Nadya Okamoto's bio at age 22 is the stuff of lofty childhood daydreams. A once-homeless teen in Portland, she founded an internationally known nonprofit at 16, authored a highly regarded book, and will soon graduate from Harvard.
She's been the face of an Adidas shoe campaign for women's empowerment, was named an influential figure by such magazines as Forbes and Bloomberg Businessweek, ran for city council in Cambridge, Mass., during college—Okamoto was everywhere, doing everything.
Okamoto found the inspiration for her Portland-based nonprofit, Period, during long bus routes through Old Town to private Catlin Gabel School in 2014, when she spoke with houseless women struggling to find menstrual products.
She writes in her book, Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement, that the women's stories "stirred something in me." She adds, "I felt a sense of duty to these women."
Okamoto then launched a one-woman quest, visiting homeless shelters and pushing them to provide menstrual products.
"From what I could tell at the time, no one else was talking about the need for period products," Okamoto writes in her book. "I felt like I had something new to offer the world and a duty to speak up. I felt empowered."
Period, which provides menstrual products to homeless women and educates about period equity through a system of chapters, grew quickly. As of 2018, it had annual revenues of $420,000.
But Okamoto's ascent ended this summer in an Internet firestorm.
Last month, Ileri Jaiyeoba, a New York City period activist, wrote an article on Medium accusing Okamoto of "misleading and coercing" her.
A swell of activist voices joined Jaiyeoba's, alleging Okamoto routinely muscled out Black and brown activists, monopolized resources, and took credit for other people's work.
"Have they exploited people? Yes," Jaiyeoba tells WW. "Have they erased other activists? Yeah."
Many critics also accused Okamoto of inflating her résumé by exaggerating her own housing insecurity.
Okamoto did not respond to requests for comment. In a long public apology she posted June 25 after Jaiyeoba's criticism, she admitted she had "caused harm" and said she "deeply apologizes to those I have silenced or invalidated over the years."
After the backlash, Period severed ties with its founder.
"In order to rebuild Period, we have terminated our contract with Nadya and called for an independent review," read a July 2 statement from Period's board.
Period's executive director, Michela Bedard, tells WW it has no contractual or financial ties remaining with Okamoto and that it's been "a difficult and embarrassing time." She says the backlash has affected the amount of menstrual products donated by corporate partners.
Despite pushing Okamoto out, Period finds itself on shaky ground as activists and chapters continue to voice concerns about the organization and Okamoto. More than 50 of Period's purported 750 chapters have decided to split with the organization, Bedard says.
"Period should not be any single face or story and is committed to structural changes that will better collaborate with and amplify the incredible work done by fellow activists," says Bedard.
But critics say that isn't enough, and want the nonprofit to dissolve.
"When the inside of your organization has been this toxic space, how much of that is actually good?" says Jaiyeoba. "Does it matter the good you've done when it's come at a cost?"
Jaiyeoba first met Okamoto at a conference when they were both 16. Okamoto had recently founded her nonprofit, and Jaiyeoba planned to create a period equity organization, too. She looked up to Okamoto, because her personal narrative had strong parallels to Jaiyeoba's.
"Nadya is a very enchanting person, a lot of people are drawn to her because of her story," says Jaiyeoba, who graduated from New York University this year. "She's inspiring, it's easy to be drawn her."
Over the next year, Jaiyeoba tells WW, she showed interest in partnering with Period but was later caught off guard when Okamoto insisted that Jaiyeoba had signed a contract that wouldn't allow Jaiyeoba to register her own startup as a nonprofit. Instead, the contract deemed her organization a chapter of Period.
Weeks later, after Okamoto mentioned Jaiyoba's organization in an interview and claimed it as a Period affiliate, Jaiyeoba asked her to stop. Okamoto sent her a November 2016 message, which Jaiyeoba shared with WW, that read, "We're just noticing your model is essentially the exact replica and it developed once we provided our toolkit to you."
The educational toolkits are given exclusively to Period chapters through a password-protected portal. Jaiyeoba says the chapter model is a way for Period to subsume other activists so it doesn't have to compete with them for resources.
Manju Bangalore runs the Eugene-based menstrual nonprofit Operation Period. She says, for a brief time in 2018, Period gave products to Operation Period but counted those metrics as their own: "It was like we were just distributors for them," Bangalore said. Period later refused to routinely provide product for Bangalore's nonprofit if it didn't become a chapter.
That type of competitive behavior, says Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a New York author and lawyer who's helped eliminate sales taxes on menstrual products in 10 states, is an anomaly.
"Try to picture another movement where somebody has named themselves the movement, threw their face all over everything and said, 'I am the sole storyteller,'" says Wolf-Weiss. "People have this feeling of being gaslit or ignored in pursuit of the next award, the next magazine picture."
Baedard says Period is conducting a full internal audit, including of its chapters and partnerships. "Period is revisiting all our programs to ensure we are working collaboratively, closely and in true support of young activists, whether they are a Period chapter or another organizations," she says. "We have much work to do."
In a 2019 talk show appearance, Okamoto told the hosts she felt as if "we needed a book to claim that this movement is real. It's not just me and some friends getting together on the weekend putting together period packs anymore, but we're a real national movement."
But activists say it was a real movement long before Okamoto arrived. "They took all of the ideas that so many people have spent many years evolving and refining…and they slapped it in their own manifesto," says Weiss-Wolf.
During interviews, Nadya would use the term "legally homeless" to describe her experience. After her and Okamoto's fallout, Jaiyeoba says she learned that Okamoto's definition of homelessness was living with family friends for several months. That's also the federal definition of homelessness. But critics still say she was being disingenuous.
"The kind of homeless-to-girl-boss thing is so toxic in a way, you make people believe you pulled yourself up from your bootstraps," says Jaiyeoba. "So when you put on a façade just to make yourself sound better, to market yourself, it's messed up."
Last month, Okamoto apologized for "inaccurately [characterizing] my situation as anything more than it was." But, she added, "it was indeed traumatizing for me as a young woman."
Two local chapter leaders worry backlash against Okamoto is detracting from the core of the movement.
"We don't want passion to die for this cause because of these allegations," says Aishwarya Marathe, a former chapter leader at Arts & Communications Magnet Academy in Beaverton.
"When you're fighting for something like menstrual rights, you want to get as big as possible in order to serve your mission," says Lincoln High School chapter leader Avery Hellberg.
In her book, Okamoto says she's not in period equity "for the money or the recognition." She dismissed the prospect of competition posed by similar nonprofits.
"I don't think that there should be any sort of competition between different mobilized groups working toward the same goal," she wrote. "I mean, aren't we all on the same team?"