like a coincidence anymore," she remembered thinking. Her mind drifted back to her college project and a book she had read by hormone expert Alisa Vitti.  

Later that summer while meditating, a vision of a planner floated into her head. It showed the different phases of the menstrual cycle alongside recommendations of activities and tasks that would be easier during each phase.

Immediately following her meditation, she began to look for the planner, hoping to purchase it. She couldn’t find one, so after tossing around the idea for a while, she decided to make one herself.

The Agenda Period is born

While Coble-Frakes felt empowered knowing how her hormonal fluctuations worked, she felt that everyone else would think that it was "stupid or weird."

"I had a lot of doubt because of the stigma and shame that exists in this space," she said.

In fact, the scariest part of the whole thing was at first saying the word "period" out loud, Coble-Frakes said.

After sitting on the idea for a year, she eventually built up the courage to pitch her idea to various mentors and friends, who supported the idea and persuaded her to go through with it.

In the spring of 2019, Coble-Frakes introduced The Agenda Period – a planning system that helps people understand phases of their menstrual cycle and use the information to inform their routines in and outside of work – and facilitated a 50-person beta test.

In July 2019, she launched a Kickstarter campaign, which was successfully backed by more than 130 people. That October, she began selling the planners at a women’s business conference.

From there, she took The Agenda Period through the Iowa EdTech Accelerator, presented at 1 Million Cups and conducted more than 100 customer discovery interviews, through which it quickly became apparent that people wanted an electronic component rather than a physical planner. In April 2021, Coble-Frakes launched the first version of the Agenda Period app.

Coble-Frakes and her family currently reside in Texas because her husband is stationed at a military base in El Paso, but The Agenda Period’s headquarters remain in Cedar Rapids.

The Agenda Period app contains a daily agenda, a to-do list, an education library and a monthly calendar. Photo contributed by Alyx Coble-Frakes.
How The Agenda Period works

Within the app is a daily agenda, a to-do list, an education library and a monthly calendar that shows an overview of your menstrual cycle. The app also has capabilities to sync with Google calendars.

Coble-Frakes wants to be clear: The Agenda Period is not a period tracking app. Rather, it examines the entire menstrual cycle and empowers users to understand the benefits of each phase.

She finds it easiest to liken the four phases of the menstrual cycle to seasons.

  • Menstrual phase: Internal winter. Coble-Frakes sees this as the "hibernation" phase. You’re often more tired and more intuitive in this phase, she said. "This is a great time to sit down with your thoughts and think about what you want to do."
  • Follicular phase: Internal spring. Thanks to a rise in estrogen, you’re likely to feel more energized and energetic in this stage, Coble-Frakes said. This is an ideal time to start new projects.
  • Ovulation phase: Internal summer. Your body releases an egg during this phase, which means estrogen levels are peaking. This is often the phase where you feel your most confident, and is therefore a great time to conduct sales or take risks, like asking for a raise.
  • Luteal phase: Internal autumn. This is generally the longest phase of your cycle and is when you’re likely to experience PMS and mood swings. Coble-Frakes says this is an ideal time to analyze or organize. Or more specifically: "Small detailed stuff that you don’t particularly like doing."

Knowing the strengths of each phase empowers menstruators to advocate for themselves, Coble-Frakes said.

One example she often shares is a client who found that she always met with her boss for monthly reviews during her luteal phase and would leave the meeting crying. Coble-Frakes encouraged her to move the meeting to the follicular phase.

"No one has to know what phase you’re in," she said. "If someone emails you and tries to set up a meeting when you know you’re on your period, you can say, ‘Hey, I’ve already got some stuff on my calendar that day,’ and then propose a new date that would work better with your cycle.  

"It’s knowing yourself and then using your personal health data for your own benefit to inform how you work and show up in the world so that you feel your best all the time," she said.

Female small business owners forum focuses on leveling the playing field
Being a female business leader is a lot like being a mom, says Jenny Steffensmeier, owner of Steffensmeier Welding and Manufacturing, located in the southeast Iowa town of Pilot Grove.

