Gender-driven journalism chronicles rise and fall of Thinx founder Miki Agrawal

Miki Agrawal speaks onstage during at Thomson Reuters during 2016 Advertising Week New York on September 28, 2016. (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images for Advertising Week New York)

Miki Agrawal has been a media magnet from the moment her trendy startup started making money. The CEO and founder of Thinx, which specializes in period-proof underwear, has romanced journalists with the story of her rise to fame over the past two years. Yet the self-proclaimed feminist CEO seems to have blinded reporters to the need to investigate the company’s actual business practices. Now, in the aftermath of a scandal over Agrawal’s alleged exploitative behavior, and her resignation as CEO, much of the coverage is falling into a different type of gender-driven reporting trap.

On March 10, Jezebel’s Anna Merlan reported that Agrawal was stepping down as CEO of her five-year-old company. Merlan writes that sources claim that one-third of the company’s 30-person staff has recently quit, and links to six negative employee reviews for Thinx on Glass Door. On March 14, Racked published an exposé detailing alleged exploitative and abusive behavior on the part of the CEO toward her mostly female employees, including fat-shaming comments, poor parental leave policies, and repeated promotions for white men while other employees languished. The piece, entitled “Thinx Promised a Feminist Utopia to Everyone But its Employees,” quickly went viral. Less than a week later, New York magazine published an article featuring accusations that Agrawal had sexually harassed employees, with one, former head of public relations Chelsea Leibow, filing a complaint against Agrawal for continually fondling her breasts, commenting on her appearance, and asking her to show Agrawal her nipple piercings. The piece was penned by Noreen Malone, who profiled Agrawal for the magazine in February 2016.

RELATED: Newsrooms should follow two simple rules for reporting on women’s bodies

The fact that Agrawal’s profiler later aided in exposing her is indicative of the complex media dynamic that contributed to both Agrawal’s rise and fall. Media outlets from Jezebel to Bustle to The New York Times have eagerly reported on Agrawal, first as a feminist hero, and now as a hypocrite. Given the abundance of lengthy profiles, it’s surprising that such important aspects of Agrawal’s business practices escaped unnoticed until after allegations of abuse forced her to resign as CEO.

Malone’s 2016 profile of Agrawal focuses on a lot of things—Agrawal’s apartment decor, the winding career trajectory that ultimately led her to become one of the founders of Thinx, her interest in destigmatizing periods as a method of working toward gender equality—but it’s surprisingly light on the details of day-to-day operations at Thinx. Many of the biggest issues women face in the workplace go unmentioned: paid parental leave, promotion policies, and institutional recourse for workplace sexual harassment. The fact that Thinx has no Human Resources department—one of the biggest critiques leveled against Agrawal in the past month—doesn’t appear anywhere in Malone’s 2016 profile. The implication in Malone’s initial piece, and in others from that time, is that there’s no need to investigate these issues in a company that calls itself “feminist.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

 

Doree Shafrir at BuzzFeed News argues, however, that early indications suggested Agrawal might not be the feminist icon she was lauded as. In her piece, “Feminist Hypocrisy is the New Trend in Startup Narratives,” Shafrir quotes from Malone’s initial profile: “If Agrawal were a man, her type would be immediately recognizable. She is self-mythologizing, utterly confident even in situations where she has no good reason to be, and it all serves her exceedingly well. She is a tech bro—except she’s a woman.” Shafrir asserts that female founders and CEOs like Agrawal “are written about adoringly when they’re on their way up, because we want to root for them,” further applying this argument to media coverage of Sophia Amoruso, CEO of Nasty Gal and author of #Girlboss, and of Arianna Huffington.

Despite these blind spots, Malone’s profile of Agrawal has a less adoring tone than many of the other early pieces on Thinx and Agrawal. In fact, it led to an online debate over whether Agrawal’s feminism was shallow and corporate. Agrawal decided to respond on Medium.

