Aine Kilkenny was sitting in her family’s home in Schull, West Cork in April 2021 when an 18-wheel truck pulled up outside, packed to bursting with “hundreds and thousands” of tampons. Although slightly daunted by the scale of the task ahead of them, it was at this point that the idea that the Dubliner and her two best friends and co-founders, Cork natives Fiona Parfrey and Lauren Duggan, had concocted over wine the previous Christmas started to become a reality.
“We just knew this was it,” Kilkenny says. “We knew this was our purpose, our mission. We wanted to give people access to these products.”
Four months earlier, the trio had been catching up over the festive season. “We were in my house actually in Dublin having a few glasses of wine and I got my period,” Kilkenny recalls. “We had opened every bag, every coat pocket, every closet, everything, looking for a tampon, and we had nothing. So we all went to the shop and we were just chatting about it. We are three women in our late 20s early 30s. How did we have no period products?”
Two and a half years later, Riley, the company born from that Christmas catch-up, has just completed a €1.5 million funding round – a mix of crowd funding and angel investment – that Kilkenny, its head of operations, says will give it a platform for growth.
“We’re investing in growing our team,” she explains. “We’re also investing in new markets. We’re putting a big focus on the UK this year.” The three co-founders are also nominated in the emerging business category of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards this year.
But the 34-year-old admits that attracting funding in the current climate was a challenge and something of a learning experience. “It’s a tough market,” Kilkenny says. “We started our raise six, seven months ago and it is tough out there at the moment, there is no doubt about it. I think we learned a lot of resilience in that time, and we learned a lot from just talking to people.”
The company has widened its customer base and now boasts an impressive list of corporate clients, which account for about 75 per cent of Riley’s revenues
The process has, in some ways, helped Kilkenny, Parfrey and Duggan to refocus the business and set new priorities. “The age of massive raises and putting all our money into marketing for really quick growth has changed,” she says, “and I think [investors] are really looking for a path to profitability. That’s very much what we’re concentrated on now. So, it was a six- or seven-month period to close that funding but we did it and we’re absolutely delighted.”
That path, to some extent anyway, seems to be opening up for Riley. Initially a direct-to-consumer business, selling its organic cotton period products to their customers through Shopify, the company has widened its customer base and now boasts an impressive list of corporate clients, which account for about 75 per cent of Riley’s revenues. EY, AIB, Kerry Group and Mason Hayes & Curran are just some of the companies that have Riley products in their employee bathrooms and the list is growing by the week.
‘Proceeded to panic’
Kilkenny remembers: “We pivoted once we got a call from Vodafone. They asked us do we deliver to corporates and like any good start-up, we said yeah, absolutely, and then proceeded to panic and figure out how to do that. But that definitely changed our business model. We now have more than 140 corporate clients.”
At the outset, the idea was to create something as basic as a period care subscription service. “We fundamentally believe that period products should be treated the exact same as toilet paper,” says Kilkenny. “So every single bathroom you walk into, there should be period products available. And according to our research, 90 per cent of women have run out of period products when they needed them and that’s how we started our business.”
Even a cursory glance at the information available on the internet made them realise that there were bigger issues at play, ones that Kilkenny and company became convinced they could help solve.
“We started to look at what is actually in mainstream period products,” she says. “So products we’ve been using our whole lives, we’ve just been buying off-the-shelf products we’ve been given from a young age, and we realised that they’re not toxin- and chemical-free, they have added perfumes and can be irritable on the body.”
“A lot of mainstream period products that you’ll find on the supermarket shelves are made from rayon, which is a synthetic material and you’re putting that in one of the most sensitive areas of your body. There can be up to 24 hormone-disrupting chemicals found in mainstream period products, so it can cause a lot of irritability.”
Shocked by what their research had thrown up, the trick, they believed, was to communicate these issues to women and also to create a service that offered only the best to their customers. “Really, the difference between our products and mainstream period products is that ours are 100 per cent organic cotton”, manufactured in the EU, she explains.
He didn’t come home every night and talk to me about business by any means. But he was very successful in his career and I saw the reward he got [from it]. And not financially – he just really loved his job— Aine Kilkenny
Born and schooled in Dublin, Kilkenny first met her Cork-based co-founders when they were teenagers. Her family had a home in West Cork that they visited regularly and although Kilkenny does not recall her first impressions of Parfrey and Duggan, she says that the connection and similarities between them were clear from the outset. “We are three very ambitious women,” she says. “I would say we’re very curious and very big problem-solvers. And I think that growing up, career for all of us was very important.”
Kilkenny’s father Ken, a business owner himself, was a “huge” influence on her life and values, she says. Owning his own logistics and shipping business for 36 years, “he was definitely an entrepreneur down to the ground,” she says, “so he had a huge influence on me. He didn’t come home every night and talk to me about business by any means. But he was very successful in his career and I saw the reward he got [from it]. And not financially – he just really loved his job.”
‘Peas in a pod’
Kilkenny’s father died in 2019, some two years before his daughter would embark upon her own venture. “We were just like two peas in a pod,” she says. “We were very, very close so it was really tough. He’s never seen the business and that kind of kills me a little bit, to be perfectly honest.”
