Women Who F*ck Sh*t Up: Nadya Okamoto

Welcome to our new profile series, Women Who F*ck Sh*t Up, where we highlight accomplished, smart, driven women who are making waves. First up is Nadya Okamoto, activist, non-profit founder, professional speaker, and Harvard student.

Have you ever watched a 20-year-old woman roast a grown man in front of over a hundred people because he was physically incapable of uttering the word “period?” If not, I can’t recommend it enough. Nothing soothes the soul like watching older men be made uncomfortable by young, brazen women.

This was my introduction to Nadya Okamoto. She was the keynote speaker at a conference my company was hosting in the spring of 2018. The theme of the event was “Decoding Gen-Z,” and we probably couldn’t have found a more apropos guest. As an activist, non-profit founder, and professional speaker who still wasn’t old enough to legally drink alcohol, Nadya ticked many of the boxes we’ve come to expect when we think of the next generation. She was up on stage in a packed industrial event space, preaching to advertising industry leaders and high-level executives from prominent companies about the menstrual movement, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. To be fair, for her, it kind of is.

At one point in her speech, the aforementioned man raised his hand to commend Nadya for her vigor, and then asked how he could best talk to his daughters about their periods. Except he couldn’t get the words out.

“Period. The word you’re looking for is period,” she deadpanned. The room went up in laughter, all tension diminished, but I was struck by the surreal nature of what had just happened.

Like most women, I‘ve spent a large portion of my life pretending that I don’t succumb to the biological flaw that are periods: shoving tampons up my sleeves while sneaking off to the bathroom, sitting at a desk and silently powering through cramps that would debilitate any full-grown man, begrudgingly laughing at sh*tty jokes about PMS that only seem to crop up on sh*tty sitcoms written be equally sh*tty men. We’ve all done it. Worse, we’ve all done it and pretended that we didn’t, because to recognize a period is to admit to the shame of having a period.

But here was this young woman casually flipping every paradigm I’ve ever known on its head, making men feel embarrassed for once for their general ignorance and disregard about a topic that we’ve spent a significant portion of our lives shamefully hiding. It was liberating! But in that conflicted way where you’re super excited about progress that should have been commonplace to begin with. I stood there and thought “who is this?” while I clapped along with the rest of the audience and Nadya picked up her speech right where she’d left it.

It wasn’t the last time she’d surprise me.

Now, Nadya Okamoto is a 21-year-old college student. More accurately, a 21-year-old Harvard drop-out (officially on indefinite leave, but due to return in the fall). That moniker may have been shameful 20 years ago, but in this post-Zuckerberg era we all know that dropping out of an Ivy to pursue something bigger is the new Magna Cum Laude.

More interesting than that, though, Nadya is the Founder and President of PERIOD, a youth-run non-profit that celebrates menstruation through service, education, and advocacy.  Don’t know what means? You’re not alone.

When Nadya was 16, her mother parted ways with her job and their family lost their home. What followed was a period of crashing at the homes of their friends while her mom got them back on their feet. Suddenly, what was once a 12-minute drive to high school in Portland, OR, became a two-hour-plus commute, and during that time Nadya came into contact with many homeless women. It was these women—their stories, their daily struggles with an issue that nearly half the world takes for granted and the other half merely ignores, their desperation that lead them to use unsanitary items like socks or cardboard or paper bags in lieu of menstrual products—that drove Nadya to action. At the age of 16, with no experience or credentials to her name, she co-founded PERIOD alongside her classmate, Vincent Forand.

“I think [PERIOD stemmed] from a big wake-up call in knowing how much privilege I have in many ways and recognizing the blessing and platform that I had in comparison to these women in much worse living situations,” Nadya explained to me over the phone last Thursday, taking a break from creating a vision board for yet another meeting she had scheduled the next day. “It was only a matter of months of, you know, spending time Googling and learning more about period poverty […] that pushed me to realize that not enough was being done around this.”