That Agrawal used a digital self-publishing platform to address criticism lobbed at her from social media is significant: The populist digital media-scape allows for CEOs and their critics to communicate via the same channels, creating a dialogue in which it sometimes seems like both have equal power. Agrawal’s post, “An Open Letter to Respectfully Quit Telling Me How to ‘Do Feminism’ (and to just support one another, please!),” acknowledges this very dynamic by addressing itself to “women in media—writers, women editors, women in social media, women influencers, women in front of the camera and all media women in between.” She is in conversation with her critics, taking up as much space on their shared platforms as anyone else.

Writing on Medium, Agrawal doesn’t post as Thinx, but under her name. Her most recent piece on the site, “My THINX Ride” begins: “This is a personal statement from me, Miki, as a human being, not as a representative of THINX.” Yet Agrawal is writing from the same online account she has always used to defend both herself and her brand on Medium. In an age of targeted advertising and sponsored content, it is often difficult to distinguish between business statements and personal expressions. Through her Medium posts, Agrawal can launch a kind of advertising campaign, employing all the catchy feminist buzzwords Thinx uses in its subway ads, while appearing to be simply expressing herself as—as she puts it—“a human, navigating…through a society filled with misrepresentation and remnants of patriarchies past”—reflecting a signature style of communication that Malone described in her profile as “speak[ing] in data-driven, consciousness-raising sound bites.”

 

A post shared by mikiagrawal (@mikiagrawal) on

 

Agrawal’s online engagement with negative feedback is indicative of a culture in which self-publishing platforms and social journalism not only allow CEOs to comment publicly through the same channels as their critics, but encourage them to do so. As Shafrir points out in her BuzzFeed piece, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg recently faced criticism for not making a public statement about the Women’s March. The ability of CEOs to share political beliefs on a variety of media platforms—and in fact, the expectation that they will do so—sometimes holds corporate leaders to higher standards, but sometimes lets them more deeply influence the way they’re perceived. An unnamed Thinx employee told Malone she felt intimidated to speak out against Agrawal because “I’m afraid out of anger and resentment she’ll make things up. You can write whatever you want on Medium. No one is going to fact-check that.”

As Agrawal seems to fall deeper, the media attention around her grows. Her name is appearing everywhere—reminiscent of the days when Thinx was first developing—but some articles about Agrawal’s downfall seem to take a voyeuristic and sensationalistic tone. CNBC’s coverage is entitled “The 5 most shocking allegations brought against former Thinx CEO Miki Agrawal.” The list begins with “inappropriate touching,” and moves on next to “workplace nudity,” failing to tackle parental leave concerns at all. While gender discrepancy in promotions does appear as number three, two of the five items on the list include detailed and what some may see as titillating descriptions of sexual harassment.

Quartz’s coverage includes the cheeky headline “Thinx founder Miki Agrawal, inspired by Burning Man, forgot that offices need boundaries,” making a strange and unfounded link between Agrawal’s experiences at Burning Man—the most attention-getting of which was her participation in an orgy—and her exploitative business practices. Even more confusing, the choice of the word “forgot” in the headline implies that Agrawal lacks agency, and somehow stumbled into her exploitative role. Implied is the idea that women are too clueless ever to be culpable.

Agrawal’s behaviors require critical journalism. But Shafrir believes reporters are quick to portray CEOs like Agrawal positively, and then, after they fall, “the articles quoting disgruntled employees about their once-venerated feminist founders’ shortcomings come fast and furious, and people certainly seem to take a particular delight in reading them.”

Agrawal herself seems to exploit this idea in her first post to women in media, writing: “If the ‘status quo’ of how things are done in your office is to come up with negative stories about other women, please be reminded that you can say no.” It’s interesting language for a woman who is said to have violated sexual consent in the workplace, and it plays into a corporate feminist myth that women in power cannot be accused of abuse, exploitation, and harassment. At the same time, it’s a reminder of the way media outlets are quick to chronicle the failures of female CEOs. Unfortunately, these media portrayals often cast corporate women in power as either heroes, or helpless, but rarely as villains.

ICYMI: When important investigative reporting must compete with Brangelina

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Fiona Lowenstein is a freelance writer, editorial assistant at Henry Holt & Co., and a former CJR intern.