A successful failure.

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Kohler Co.’s kicked off it’s first I-Prize competition in 2018. This now annual innovation incubator invites associates to compete for funds to develop new products and business opportunities addressing environmental or social issues. Jennifer Tarplee and Alyssa Wilterdink competed on one of the inaugural teams and set off a chain reaction with far-reaching business implications. 

“Our basic objective was to help girls in underprivileged countries manage their menstrual health in order to reduce absenteeism and keep them in school,” explained Tarplee, Senior Staff Engineer – Advanced Concept Development for Toilet Engineering. “The natural act of getting a period derails many girls from an education and successful future.”

The team proposed a small device that allows girls to wash and dry reusable menstrual pads at home and a “utility belt” to discretely transport clean and used supplies to school, to the latrine and back home. The pitch impressed the panel of executive judges and was one of three teams awarded incubation funding to further develop their idea. 

“Knowing our experience, knowledge and insights in this space were very limited—particularly as it related to customer and distributor needs in these countries—we knew we needed to recruit some outside help,” said Wilterdink, Product Manager – Artist Editions & Color. 

Armed with the funds and a passion for elevating the female perspective, Tarplee and Wilterdink met with global experts in the menstrual health management space. They explored how they might market their product and to whom, and they took a hard look at where Kohler might participate in the space. 

This is where the project took a sharp detour.  

“As a result of this workshop, we actually made the difficult decisions to drop our product proposal entirely,” said Tarplee. “We discovered that it was not the highest pain point or unmet need, nor our business strength, and we simply wouldn’t be able to make the intended impact.”

Opting to call it quits may have appeared as a failure at first glance, but the project revealed some tremendous successes—turning them into “influencers and educators,” according to Tarplee. 

“We began to stir up real, meaningful conversations around female-centered design and women’s needs in the bathroom,” explained Wilterdink. “The individuals on our team were soon viewed as subject matter experts and business groups began consulting us for feedback.” 

One year after their initial I-Prize pitches, the teams were invited to give an update on their progress to the Executive Management Team meeting. Despite what felt like a failed project, the response was incredibly encouraging. 

“Our presentation was less about our original concept and more a petition to the executive team to encourage woman-centered design across their businesses,” said Wilterdink. “We were blown away to receive a standing ovation and many positive comments, but already seeing action has been the best compliment.”

In a society where the unspoken default is typically male (including in the bathroom), Wilterdink and Tarplee’s team sparked important conversations and began product innovations focused on unmet female needs—as well as the needs of children, people with reduced ability and people of color. 

“We’ve started openly talking about the once-taboo topics of menstruation, and we currently have teams working on products to improve the commercial and residential restroom experiences for women and other demographics,” added Tarplee. “Building better experiences for all starts with actively exploring and understanding diverse needs.”

Moral of the story: Don’t be afraid to fail big. Failure may just hold the path to success.