Period poverty is, quite simply, the inability to afford menstrual hygiene products. Much like the homeless women Nadya once encountered on a daily basis, period poverty forces people all over the world to resort to using unsanitary items to manage their menstruation. It’s the number one reason that girls leave school in developing countries, but they aren’t the only ones to suffer. The UK is the 5th richest country in the world, and yet 10% of girls and young women there have been unable to afford sanitary products at some point in their lives. Just this month, the British government pledged to invest two million pounds into international aid to fund projects around the world providing sanitary products and education.

This is a very real problem, just one that most people have never even heard of.

PERIOD started with a simple mission: to provide people in need with menstrual hygiene products. That was in 2014, and since then Nadya, Vincent, and their now 350+ university and high school campus chapters have delivered over 500,000 period packs to those in need. But why stop there? PERIOD chapters around the country have been lobbying to get free and accessible period products into schools—and they’ve succeeded. The Portland Public School system, Ohio State University, UC Davis, Texas A&M Corpus Cristi, and Harvard have all taken steps toward ending period poverty, all thanks to the tireless work of local students who’ve taken Nadya’s message to a grassroots level.

This year, Nadya has set her sights even higher: Betsy DeVos. In partnership with THINX, PERIOD drafted a petition to the Department of Education, demanding that it “acknowledge period products as necessities, advocate for policies that support students who menstruate, and make period products free and accessible for all public school restrooms.” It currently has over 44,000 signatures. In the event that they reach their goal of 100,000 signatures, will Betsy take a break from defunding the Special Olympics to read it over? Only time will tell.

Beyond that, Nadya’s goals for PERIOD over the next year are simple: make a f*ck ton of noise about period poverty. “I know this sounds like a huge goal and maybe not very realistic, but I think my goal for the year is to get all Americans all over America as obsessed with ending period poverty and period stigma as I am.”

Not very realistic, indeed. I hate that my initial instinct was to laugh, but when you think about who sits in the White House, who sits on the Supreme Court, who sits in C-Suites and governing bodies all over the country, it’s hard to imagine her dream becoming a reality. Republicans may want to control our uteruses, but they sure as hell don’t want to clean up after them. I said as much to her, asking how she could possibly combat the sexism that runs rampant in this country.

Her response was so immediate that I’m almost ashamed I questioned it in the first place: “call them out.” Apparently my first interaction with Nadya wasn’t an irregular occurrence.

“When I give speeches, when I say the word ‘period’ and someone makes a physical reaction, I’m like, ‘do you see how you just reacted? Did you know that menstruation is a natural human body process that makes life possible? Did you know that your wife, your daughter, your sister, your mother all menstruate for 40 years of their life on a monthly basis?’” It’s tragic that we have to qualify the value of these women by their relation to men, but it’s also a reality.

Beyond providing products to those in need, another major tenet of PERIOD is ending the stigma around menstruation. “This is a matter of human dignity. It’s a natural normal thing and we need to talk about it just like that […] If we don’t talk about this, we will not achieve gender equality.”

As a younger millennial, it’s not often that I feel entirely disconnected from Gen-Z. But listening to Nadya discuss this, watching the support she’s garnered across the country, across the world, from men and women alike, is one of the first times that I start to realize the gap between our two generations. Because I know that I have male friends who would scoff at this kind of rhetoric. Hell, I know women who would. But her co-founder is a man. PERIOD’s Facebook following is 20% male. These may seem like small victories, but in the grand scheme of cultural conversation around menstruation, they’re feats in and of themselves.

So what does a 21-year-old do when she’s not running a non-profit, speaking at SXSW panels, or taking on the Department of Education? Runs for office herself, of course.

In 2017, at the age of 19, Nadya ran for city council in Cambridge, MA, inspired by her passion for housing affordability. She didn’t win, but she’s not too broken up about that. “Honestly, by the end I was realizing how insane it would have been. Running for office was one of the most exhausting things I’ve ever done. Sleeping two, three hours a night, canvassing six hours a day, running PERIOD. And when I started, I was working six jobs.”