Much like her kids, "I’ve got employees who just don’t listen to me," said Steffensmeier, who took over the business after her husband died six year ago. Though some of her employees may act like the business is just a game, "it’s reality, so we just have to work harder," she said.

Female business owners face unique challenges, particularly in male-dominated industries like construction, said Perlla Deluca, president of Southeast Constructors Inc. in Des Moines. Being persistent — to the point of being annoying — is one strategy that Deluca has employed in highly competitive areas such as winning federal contracts, she said. Her company has done work for the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service and the General Services Administration.

Deluca and Steffensmeier, who are both graduates of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program in Iowa, on Tuesday appeared on a live webinar panel discussion hosted by Punchbowl News, an online political news forum in Washington, D.C. They were preceded on the 30-minute webinar by U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, who is a member of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

Disparities experienced by women-owned small businesses during the pandemic recovery are significant, according to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Voices.  Those disparities between female small business owners and male small business owners include:

  • Nearly half (48%) of female-owned small businesses are struggling financially due to the continued impact of COVID-19 (versus 39% of male-owned small businesses).
  • Forty-seven percent of all female small business owners report having less than three months’ worth of cash on hand (versus 40% for male-owned small businesses).
  • Fifty-six percent of women business owners reported that they or their employees faced mental health issues as a result of the pandemic (versus 40% of male owners).
  • Fifty-seven percent of female small business owners under the age of 45 said a return to remote learning for kids would make it difficult to retain employees due to child care challenges (versus 41% of male owners).
Left: U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine. Center: U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Right: Duchess Meghan Markle.
In the headlines
  • Dr. Rachel Levine last week became the country’s first openly transgender four-star admiral. Levine, who is the U.S. assistant secretary for health, was sworn in Oct. 19 as an admiral of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. She is also the organization’s first-ever female four-star admiral.
  • U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was in the headlines last week for taking four weeks of parental leave. He and his husband, Casten, welcomed twins in August. Several prominent conservatives criticized his decision to take time off amid a supply chain crisis. Yet White House press secretary Jen Psaki called Buttigieg a "role model" for demonstrating "the importance of paid leave for new parents."
  • Keeping in line with the topic of parental leave, Duchess Meghan Markle wrote a letter to Congress last week advocating for paid leave. "No family should have to choose between earning a living and having the freedom to take care of their child (or a loved one, or themselves, as we would see with a comprehensive paid leave plan)," she wrote.
  • The Australian government is providing financial assistance to help people leave violent relationships. The one-time payments of up to $3,700 can be used to help pay for a new home, food or school fees.
Seeing the World Differently
"When you have a disability, you’re fearless every single day of your life. There’s always a challenge."

Marilyn Swinney is familiar with feeling like an outsider, just for being who she is. More than 20 years ago — after graduating from the University of Manchester in England with a textile technology degree — Swinney made the selection process for a graduate production manager role at a manufacturing facility, affiliated with an international, blue-chip company.

Raised in Malaysia, of Sri Lankan-Chinese descent, Swinney was diagnosed at birth with Stargardt’s disease, which is a genetic disorder that causes progressive vision loss, eventually resulting in blindness.

Worth checking out
The pay gap for women starts with a responsibility gap (Wall Street Journal). How scrubs reinforce sexist double standards (The Atlantic). Burnout is affecting women’s careers and finances more than ever – here’s how to avoid it (Real Simple). This is how everyday sexism could stop you from getting that promotion (New York Times Opinion). What does child care look like when it works? (The 19th). How to raise a feminist son (New York Times). The past, present, and future of body image in America (Vox). Finding hope for women in the climate crisis (Slate’s The Waves podcast). U.S. women are largely dissatisfied with how they’re treated. Most men don’t see a problem (The Lily).
LGBTQ Legacy Leaders Awards ceremony
The Business Record's sister publication, dsm Magazine, honored six LGBTQ leaders and allies earlier this month in a virtual event. Rewatch the event on dsm Magazine's YouTube channel.
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