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Extraordinary Women of D.C.: Steph Loffredo, inventor of Hooha, the smart tampon dispenser

Tampons and pads have long been relegated to the hidden compartments of purses, stashed under the bathroom sink or trapped in dingy, coin-operated machines in the women’s bathroom- out of sight, out of mind and out of the conversation. However, Stephanie Loffredo is looking to change that.

Stephanie is developing the first smart tampon dispenser - Hooha, which made its soft debut at All Things Go music festival at Union Market in October. In practice, using Hooha is simple - you text a number on the bright-purple dispenser and voila, a free tampon is released into the user’s hands. Users can get one tampon every 24 hours, so it’s a great stop-gap if the user’s period comes as a surprise. However, the idea behind Hooha is a lot more radical than just giving away tampons; it’s about ending the stigma around periods by taking them out into the open.

Hooha was the result of a bad experience about eleven months ago, in what Stephanie describes as a “dungeon bathroom.” Sitting in the dingy restroom, she started wondering why bathrooms weren’t smarter. “You leave a bathroom and there’s technology everywhere, but in the bathroom when there’s just not,” Stephanie said. “I was thinking about it and really brooding, and I was like ‘bathrooms should be smarter, we should have smart tampon dispensers.’”

The revelation happened to be well-timed. Stephanie works in social media at Huge, a marketing and design firm near Union Market. Huge announced a fellowship program a few weeks after Stephanie’s dungeon bathroom experience and she pitched her smart tampon dispenser idea. Stephanie won the fellowship and Huge gave her the time and resources to make Hooha a reality.

Stephanie describes Huge as a progressive environment, but she says colleagues shied away from discussing periods, tampons and pads until she started working on Hooha. “We started talking about [periods] more and now, nobody cares. There are pads and tampons literally all over our office in D.C., because everyone has been working on [Hooha].”

“It’s not weird anymore because we talk about it, and when we talk about things it’s not weird anymore,” she said. “That’s how stigma gets solved.”

Tampons and other menstrual products aren’t always available when they’re needed, but that’s not the only problem women face on their period. It’s such hush-hush topic that women sometimes feel the need to hide their tampons up their sleeves or in their pockets on the way to the restroom. That type of pressure reinforces the belief that people need to be ashamed of their periods and, by extensions, their bodies.

“As much as I want Hooha to solve an accessibility issue, I also want it to start breaking down cultural barriers and stigma about periods,” Stephanie explained.“Women should have access to tampons in public restrooms and the fact that they don’t, in my mind, is because of period stigma,” she said.

Even the design of Hooha is intended to demystify periods. “Any vending machine has a window, but not the ones for pads and tampons,” Stephanie pointed out. “We live in a society that doesn’t want to look at pads and tampons so they’ve taken the window out of the machine so it’s just a metal box. A big part of this experience, for me, was adding a window.”

Hooha may not just end up in women’s restrooms either. Stephanie and her team have been discussing the idea of putting the dispensers outside of the bathroom so that both men and women can see it - making periods feel like less of a secret that needs to be hidden. “I realize a lot of women get their period inside the bathroom, but [I like] the idea of showing like, ‘hey, this is a tampon, this is a pad, don’t be weird about it, it’s fine.’”

“Nobody gets weird about toilet paper, so why do we get weird about pads and tampons?”

Hooha is still in development but, using the feedback from users at All Things Go, Stephanie is hoping to manufacture twenty units soon. By the beginning of 2019, Hooha will be placed in Huge’s global offices. Additionally, Stephanie and her colleagues are in talks with Union Market to place Hooha there on a more permanent basis.

With any entrepreneurial venture, there are still hurtles ahead; Stephanie and her team are looking for a way to make Hooha financially viable. However, Stephanie, who is working on Hooha on top of her existing responsibilities at Huge, hasn’t shied away from the work, nor has she lost sight of the bigger picture. She sees D.C. as a prime location to start spreading Hooha’s mission.

“It would be great to work with representatives on having pads and tampons in public restrooms. If we could start to create laws that require that, I think that would be a great next step for us, for Hooha and for women in general.”