Six jobs? Six? Jobs? I winced at this point, reflecting on the toll that a measly 1.5 jobs takes on me. But it appears the endeavor took a toll on Nadya as well: she lost her period for an entire year due to exhaustion. The irony was not lost on me.

Nadya ran against 26 other candidates, and while her campaign ultimately failed, she succeeded in making history for student and youth voter turnout. However, her age and race made her a target of multiple death threats from constituents who didn’t think she represented what they needed, and she ended up having to move as a result. When Nadya returns to Harvard in the fall, it will be to a new house and potentially a new major.

“I think if anything I’ve learned over the past two months, working with people in the space and talking to mentors is, like, what you major in doesn’t really matter… I mean, I’m my own boss and right now I don’t know if that’s going to change, and for me, I think I just want to learn whatever I can use in the real world immediately.”

For Nadya, that means moving from Social Studies to Women and Gender Studies, which would allow her to continue her education while also priming her with subject matter for her next book. Yes, her next book. Because she’s already written a first one.

Over the course of two months in 2018, Nadya wrote Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement. It’s taken me a full week to write this profile, but sure. It was released in October of 2018 and Nadya is already thinking about book number two. “I think a totally new topic, but I’m still figuring out what that’s going to look like. And figuring out when I’m going to have the f*cking time to write my next proposal.”

While she assured me that she wasn’t, in fact, writing that proposal during our conversation, I couldn’t really be sure. Through our professional relationship and over the course of this interview, I learned that there’s rarely a time when Nadya isn’t thinking about her next project. Case in point: her other-other job.

A few months ago Nadya stepped down as Executive Director of PERIOD, passing the baton to Betsy Natter, a member of her board and mother of one of her high school friends. Nadya has been operating as Founder and President since then, which allows her to focus on her favorite parts of the job, advocacy work and managing media and corporate partnerships.

The switch has also allowed her to focus on a new venture—Chief Brand Officer of JUV Consulting, a Gen-Z marketing agency based in New York City. JUV employs around 150 teenagers, between the ages of 14 and 20, who act as consultants to corporate executives who are attempting to build out marketing strategies targeted towards Gen-Z. Skeptics might think this is a lofty ambition at best, but JUV boasts big name clients like TNT, NBC, Visa, American Express, and a handful of Unilever brands.

Considering the fact that you can’t go on Twitter without coming across yet another “edgy” fast-food brand attempting to capitalize on youth culture, it’s kind of genius. I work in advertising. I have suffered through more meetings than I can count where out-of-touch adults brainstorm ways to “connect with the teens.” I have listened to too many middle-aged men describe shoes as “lit.” In hindsight, I would have killed for a 16- year-old to laugh in their face when they said it.

If all of this is making you feel old, it’s because it should. “I’m the oldest person in the company and I’m 21,” Nadya casually mentioned while I felt my 27-year-old bones disintegrate into insignificant dust.

But that very reaction—one that I’ll admit I’ve felt multiple times across multiple interactions with Nadya—is one she’s trying to change. Nadya knows she does a lot. In fact, Nadya knows that she does arguably too much. She’s very open about the fact that her, um, let’s call them extracurriculars, have prevented her from experiencing normal teenage things.

“Yes, I’ve done a lot, but it’s because I’ve given up a lot of social life. I’ve given up a lot of personal life so I could do this because this is what I want to do. It’s not that you’re doing nothing in comparison,” she assured me, “I think that everyone has a story and everyone is doing a lot. I feel like we could all push ourselves to do more.”

She’s emphatic now. Up until this point our conversation has covered what I imagine to be fairly canned responses for her. But the way that people react to her, to the path that she’s chosen and has clearly been criticized for in the past, has brought a new level of urgency to our discussion.

