Rising StarRising Star: Nadya Okamoto Wants Menstruating Women to Feel No Shame

No matter how busy you are, every now and then you meet a person who makes you feel like you should be doing more. Nadya Okamoto is just that person. An 18-year-old high school senior, devoted big sister, and dancer, Nadya is also the Founder and Executive Director of Camions of Care–a global nonprofit organization that strives to address the natural needs of women through advocacy, education, and service.

See Nadya’s pitch at our recent OEN Angel Oregon Showcase, and hear from her about her entrepreneurial journey:

Get involved by making a donation or joining Camions of Care on June 1 for Period Prom.

What was the spark that inspired the birth of your concept?

During the spring of my freshman year of high school, my family entered a time of transition, which involved several months of couch-surfing with our closest friends. During that time, we were living under the legal label of homeless. My commute to school turned from ten minutes to over two hours long.

In the hundreds of hours I spent navigating my way to school, I started talking to homeless women. I would ask them what they found most challenging about their living situation and asked if there was anything that I could do to help. One thing that kept coming up was menstrual hygiene, which surprised me—I had never thought about menstrual hygiene as an issue. I began to keep a journal of their stories about using stolen pillowcases, toilet paper, and brown paper grocery bags to maintain their periods.

These stories from homeless women, who were always nervous to talk about something so stigmatized in our global society, inspired me to learn more. I discovered how a lack of menstrual hygiene was hindering girls in global communities from pursuing education and economic opportunities, sparking the idea and drive within me to found Camions of Care.

What problem does it solve?

Camions of Care works to make feminine hygiene products more accessible to disenfranchised women and girls all over the world. We want to ensure they have the resources to feel confident, dignified, and ready to discover and reach their full potential even when they are on their periods.

We also work to empower young leaders to start conversations about the importance of menstrual hygiene—in efforts to de-stigmatize the topic. Camions of Care has a nationwide network of high school and university campus chapters that are entirely led by youth. These young leaders help start conversations about periods, spread awareness about the need, engage in development work for the Camions of Care parent organization, and also create their own network of nonprofit partners for the distribution of feminine hygiene products.

How did you come up with the name?

We truly believe that women and girls, no matter their cultural or socioeconomic background, deserve to feel confident and dignified on their periods. This belief is so strong that we strive to bring feminine hygiene products to women no matter where they are. We will drive long distances, we will ship across borders, and we will work with any nonprofit partner that expresses a need for our services. This mobility that we embody with our services gives light to our name: Camions of Care. “Camions” means “truck” or “caravan” in multiple languages (Spanish, Latin, and French).

How do you differentiate from your competition?

As a mission-based nonprofit organization, we do not consider others organizations that have similar focuses to be competition, but rather partners and advocates who can help us manage and celebrate menstrual hygiene worldwide.

How do you fund your operation?

Our funding comes from grassroots development, crowdfunding through online platforms, and grants. We also receive a lot of support from local workplaces, organizations, and schools (campus chapters too), who either fundraise for us or collect feminine hygiene products for our services. Additionally, we’re forming partnerships with manufacturers of feminine hygiene products (disposables and reusables like menstrual cups and reusable pads) so that we can expand our distribution. As an organization that doesn’t have much overhead cost, we strive for maximum impact for all contributions that come in—for every $2 contributed, another woman is provided with everything she needs for an entire menstrual cycle.

Nadya Okamoto of Camions of Care

What’s the best thing about being an entrepreneur?

The best thing about being an entrepreneur is that you are engaging in work that you are truly passionate about. It doesn’t feel like you are working, it feels like you are following your gut. I fall asleep excited about how I can continue growing the organization and immensely grateful for the opportunity to lead the initiative and work with other youth leaders and women who truly inspire me.

What has been the biggest surprise in your entrepreneurial experience to date?

The biggest surprise for me thus far has been the amount of support that Camions of Care has received from male members of our community. I am still always happily surprised by the number of men who approach me and my team after a presentation, expressing their excitement about our organization and their eagerness to support the cause.

As an entrepreneur, what keeps you up at night?

As an entrepreneur, I am kept up at night by all the ideas that swarm through my head on other ways to grow Camions of Care or engage new audiences. I keep multiple white boards posted on the walls around my bed because when I get these ideas as I fall asleep, I have to get up and write them down. As I continue my general education and pursue my interests of global and sustainable development, I am also kept up by new approaches I think of to solve environmental, waste management, or human trafficking issues.

What is the best entrepreneurial advice you have received?

The best entrepreneurial advice I have received was from one of my mentors at the 2014 ANNpower Leadership Conference, Laura Alonso, who is fighting for government transparency in Argentina. She told me something along the lines of “Just do it. If you think of something amazing, do it. But, what comes before doing work to change the world, is taking care of yourself. You need to make time to take care of yourself before taking care of others. Otherwise, you will drive yourself crazy.” I am the type of overly anxious person who always wants to do more. My drive to act on making social change if I have an idea or the resources and connections to contribute, often leads to overextending myself, which makes me a less effective leader. When I feel tired, I remember this advice and take a step back to rejuvenate so I can be a better leader.

What is your advice for a budding entrepreneur?

Collaborate! Don’t be afraid to ask for help and delegate tasks that are not in your area of expertise. As an entrepreneur trying to grow a business or organization, there is a tendency to grow a dangerous case of “founder’s syndrome,” in which you feel like you need control or oversee everything. Sometimes, you need to maximize your strengths by letting go and empowering other leaders.

What is one book that has most inspired you in your entrepreneurial journey?

It may be seen as a tad unconventional—The Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig. This book navigates through the development of the birth control pill that we have today, and profiles the two leading radical feminists and two male scientists who contributed to its development. The book inspired me to be a more headstrong advocate, and grew my motivation to continue my work with Camions of Care, no matter how many odd stares I get because I am in the business of periods.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was a child (two years ago really…), I wanted to be an obstetric surgeon or general OBGYN. This dream was due to my fascination with the development of human life, my passion for the empowerment of women and mothers (I love my mom and think that she is such a powerful single mother), and also my love for Addison Montgomery, a character on Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice who is an obstetric surgeon.

Imagine your venture becomes wildly successful. What does that look like?

If Camions of Care is wildly successful, our organization will no longer be needed. We will  have successfully made feminine hygiene products accessible for all women and girls, and made menstruation an open topic for conversation and policy discussions.

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