That said, she’s absolutely convinced that he would never have allowed her to take the risks she has taken on the business. “He would never have let me do it,” Kilkenny says with wry laughter.
At the time of Riley’s foundation, Kilkenny had a lucrative, stable job in Salesforce and an impressive CV. Equipped with a marketing degree from the Dublin Institute of Technology, she had put in her time in sales and advertising roles at companies such as Renault before joining strategic communications start-up Wachsman in 2018.
“Then the managing director there left and went to Salesforce,” Kilkenny recalls. “So I left and went there. Salesforce is a great company. The pay, the financial package is very good. The stability is great. You get all the bells and whistles and the perks, so I just know if I turned around to my dad and said: ‘Dad, I’m quitting this job and I’m going to start this period care business”, he would have said, ‘Absolutely not!’”
Keen to share the credit, Kilkenny says that all three Riley co-founders have made sacrifices. “Fiona had a business, a lifestyle brand, which she sold when we came up with the idea for Riley,” she says. “Lauren sold her home in London where she had been for seven years working in sales and adtech. We all gave up an awful lot for the company.”
Hard graft aside, there have been some funny moments along the way. Kilkenny’s family home in west Cork, which she moved back into during the pandemic, became Riley’s first distribution centre, effectively. “I enlisted the whole village of Schull,” she recalls. “I rang one of my dad’s friends, who was around 68. I said: ‘You know the way you said I could ring you if I ever needed anything? Can you please come up here and help?’ I don’t think he had ever seen a tampon before.”
On another occasion, Kilkenny, Parfrey and Duggan were attending a health and wellness convention in Dublin. “We had a stand with all of our packaging up on it. And someone was like, ‘Oh, I think I’ve heard of this brand of coffee.’ And then he took one look at the packaging and ran away.”
Since the company’s foundation, Kilkenny has found herself having some eye-opening conversations with men in her own life. Equally, she says she has found herself becoming more open about her own experiences.
“My accountant rang me a couple of weeks ago and asked how I was. I was like: I’m feeling a bit sh** today. I feel a bit sick. And he asked what was wrong and I told him, I have my period. And he was like, ‘All right, we’re going there.’ It’s perfectly normal and I think more and more [organisations] realise that and are bringing in menstrual policies and trying to understand it more.”
As with most things, however, progress in the discussion about period care has not been exactly linear. It is, after all, only three years since the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland effectively banned a TV advert for Tampax after receiving 84 complaints from the public about its content. As The Irish Times reported, the authority rejected claims that it demeaned women, was unsuitable for children and contained sexual innuendo, but it did accept that the advert had – for some reason – caused widespread offence.
This and other more recent debacles continue to frustrate Kilkenny. “What I find really frustrating, really annoying is let’s say, for example, Tiger Woods.”
That’s the sort of behaviour that gives me rage because how are we supposed to move forward when things like that are happening? He’s a huge figure and a massive celebrity and that’s the influence he has on other people— Aine Kilkenny
The golf superstar was widely criticised after an incident at February’s Genesis Invitational on the PGA Tour when he handed then world number seven golfer Justin Thomas a tampon after outdriving his younger rival on the ninth hole. After significant backlash, the 47-year-old eventually apologised. “If I offended anybody in any way, shape or form, I’m sorry,” he said. “It was not intended to be that way. It was just, we play pranks on one another all the time and virally I think this did not come across that way, but between us it’s different.”
“It’s things like that,” says Kilkenny, “that set us back a thousand years. That’s the sort of behaviour that gives me rage because how are we supposed to move forward when things like that are happening? He’s a huge figure and a massive celebrity and that’s the influence he has on other people. That is a huge problem.”
By and large, however, the social atmosphere has changed for the better and continues to improve, Kilkenny says. These days, few men run away shrieking from her and co-founders after realising what Riley is all about. But clearly, Kilkenny and her co-founders believe that gaps remain, otherwise they would not have risked so much personally to start a company with such lofty goals. And as cliched as it sounds, Kilkenny believes that the biggest issue is education.
“We as women,” she says, “we didn’t get enough education on our own menstrual cycle and our own bodies. So, if it’s not being talked about openly for us, that’s going to reflect on men as well.”
‘A global play’
Kilkenny is certainly not short on ambition. “We don’t see Riley as just a period-care brand here in Ireland,” she says. “We’re already working on global contracts. And we have grown in our two years in Ireland, the UK on through Europe as well. The potential is absolutely massive and not only with our period care range but from menstruation through to menopause. We very much see ourselves as being a female health brand, making products available to women whenever and wherever they need them, and making their lives ultimately easier. So that is very much our mission, and it’s a global play. This is just the beginning.”
Living in Dublin at the moment, she is in the process of moving to London where she will spearhead Riley’s UK expansion plans, setting up an office and hiring a London-based team.
It must be a hectic time for her personally, having to find an apartment and get her ducks in a row. “I haven’t done any of those things,” she says laughing nervously. “I’m just so excited. I totally get that it’s a big move but for me, I just find it really exciting.”
Name: Aine Kilkenny
Position: Co-Founder at Riley
Lives: Coming soon to London
Something you might expect: You’ll find her at weddings preaching to strangers about fighting period poverty.
Something that might surprise: She is a qualified Ski Instructor having spent time teaching on the slopes in Switzerland after college.