Aimee Marks was not your typical teenager. She was determined, persistent and sought to challenge the status quo in everything she did. Combine this with an early fascination in the creation of life and a strong sense of family and community, it comes with little surprise that she has gone on to found a business that empowers women to make healthier choices.
The TOM Co. was first conceived by Aimee in a high-school project – but it was through grit, sacrifice and an unshakeable sense of responsibility for a solution that Aimee went on to develop the world’s first organic tampon available in mainstream supermarkets. Hatched and the TOM Co. team were all ears as she shared her purpose journey with us.
- Learn about Aimee’s early fascination with the journey of life, and how a high-school project became one of Australia’s most progressive & impactful brands.
- Discover how her sense of responsibility for a solution drove her in the face of such adversity.
- Get insights into how The TOM Co. intends to change it up – to learn and operate in a way that is conducive to the new evolution of business
[Hatched] – Aimee, I’d love to hear about your early years – where it all started, where you grew up and some of your earliest memories.[Aimee Marks] – I actually remember being two years old and my Dad having to bribe me. We had been outside skiing for eight hours in 1 degree temperatures and I wouldn’t come in. I was incredibly headstrong, determined and he couldn’t believe that as a two year old who’d literally just learnt to walk, I would not come inside unless he gave me a bag of Twisties. He told that story at my wedding. I think for me that is kind of symbolic of what then came.
I remember a lot of family time. I was always playing with my siblings. I remember after school time was nothing to do with screens as it is now – it was basketball; it was super competitive and we laughed a lot. My mum is a schoolteacher so there was a lot of time in the classroom after school. I really absorbed what she did and she just kept this incredible values-driven house without even knowing. She did it daily. She actually used to sing a ‘Good Morning’ song every morning.
I now sing it to my kids and we make the bed together. I remember my grandmother telling me that the first thing you should do every morning, before you do anything else, before life gets too hectic, is just make your bed and open up the blinds. I remember growing up having sun coming through the windows, pulling up the blinds and singing the ‘Good Morning’ song. They were some of the really early memories.
My family are Jewish so every Friday night we would have a family dinner. I was the eldest of all my siblings and cousins, so I used to coordinate different things every week. There was pass the parcel, there were concerts… It was just fun. I think there was this very strong sense of family and community. I was at a Jewish school so there were festivals every term and there was a lot of celebrating around circular spaces – whether it was dancing, chatting around tables, or eating food.
I was super creative and I would become completely obsessed with the most random ideas. I also loved researching. I remember really early on, I saw these safety pin bracelets that people used to make with little seed beads on them. I would make them. It would take me weeks to make one. I made a whole shop’s worth and would sell them out the front of my house.
I loved garage sales; loved designing the whole shopfront of the garage sale; loved making things from nothing and then selling them or giving them away. I loved that joy of imparting something that didn’t exist onto someone else. I was an avid and obsessive present wrapper. I used to put my hand up at every single birthday.
“I loved making things from nothing and then selling them or giving them away. I loved that joy of imparting something that didn’t exist onto someone else.”
I remember I was completely obsessed with babies and the story of life. My mum used to often read to me about how babies were conceived. Early on I really wanted a sister or sibling and mum told me to make a wish. I remember standing in the garden and wishing for a baby sister. Then mum said she was pregnant!
I was literally a second mum to my sister Charlotte. I was show-and-telling every week of the pregnancy in my prep class. I was telling everyone about what my baby sister was doing – the birth and the whole thing. I was just obsessive about it and loved it.
We had a super happy home and we laughed a lot, but I remember my dad being super strong with us. He worked 7 days a week, and set a really good example around work ethic. Even just teaching me to ride a bike – he would be home at 5.30pm and I’d be on the bike, up the street, up the hill… and he wouldn’t let us have training wheels. He’d hold us by the back of the neck. He is just like a serious old school AFL player. Just extremist in his own way. I was really into long distance running and he would take me and I’d run until I would fall over.
I always did the hardest events – the longest events – not because I was good at them but because nobody else wanted to do them and so I figured that I could win. My dad used to always teach from very early on that it was all about persistence and never giving up. It’s just ingrained behind my eyelids. That is just how it is. It is not optional.