Being a 21-year-old activist does not save you from the unsought and, at times, unwarranted opinions of strangers. In fact, it opens you up to more criticism than you’d experience otherwise. At least this seems to be the case for Nadya.

“Literally people always give me this unsolicited piece of advice that I hate but also respect. People always tell me ‘Oh, you can do a bunch of things or you can do one thing really well.’” This sentiment does not sit well with Nadya, who appears to be hellbent on doing just about every single thing extremely well. She has one question for the world, for her critics, for anyone who questions her motives or her drive or her sleeping habits: why can’t I have it all?

“To me, it’s not good enough to just be like, ‘okay, I’m only going to do one thing’ and [to] think of other things as a sacrifice to that. Why can’t I pursue a non-profit and a speaking career and also try to explore for-profit work and then also have a boyfriend and have a life? Why can’t I have it all?”

I didn’t have an answer for her. In that moment, as I sat in my room lightly hungover from a work event the night before, feeling like I wasn’t fulfilling an ounce of my potential, despite the fact that that’s the opposite of the way she wants me to feel, I too wondered why Nadya couldn’t have it all. But, and aligning with everything I’d come to expect by that point, she had an answer for her own question. Nadya figured out an early age what it takes some many years to realize: the world is uncomfortable with ambitious women.

“The other piece of advice I get a lot from women is […] ‘oh honey, we love what you’re doing but make sure you’re taking care of yourself.’ People are always telling me, ‘make sure you’re happy.’ And I always say thank you, but I think it’s super interesting that ambition and success [are] equated with giving up happiness and self-care.”

DANA POINT, CA – FEBRUARY 07: Founder & Executive Director, PERIOD.org Nadya Okamoto speaks onstage during The 2019 MAKERS Conference at Monarch Beach Resort on February 7, 2019 in Dana Point, California. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for MAKERS) *** Local Caption *** Nadya Okamoto

 

I raced to agree with her before realizing that I had done the exact same thing, not 20 minutes before. Our entire conversation had been a fairly one-sided exchange in which Nadya detailed her various undertakings while I interjected with thought-provoking statements like “Jesus Christ” and “that’s insane” or, the apparently wholly unoriginal “wow, do you even sleep?”

By the way, she sleeps eight to ten hours a night these days.

Had I, unbeknownst to myself, immediately assumed that her success came at the detriment of her happiness? Had I fallen in that far-too-common trap, perpetuating the idea that in order to achieve great things she had to give part of herself away? Was I just another one of the countless women who were intimidated by her ambition, and reconciled that by subconsciously belittling her choices? I might have been, but I won’t be in the future.

If we’re being realistic, compromise is inevitable. There are only 24 hours in a day. By definition, we cannot have it all. But we can have enough. By her own admission, Nadya has missed out on aspects of life because of PERIOD and everything that came with it. But she wouldn’t change any of that for the world. Maybe what we can really learn from her is that missing out doesn’t have to be the end all, be all marker for happiness—as long as you make it worth your while.

Nadya told me that nearly every publicist she’s ever worked with has told her she has a tendency to make people feel inadequate. Once upon a time I might have agreed with them, but not anymore. What became most apparent during my time with Nadya, what’s stuck with me more than her inhuman levels of productivity or unparalleled passion or her general need to do all things at all times, is that she never comes across as intimidating. Success has not jaded her. In fact, she’s incredibly warm.

It’s commonplace, even expected, for a certain level of achievement to turn us into assholes. If you get to the point where you’ve accomplished enough to lose all your friends, you’ve pretty much made it. If you’ve done it by age 21, you get a couple lawsuits and a movie made about you. But Nadya defies that trope. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I would mistake her earnest faith in humanity as naïvete.

It’s that single attribute more than anything, her ability to maintain her optimism and vulnerability in the face of overwhelming, near insurmountable obstacles, that makes me think she’ll get closer than anyone to have it all. And maybe, with her leading the way, the rest of us can, too.

Images: Nadya Okamoto (5) 

Video: PERIOD. The Menstrual Movement