This entrepreneur is using science to prove a woman’s menstrual cycle is an advantage, not a burden.
Shara Raqs is a professional dancer, inventor and founder of WOMBneuro.science, a Mind-Body Lab that investigates the neural link between fertility and creativity.
Let’s start with your background. How did you get into science?
Through my interest in art. There is this wonderful book, by one of my favorite authors, called Art and Physics, that explores how artists have often foreshadowed the theories and discoveries of scientists. This is an exciting message because, as a self-taught woman in STEM, it justifies how my life in the arts can result in a breakthrough body of work in the sciences.
As a kid, I always loved science but did not pursue it formally in school because at a certain grade level it started to be taught in only one way, and that one way wasn’t the way my brain processes information. Luckily, curiosity is a major driver for me and I find great delight in observation.
I love that — So, what led you to launch WOMB?
Being a data nerd, I was tracking my own observable cycle data every day. At the time, I was doing it just to avoid hormonal birth control since it had really disrupted my health. Then something amazing happened.
I had a “Eureka” moment at the same time my fertility app showed I had ovulated. From that moment on, I’ve been obsessed with finding patterns between menstrual cycles and mental states. I was not using my fertility tracker for reproductive insights; I was using it to discover the link between my brain and my cycle. And that’s when my original research project began.
I imagined a culture where this neural link between fertility and creativity is revered. Where women experience their period as a muse and not a curse. Women should have access to the same kind of predictive tech as traders in finance or physicians in healthcare to make insight-based, data-driven decisions for their performance, vitality, and well-being.
We’ve had the technology to put a man on the moon for decades, but innovative technology that gives me data-driven insight about my mind-body and wellbeing throughout every life stage of my menstruating years is in its infancy.
I turn 40 this year and after observing mind-body patterns for 70+ cycles I’m not going into the 50s menopausal transition blind. I think original research discovery in preventative cycle care is going to advance women’s health. And this is a future that really excites me. What if when a girl gets her first period, she’s gifted science-based, data-driven insight on the optimal patterns that will enhance her mind-body and wellbeing throughout her menstruating years? She would experience empowerment because she would have an alternative to the “dominant voice” of culture which stereotypes cycles as negative.
I can tell you with confidence that to be hormonal is to be brilliant, is to be emotionally intelligent, is to be totally fierce, is to be beautifully complex, and is to be vital and creative in an embodied and enjoyable way.
To some, the topic of a woman’s menstrual cycle is taboo. What do you say to that?
We must define our bodies and our embodiment for ourselves. This is important because there are a lot of outdated ideas that continue to fuel negative stereotypes and experiential blindness.For example, it was a view in the sciences for a long time that women have concealed ovulation. This makes me chuckle because any menstruating woman could have told these researchers that fertile cervical fluid is an extremely obvious signal that occurs every month when we ovulate. By tracking my own cycle data and reviewing the current neuroscience, I can tell you with confidence that to be hormonal is to be brilliant, is to be emotionally intelligent, is to be totally fierce, is to be beautifully complex, and is to be vital and creative in an embodied and enjoyable way. We are using science to reshape a larger issue — the negative societal construct around cycles, periods, and women’s hormones.
That’s a great answer. So, what is your research focused on?
The psychophysiology of menstrual cycles and fertility. That is a fancy way of saying we investigate the patterns between the mind-body and muse. So, we’re looking at what is happening with cycle phases and the brain, and how these phases are influencing or activating brain states. And we’ve seen that there is a connection.
Fascinating — What is one thing that you’ve learned that all women should know?
Here’s a secret hidden in plain sight. Many women who are naturally cycling are forced to operate and perform in a pattern that is not designed for them. This is our culture’s experiential blindness.
For example, the modern workday is built for optimizing testosterone cycles, not estrogen and progesterone cycles. What I mean by this is that women with periods experience peak performance on an approximate 28-day monthly biorhythm, in partnership with their 24-hour circadian rhythm. But the culture remains blind to our biological reality, so optimizing for the circadian rhythm is all we hear about. In our program, we’ve observed that when a woman becomes aware of her monthly hormonal energy and patterns, she becomes a creative force. Her productivity becomes an outcome of learning how to hone her predictions for perfect timing. (See Daniel H. Pink, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, for insight on biorhythms and peak performance.)
That’s pretty much what WOMB does, we tune women into their body’s perfect timing through predictive technology based on neuroscience and data. For instance, if a woman knows that she is more likely to have a eureka moment during ovulation, she can plan her activities and tasks to support her natural talents for that phase — like launching a design sprint that week or iterating on intellectual property that ultimately adds value to her business.
So, by receiving these type of indicators, women can plan routines that empower and inform them at each stage of their cycle. This is something menstrual cycle trackers are not really doing that well because their focus is on reproduction and symptoms, not the brain science.
Wow — Your work is really inspiring. Who is your inspiration?
I found great inspiration during a recent heartbreak. I almost got engaged to a beautiful man whose love was boundless. I dreamed of being loved like that my whole life, but I had just gotten into an accelerator, received my first grant, was drafting my first patent after making my first research discovery, and designing and developing a new program based on that research. It was really bad timing. I liken it to Bill Gates and the 10dark years, when he said he didn’t take a day off in his 20s because he was building Microsoft. Well, I started my entrepreneurial journey at 33, the prime of my reproductive years, and had no idea the impact this would have on my romantic life.
There really aren’t many female role models to navigate these terrains, so I had to find my solace in science. As I walked away from a great life love, I came across a researcher named Barbara Fredrickson, who wrote a book called Love 2.0. In my heartache, her research discoveries renewed my hope and helped me navigate through that loss. As entrepreneurs, we really don’t have time to stay depressed; we must keep going. And it was Barbara Fredrickson who inspired me to do just that.
Thank you for sharing that. If you could be granted any three wishes, what would they be?
I wish I started tracking my cycle at 14 and not 33! Imagine the insights I’d have. I also wish that I wasn’t born with flat feet; I always longed to be a prima ballerina. My last wish would be for instant skills mastery like in The Matrix. The path to mastery can be long and brutal, but ultimately, it’s worth the hard work.
All great wishes! What is the worst piece of advice you have received? And did you take it?
The worst advice I have ever received is society telling me as a young girl how I should look and feel about myself. As soon as I stopped listening to society’s expectations, I had the courage to, for example, stop chemically straightening my hair because I was no longer feeling bad about all the ways I wasn’t “ideal.”
Now, after decades of practice refusing society’s advice, I find real pleasure in being who I really am, in all the fierce ways I don’t fit the standard, the expectation or the mold. I find this especially supportive now that I am going grey.