Then, to fast forward slightly, as you went into your early teens and early twenties, how were you as a learner and as an early adult?
I was always super creative and always thought really differently. Really an ‘outside the box’ thinker. I’d often be sent out of the room for questioning and challenging my teachers. I couldn’t just accept that something was the way it was. I really needed to know why. A lot of it really didn’t make sense to me, especially in religious studies. I was quite disruptive in the classroom but when I found a teacher and a subject that I was incredibly connected to it was just amazing. That’s how TOM was born – in my Year 12 classroom.
Was there anything that bothered you or any significant lessons that you had just before TOM started?
I remember I used to get very homesick. One time, we had to go away for a term for school. I argued with the principal and said that I wasn’t going, but was ultimately told to go. I remember being away and thinking that I really had to do something big to make it super fun.
There was this sort of challenge during the camp. If you spotted the placenta hanging out of the cow, you got to deliver it. So I sat there with binoculars and spotted one, and I got to deliver the calf. I was pulling this thing out while eighty students were standing around me. For me, that sort of helped me connect with my passion – the journey of life.
It was an example of resisting something I knew I really needed to do. 90% of the things that I did as a result of founding TOM I often felt incredibly uncomfortable about and didn’t want to do. But I just became good at doing the things I didn’t want to do. I like that feeling now. I like that feeling of discomfort. It keeps me alive. It’s addictive.
There are nice themes in there around this slight rebellion; this fascination with creation and life; and persistence – looking at spaces where people couldn’t go without hard work. So, I know you had this high-school project that started TOM. Tell us a bit about how TOM came into being.
I loved my graphic design teacher. She taught us like we were university students – not spoon feeding us at all. It was very much based around setting us these extreme targets. She was just one of those teachers that really drove you. She told us to go into our local store or supermarket and pick an everyday product. I was really into packaging and the evolution of making things look beautiful and simple.
At the tampon shelf I just could not believe what I saw. Fifteen years ago it was literally just pink and blue boxes. That is all. Everything was the same. I couldn’t believe it. It was this moment of ‘this could be so beautiful’. I was infinitely sketching and drawing, researching and testing different materials. It was exciting.
Was the obsession purely packaging? What was the sense of purpose coming out at that time? Was it just ‘I want to do it’?
The sense of purpose was to make it beautiful. To create that sense of empowerment by providing something that was so beautiful to hold. I wanted people to be able to put a tampon box on a table and not be embarrassed. Really breaking down those taboos around period packaging being so identifiable.
The theme in our first year at RMIT was the environment. We were really challenged to have that lense around the things we were working on. There were open discussions and workshops around how everyone could make their idea more environmentally friendly – packaging, and this and that.
We were talking about the actual tampon and someone asked me the question, ‘what is the tampon made out of?’. I thought it was just cotton. That is where it spiraled into question, after question, after question, after question… At that time, all packs had the composition written on the back of them so it was just a matter flicking it over and seeing polypropylene etc… there was not even ‘cotton’ in these tampons.
That was the moment. I felt frustrated. I actually felt angry. I had been using these products every year – however many thousands – since I was sixteen and thought they were cotton. I could feel my temperature rising. I remember the moment. I felt I had to do something. I saw the problem and felt like nobody else in the world had ever thought about it. I felt a responsibility to ask more questions.
“That was the moment… I saw the problem and felt like nobody else in the world had ever thought about it. I felt a responsibility to ask more questions.”
So the sense of purpose turned from beautiful packaging to recognising an injustice and lack of education around this. It became a mission.
Yes, and that came back to me growing up and being sporty and interested in health & wellness. That was very much the theme for me. It just made sense to me that what is inside this product be good for people. Organic was not really a thing then. It was not even something I was familiar with – the notion of not having chemicals or unnecessary ingredients in products in the home. It was not readily available.
Going into this tiny little health food store for the first time, I remember finding a pack of organic tampons on the bottom shelf, covered in dust. I realised it was completely untouched. There was no awareness about this. Why wasn’t it in Coles? Why wasn’t it in Chemist Warehouse? Why didn’t it look more interesting? Why wasn’t it at eye-level? Why don’t women have these conversations? How does nobody know about this? How does nobody know about this?!
