The first time I visit the “ass-kissing booth” at Butt-Con, the bizarre marketing party for entrepreneur Miki Agrawal’s latest venture, the ass asks me to kiss it. The booth is pinstriped and flimsy, a gag on the more chaste version you’d find at a country fair: A self-described “friend of Miki’s” is on her knees with a plush butt framing her face, holding the floppy appendage up to me. “Just the tip?” she asks. I decline.
The second time I visit the booth, a few hours into the event, Agrawal is with me, and she clarifies to this person dressed up as a butt that actually, the kiss isn’t literal—the ass is supposed to “kiss up” to me. Dutifully, the friend gazes up at me and tells me how pretty I am, what an excellent fashion sense I have, how great my vibes are, and that I’m the best person who ever walked the earth. I tell her only one of those things is potentially true. Agrawal turns to me and sets in on the pitch—the reason she’s packed a hundred-odd people into a Midtown loft to take ass selfies and nod sagely to advice about butt sex—which is that we have all been “deeply indoctrinated” to believe toilet paper is the answer, and Agrawal is going to make money reeducating us. Through her company, Tushy, she’s going to make the bidet sexy—she cites the iPhone as a design inspiration—and bust through our Puritanical squeamishness when it comes to talking about shit. “People are so uncomfortable talking about it,” she says. “There’s been no innovation.”
Agrawal is going to accomplish this, ostensibly, by doing what’s she done in the past—by being a gifted marketer who reimagines ordinary products as subversive social acts—without letting her penchant for boundary-crossing and “subversion” in the workplace slow her down again. She’s also going to rebrand herself as someone who, at her former company Thinx, was simply too revolutionary of a boss to be understood by the haters and the prudes. Which is why, earlier this month, members of the media and owners of Tushy’s “millennial” brand of bidet received an odd, pun-laden invitation to something called Butt-Con, the “inaugural butt-stuff convention,” promising an “immersive, interactive convention for the like-behinded.”
Less of a conference than a start-up party, pegged vaguely to butt stuff, the event took place on the sweaty fourth floor of midtown high-rise. A DJ spun the usual ass anthems while a handful of attendees learned how to twerk in a small wood-floored room. An art installation featuring a toilet sat next to vendors selling supplements for cleaner colon health. A Tushy-branded blow-up ass rose above the crowd, kissing the low ceiling; the porn star Asa Akira held a panel encouraging more comfortable anal sex—it’s about communication—while the 83-year-old Hattie Wiener, of the TLC show Extreme Cougar Wives, milled around squinting in gold and lace.
Like a lot of these sorts of things, Butt Con was mostly an opportunity to get people to pay a cover charge for the pleasure of Instagramming some marketing stunts. It was also party full of people desperately trying to believe that a panel about securing VC funding was completely at home next to a thumping sound system and a self-consciously debaucherous vibe.
When the founder, peering out from under her massive signature hat, asked from the small main stage where the investors were at, no one hooted. “They must be learning to twerk,” she laughed. Agrawal wore a skirt over a green leotard cut high up her hips; the back of the skirt didn’t exist. A number of guests told me they were counting the days until Burning Man. Off to the side of the stage, a group of women explained to me that jade eggs had been woefully misunderstood. “There’s no space in the medical establishment for talking about the benefits of pleasure,” one told me. Every time Agrawal crossed the room, she was mobbed by people asking for advice, and a selfie.
It wouldn’t be quite right to describe Tushy as a comeback for Agrawal, who
in 2017 left her position as CEO (and “She-e-o”) of Thinx, the period-underwear company she co-founded five years ago. But there was a brief fall: In the spring of 2017, a number of outlets—this one included—published stories relaying the allegations of Thinx employees, who described sexual harassment, a culture of toxicity and fear, low pay, and a lack of a formal maternity leave policy or opportunity for advancement. At the time, Agrawal spoke frequently at conferences on women’s’ issues and social entrepreneurship, and the company’s marketing appealed to the idea that a female founder introducing a period-adjacent product was a revolutionary social act, designed to remedy women’s shame. The stories about what it was like to actually work under Agrawal coalesced around this particular contradiction: That someone riding on her reputation as an innovative female entrepreneur and advancing her business through a nebulous product-as-ideology feminism would be, in reality, practicing among the oldest form of hostility in the workplace. As one former employee told Racked, there was significant cognitive dissonance between Agrawal’s public and private persona: “You’ll meet people who just idolize her... But it is kind of hard to hear people be like, ‘She’s my feminist hero!’”
