Successful businesswoman Ruby Raut – creator of the UK’s first reusable period pants – was once an Open University Environmental Science student who dreamt of a bigger career.
Her own experiences of reusable but unsuitable period products in Nepal, combined with the knowledge gained on her OU degree and experience working in waste management, led to a lightbulb moment that saw her setting up WUKA – Wake Up Kick Ass.
Her brand became a success story overnight. Now aged 32, WUKA is going from strength to strength and Ruby is on a mission to smash taboos and make periods more eco-friendly
“I knew I wanted a bigger career”
Ruby moved from Nepal to the UK in 2010 and began working as an Online Teaching Assistant while studying for a Certificate in Health and Social Care at a London graduate school. Yet she knew she could do more.
“As time went on, I saw all my friends graduating,” she said. “I was smart at school and even had the scholarship to study. All my siblings in Nepal had a degree, and I knew I wanted a bigger career. The Open University was the best opportunity for me – I could work while I studied, which meant I could graduate debt-free. I could also study from home.”
In 2014, Ruby signed up to do a BSc in Environmental Science with The Open University. As she could carry over points from her existing qualifications, Ruby only needed to study for two more years to achieve her degree.
“I was interested in nature and the environment,” she said. “The best part of my degree was the practical study element. During the practical study I met like-minded people and began volunteering at a local sustainability group in St Albans.”
A passion for helping others
On graduating, Ruby planned to find a role in the environmental sector, working within an NGO or similar. She said: “I thought perhaps I could go home to Nepal and work on a project for WaterAid, or go to California and become a forest ranger! But I didn’t instantly find my dream job, so my husband said to start volunteering.”
Ruby then set off on a journey that would eventually lead to her business, although she didn’t know this at the time. One of her volunteer roles was for the Women’s Environmental Network, which involved campaigning about women’s health and rights.
Ruby said: “One day I was telling them about how I used rags from my mum’s old saris as a sanitary product when I was in Nepal. Back home, when you get your period, you can’t stay in the family home as you mustn’t be near your father. Nobody will pass you food by hand – it’s a bit like Covid isolation. After the first one, women must stay away from the kitchen for four days each time they get their period. Because I’d been talking about this, I was asked to work on a pilot project talking to girls about reusable sanitary products.”
Eventually – armed with a community grant from Sainsbury’s – she set up an award-winning project called Food Waste Ninjas educating schools and pupils on food waste, inspired by an OU waste management project she’d been part of.
A lightbulb moment
“Working on Food Waste Ninjas, I realised that if I put my heart and soul into something, people responded. It was then that I started looking into other waste problems – one of which is in disposable sanitary products,” she said.
“In studying for my Environmental Science degree, I’d discovered that more than 200,000 tonnes of tampons and pads were sent to UK landfills every year, contributing to the mounting tide of plastic pollution. I knew something had to change about the way we handled menstruation.
“One day, I was talking about how I would pin my reusable pads into my underwear in Nepal and I suddenly thought ‘Why can’t we stitch fabric into our underwear and make a reusable sanitary item?’ I had a lightbulb moment.”
That night, Ruby – who had never sewed before – bought herself a £60 sewing machine and set to work making and testing prototypes. She researched the market and found there was nothing similar available. She spent weeks sourcing appropriate absorbent fabrics and liaising with manufacturers, before putting her project on Kickstarter. Within two weeks it was fully funded, and WUKA was born. The brand was all about affordable underwear as well as sustainability, smashing taboos and body inclusivity.
After being contacted by a news organisation and doing an interview, she woke up to discover that her brand was being shared by news channels around the world.
“We went viral!” she said. “We sold everything before our first shipment had even arrived in the UK. It was a real baptism of fire into the world of business. It was a long time before we actually had stock in our hands, because it would all sell out on pre-order every time.”
Now WUKA employs 14 staff members, has offices and a warehouse and is stocked online at Wuka.co.uk and in stores like Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Urban Outfitter. Ruby’s husband Dave, who was Senior Product Director at Trainline, has even left his job to work for the brand.
Wuka pants have a carbon footprint that is at least five times lower than disposable pads and tampons – and range from 2XS to 6XL.
“I am so proud to be an OU graduate”
“I was determined to find a job in the subject I studied, I loved my experience of studying with the OU. I am so proud to be an OU graduate. If I hadn’t studied Environmental Science I’d never have set up this purpose-driven business which has become my career,” said Ruby.
“The OU changed me. My determination to do well came from my OU studies as I learnt that you have to put the work in to get the results.
“I now make a difference to the world every day and I am so excited to think I might encourage others to do the same.”
So what’s next for Ruby?
“Who knows what’s next, perhaps an MA. But I’ve always wanted to be a doctor. Maybe in a few years the business will be in a good enough position that I can study again!” she said.
“To any OU students currently in the thick of it, I’d tell them that although joining and graduating from the OU was one of the hardest things I’ve done, it was also one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.
“Remember that you made your decision to join the OU for a reason, and you will achieve your dreams. If you have the passion, determination and resilience for OU study, you can achieve anything you want in life!”