When I started to think differently about what was inside that product, that really pushed me. I then came across this doctor during my research. This is what completely disrupted the cottons concept. I thought it was completely earth shattering. He had discovered the link between toxic shock syndrome and synthetics in tampons. He had been studying that for over thirty years. He was based in New York and I actually went over and met with him, and god he had some horror stories… You know, those early days around competitive brands literally turning up with metal suitcases filled with cash in an attempt to shut businesses down.
I was not allowed to record anything, I was not allowed to use any of his quotes in our work. That was really terrifying to see – that nobody wants to know what is actually going on in this industry. He was the real deal and he just said ‘its true – here is the correlation between these ingredients’.
There has never ever been a case of toxic shock syndrome in an all-cotton tampon. It was just health. To me it was just all about that, and that I could use packaging to tell a story. Nobody really cared about organic at the time, they cared about health. To me that was the equation – raise the awareness on shelf with beautiful packaging and something inside that was uncompromised in its purity and quality. He was a real icon for me in my first five years pursuing this idea.
It sounds like you’ve run the longest, long-distance race of your life to start TOM. Tell us about some of the biggest challenges. What was life like then?
It was incredibly challenging. I was an 19 year-old who should not have had a care in the world. But I couldn’t have had more responsibility at that early stage. Because I had so much responsibility at that time, I needed almost a sense of therapy.
So I was also raising guide dog puppies. I needed a dog sitting at my feet to just ground me and calm me. I loved that process. Everyone asked me if it was traumatic giving away that dog after 12 months. But I gave it a woman who couldn’t see. I did that three times.
Again, there was that strong sense of community and that I was investing in something that felt real & meaningful. All of these themes coming up now are very relatable to the Tooshies and the TOM story. I think I was just very intuitive and I liked to do things that felt aligned, good and right.
Life was full on. There were even a couple of breakdown moments that a twenty-nothing year old probably should not have been experiencing. I remember the night before a Woolworths meeting, the guys that were doing the packaging told me that it would cost $250. I literally could not afford that. My phone would literally not work for three weeks at a time. I didn’t have money and had to suck it up. That was full on. I remember my mum lending me the $250, then it had to come to my house in a taxi. I was standing out the front of my house. There was no more money, and that meeting was the next morning.
It was a constant hustle for a really long time, but there were a few tipping points along the way. One was this big health moment where a woman showed me that she was allergic to plastic. I was lining up for the post office to send some samples to fashion week. I was so excited about that because it was something different. She asked what I was sending off. I explained they were organic tampons. She just said ‘I need to show you something’. She got some sticky tape, and just rubbed it on her hand and it went bright red – she had a rash on her hand. She told me that’s what happens when she uses tampons.
Her sense of freedom completely disappears when she get her period – she can’t swim, she can’t exercise, she can’t actually do the things she loves to do. That was a massive tipping point. I had to do this for her. I had to do this for the women that are allergic, that are uncomfortable. It’s not even about having an allergy. It’s just, if it is going to do that inside of a woman’s body who is hypersensitive, what is it incrementally doing inside all the other bodies of women?
That’s such an incredible moment. To fast forward to today – what is it about TOM that you love? Where do you want it to go?
Thinking about TOM today, TOM is the dream business. It is about women’s empowerment and believing in optimism. I know I’ve just sounded quite pessimistic and it sounds challenging, but I am actually optimistic. It was really hard for a really long time, but I was doing it because of this ultimate vision and purpose.
For a business to be founded on these values, is like a piece of art.
It’s not optional to live those values. That is what TOM is. Women’s health is at the absolute core – purpose and that non-financial success that goes with it. Environmental impact and community impact. Having real conversations about real issues in women’s health, and families and children. You can see all these things coming back into the business.
I couldn’t be prouder of the accessibility that the business has to women. I was obsessed with the purpose-led brands and always looked up to those business and wanted to create that in Australia. I felt like that didn’t exist. So I’m incredibly proud of the brand it has become.
“TOM is the dream business. It is about women’s empowerment and believing in optimism.”