In the weeks that followed, as reported by The Cut, Thinx’s former director of marketing filed a sexual harassment complaint against Agrawal with the City of New York Commission on Human Rights that included an allegation of groping. Other employees described an uneven power dynamic and a culture of sexual openness that became aggressive and uncomfortable. At the time Agrawal dismissed most of the complaints, insisting her comments were taken out of context and saying employees had been fine with her actions at the time. The founder was demoted to “chief vision officer,” then parted ways with Thinx completely midway through the year. By July of 2017, a few months later, the complaint had been settled under undisclosed circumstances, Agrawal had a book deal, and she’d begun to focus her efforts on Tushy, the bidet startup the serial entrepreneur had founded in 2014. A seed funding round of half a million dollars, announced on March 3rd, 2017, preceded Thinx’s negative press by less than a week.
Agrawal has generally maintained that her enlightened, taboo-busting ethos was simply misunderstood by her employees and the general public. If there was any failure on her part, it was moving too fast and breaking too many things, an easy narrative for the tech-adjacent industry surrounding her to absorb. Thinx should have had an HR department; the press couldn’t resist the temptation to take down a successful woman; some jilted employees were out for money. “If you had walked into that office you would have seen it was unlike any other workplace,” her husband Andrew tells me. “It was inspiring,” he said, adding that “the issue is resolved.” At Tushy, Agrawal is the chief creative officer, not She-E-O, free to ideate and perform without the interruption of more intense personnel-related tasks. “I’m surrounding myself with a lot of senior leadership,” she says, during a brief interview next to the ass-kissing booth.
Her book, Disrupt-Her, focuses on Agrawal’s jargony brand of vaguely feminist social entrepreneurship, describing “lit paths”—nonlinear career paths—and encouraging women to think of money as “made-up energy exchange in a physical form.” One can’t help but wonder if Agrawal’s former employees, who described chronic low pay at Thinx, also think of salaries as vibes made concrete. In January, as part of a small promotional tour, she held an event at a co-working space in Manhattan where her life coach interviewed her onstage about the “darkest time” of her life. The scandal, she insinuated, was really the result of a few employees who weren’t committed enough to other women: “There were a few people that needed to be restructured out that were kind of wearing the feminist T-shirts and the vagina necklaces but were singing a different tune, culturally, for the business,” she said. Around the same time, she invited members of the press to have dinner at her home. As part of the programming, she made them dance “sensually” and as if they were “three years old,” which, to this reporter at least, sounds like a lot to give in exchange for access to a source. Rehabilitative profiles appeared in Glamour and the New York Post. She’s been working on her messaging, a member of her staff says.
Which is, at its core, what Butt-Con is about: Surrounded by friends, admirers, and bidet-owners, the euphemistic language of personal growth Agrawal has adopted to describe her past is honored—it is, after all, the dominant mode of communication in the industry at large, where every idea is an earth-shattering disruption of societal norms and every mistake an opportunity to pivot. Agrawal is interviewed onstage along with Layla Martin, a tantric sex expert, by Mark Fisher, a boutique fitness instructor. “As female founders, you guys are so, so incredibly brave,” he says. “What challenges have you faced?” Agrawal takes the question sideways: She laments how few female role models she’s had in her life. She speaks briefly of the challenge of learning to “get shit done” as a woman and still be “juicy.”
It’s a slight-of-hand that centers Agrawal’s mistakes—of being too “juicy,” perhaps—around the broader issues women face, which works just as well for an entrepreneur’s personal brand as it does for a company. Thinx’s success as a line of free-bleed underwear and its fight with the MTA over “controversial” subway advertisements gained notoriety by invoking the “double standards” women face. When, in 2016, Agrawal received backlash after telling an interviewer she had only recently become a feminist, she countered by asking “the women in the media” to “support other women” and stop writing stories that were “low vibrational” to get ahead. Agrawal’s former employees, she has inferred, were wearing the branded feminist swag but weren’t feminist enough to comprehend her particular brand of “inspiring” and “body-positive” female leadership; the media latched on to the story because she’s a woman and they couldn’t pass the story up. Thinx does donate “some funds” to women in Africa, but none of these words really have any meaning. Brands can’t be feminist: They’re all trying to sell you shit, whether it’s a bidet or a book or a ticket to a talk at TEDX.
In startup time, two years is a decade, and if you are an executive beset by a scandal, you could do worse than be among the forgetful optimists and paradigm-disruptors of the young tech scene. Agrawal “can’t talk” about Thinx—elsewhere she’s suggested this is for legal reasons—but she does say it was “so long ago.”
“In the past, we were all just trying to figure it out,” says the founder, now 40. “We were all very young.”