For me, the women of the TOM Co are the pinnacle. I was a complete micro manager. Like crazy – you could never believe it. I continue to be completely blown away. Realising that women care just as much about this business and idea as I do. That feeling is contagious. And for that feeling to have then been spread…
It feels good to do things that feel good. We all connect with that concept of wanting to spend our time doing something meaningful. I couldn’t be more proud, and am sometimes in shock that this is just as exciting to other women as it was to me.
A lot of the dream for me is kind of where I am today. That dream I had of it being in supermarkets and that it would be everywhere. This whole holistic range that touches women and all her important life stages from her first period to the birth of her first child. This beautiful brand that takes women, children and their families on a journey. A brand that still takes my breath away. Oh god this is good.
It was also about creating a sense of freedom for me to be able to have children and be present with my children. My mum was around when I was growing up and I felt like that was a great privilege. But she never had financial independence. I remember her often talking about that as a big challenge in our house. I wanted that. I wanted to be able to feel an equal. Make equal decisions and also be able to have freedom and choice.
I want that for all of my team. That is the cool thing about owning a business – you can set the rules, and you can set them in a way that really challenges the status quo. Why does business have to be done five days a week, the way that its always done, that is potentially uninspiring? Let’s just change it up. Let’s learn and let’s do it in a way that is conducive to the new evolution of business.
Now TOM actually falls into a category of business that is somewhere other than the mainstream – you fall into a category that is very important, mindful and purpose-led. All of that was just a product of me doing what felt instinctively right the whole way along and not every budging on my values. When I did, bad things happened.
I remember in that moment feeling super proud and connected to something that was so much bigger than a business that just made money. It was never ever about just making money – I mean it has to commercially, to make things work and to have that sense of continuity and independence – but to feel like you are part of this collective of businesses that are actually moving the forefront of what the economic face of business looks like is really cool. We can actually totally pull strings on the way that women are seen in the workplace and the way that we measure success in businesses. TOM is and can be the example of it.
“That is the cool thing about owning a business – you can set the rules. You can set them in a way that really challenges the status quo… Let’s just change it up. Let’s learn and let’s do it in a way that is conducive to the new evolution of business.”
Sitting in this room today, I am really proud. It is a dream business. It really is. I am incredibly proud of that, and my team – they have made it what it is today. I started and they have really maintained the momentum and will continue to. I am so excited that we are not even close to reaching our full potential. We are just near a tipping point but still only have just over two percent of the market.
The overall vision is to have a dent in the world. Doesn’t matter where my gravestone goes up – I want TOM to just go. To be an infinite concept of something that keeps moving and rolling with the cycles of life, women’s lives and their families’ lives. It’s going to do that and it’s doing that.
There are a couple of things to hold onto forever and in twenty years time I want to walk through our office and it be a biiiiiiiig vagina (the room erupts with laughter). I just want it to be normal! For periods to be so normalised. I just want them to be normal for my children, for their daughters, for their daughters. For men too. For my son. It just should be normal – it’s where life comes from. It’s a normal thing that happens to most of us. A lot of good things come from it and if it doesn’t we need to talk about why. To have conversations around the way a woman’s body should flow. Tooshies comes from that – you’ve got to have a period to have a child. So it’s all very much interconnected.
“I want TOM Co. to be an infinite concept of something that keeps moving and rolling with the cycles of life, women’s lives and their families’ lives.”
TOM is a BCorp. The values are ingrained into the business. You can’t change them. We are audited on those values every year and it’s up to us to live them because it won’t be a very fun place to work if they are not there. I want TOM to be the most breathlessly exciting place to work. I want it to be the most incredibly fun culture. Everyone talks about the Google culture and what it is like to work there… putting forward ideas, ideas generation and following that through. Everyone has an opportunity to do what they want to do. Let’s craft that space.
You spend more time in a career than you do doing anything else. It shouldn’t just be called a career – that’s life. So let’s think about how we want that to feel and what we want that to look like. As you say, connect with everyone’s why. In twenty years time I’d love to measure the impact we are having internally and on all the women and children in the community. I want that number to just be completely enormous and mind-blowing. To know as well that number represents real impact – making people healthier and leaving a positive impact on the next generation.