People 08 June 2018
As a child, the toy aisle is a place full of excitement and wonder. From action figures to Barbie dolls, kids make their biggest and most pressing decisions between these shelves. Rupa Parekh, the founder of Umani Studio, knows this better than most.
The Northwestern University alum was a new mom when she discovered how harmful the lack of cultural representation in the toy industry is. Roaming stores and finding almost nothing that her kids would be able to identify with ignited a desire within her to create something beyond herself.
Leading by example, Parekh left her old job behind to start Umani Studios, named after her two kids, Uma and Niko. With products like 'The Goddess Power Tower' and 'Hindu Deity Flashcards,' the company mission is to create beautiful yet classic toys, tools, and media that can introduce aspects of Indian culture to new audiences. SWAAY sat down with the mom of two to find out what inspired her incredible mission and what she has planned for the future.
1. What made you come up with Umani?
As an avid traveler and second generation Indian-American married to a Turkish-American, I realized when I became a mother that there weren't many options for multicultural toys. In fact, when I did the research I realized the $100B toy industry is out of touch. Of the top 20 categories in toys, none of them relate to ethnicity, culture or identity. Yet, 50 percent of kids in the US by 2020 will be of a non-white ethnicity. We launched our first product line in November 2016 called Jai Jai Hooray, which re-imagines aspects of India's diverse cultures with Flashcards + The Goddess Power Tower.
I believe that if we want more diversity in the boardroom it starts on the toy shelf and that's why I started this company. We look forward to expanding and including other cultures/ethnicities to help raise the next generation of global citizens.
2. Was it hard to get funding to start a company?
So far we’ve bootstrapped the business. But even to invest my own money, it took years before I could dedicate myself full-time to the vision. I waited until I had a long enough runway to really give the business a shot. I didn’t want to feel rushed. Also, with two kids, we have to be a bit more cautious about our rainy day savings.
3. What challenges did you face when starting the company?
“Culture” is a very personal, subjective and sensitive topic. The last thing we want to do is offend, dilute or upset anyone. At the same time, we’re trying to put a fresh spin on tradition so we need latitude to be innovative. Our approach is to be hell-bent on talking to customers and accepting all input as a gift. We listen to everyone!
4. Why do you think there hasn’t been a diverse choice of toys in the past?
If there aren’t meaningful options on the shelf and marketing dollars spent, there won’t be enough data around buying behavior to warrant more product development.
Demographic trends have changed. More people are part of mixed marriages, they are traveling more and if they aren’t physically moving, they are watching content online and on TV exposing them to more parts of the world. Despite some political narratives and agendas, I do believe more folks consider themselves to be global citizens and are curious about other cultures. Umani believes that if we make content that is engaging and beautifully simple, we can start a dialogue with families and teach empathy all over the world. We don’t have all of the answers. This will be a bottom-up movement.
5. Is it hard to juggle a family and a business?
Yes! But I wouldn’t have it any other way. To be a good mom, I have to feel like I’m giving life--and for me, that includes work--my best shot. My mom started her small business when I was six months. Her capacity to take on multiple efforts at once and thrive has been an inspiration. She has played a large role in defining what “mother” means to me and that has largely meant master juggler. I’m still learning!
6. What is your main goal for Umani?
We want to make cultural learning irresistible and that can be achieved that through so many formats--not just toys. We also want to expand beyond South Asian culture. Families from so many diverse backgrounds are searching for tools and we want to help them.
7. What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Watching videos of kids making up games and songs about our products. Talking to parents who say that we’re giving them tools to start new traditions. And the best of all--shipping wholesale orders to places like Trinidad. There are corners of the South Asian and Hindu diaspora that have very little access to cultural resources. We’re truly delivering on our mission when we reach these communities.
8. Why do you think diversity is such an issue in the toy market?
Kids, especially babies, don’t think about diversity. They just want to play, make and learn. It’s colors, patterns, motion and story that will enchant them. Perhaps by that logic, major toy brands and retailers think, if little ones aren’t asking for multicultural toys, why bother?
We believe that parents are our customers too—specifically mom. She tends to be the steward of culture and she needs better resources to play that role.
9. Is it hard to go back and forth from Houston to New York? Where do you spend more time?
I spent almost 15 years living and working in NYC. While we spend more time in Houston, you will never have to twist my arm to go to NYC. My visits are like battery charges.
10. Who is your biggest inspiration?
I already mentioned my mom, so can I give you another?
I’m inspired by women who live their life as though they have 14 arms. The capacity of superwomen who balance demanding workloads, nurture kids and marriages, get involved with the community and somehow stay healthy during it all is mind-blowing. It actually inspired the creation of our second product, The Goddess Power Tower. To introduce it we did a series on Instagram where we profiled 9 real-life goddesses for each day of the Hindu festival, Navratri. Each of those women are inspirations to me.
11. What advice do you have for girls who hope to be CEOs one day?
First, I have to say that our culture today glorifies startup CEOs and it’s a shame. There is a lot of hardship, loneliness and vulnerability that can come with building a company from scratch. As far as I’m concerned, I’m the Founder of a venture. I don’t need to play CEO right now...we’re just hatching.
But if you’re trying to figure out if you have entrepreneurial grit, I recommend throwing yourself into as many situations professionally and personally where the weight of many burdens is on your shoulders and the stakes are high. Did you like having your hands in everything? Did the multi-tasking give you whiplash or did it energize you? Did you love the marketing aspects and feel drained by the logistics and operations? Do you like to manage people?
Of course you will round out your skillset with a team when your business scales, but there will be a portion of time when you are doing the lionshare by yourself. Think hard about these questions and give yourself permission to be a fantastic subject matter expert first.
3 Min Read
With a lack of certainty surrounding the future, being and feeling healthy may help bring the security that you need during these unpredictable times.
When it comes to your health, there is a direct relationship between nutrition and physical activity that play an enormous part in physical, mental, and social well-being. As COVID-19 continues to impact almost every aspect of our lives, the uncertainty of the future may seem looming. Sometimes improvisation is necessary, and understanding how to stay healthy and fit can significantly help you manage your well-being during these times.
Tip 1: Communicate with your current wellness providers and set a plan
Gyms, group fitness studios, trainers, and professionals can help you to lay out a plan that will either keep you on track through all of the changes and restrictions or help you to get back on the ball so that all of your health objectives are met.
Most facilities and providers are setting plans to provide for their clients and customers to accommodate the unpredictable future. The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C. An enormous amount is on the table for this coming fall and winter; if your gym closes again, what is your plan? If outdoor exercising is not an option due to the weather, what is your plan? Leaving things to chance will significantly increase your chances of falling off of your regimen and will make consistency a big problem.
The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C.
Tip 2: Stay active for both mental and physical health benefits
The rise of stress and anxiety as a result of the uncertainty around COVID-19 has affected everyone in some way. Staying active by exercising helps alleviate stress by releasing chemicals like serotonin and endorphins in your brain. In turn, these released chemicals can help improve your mood and even reduce risk of depression and cognitive decline. Additionally, physical activity can help boost your immune system and provide long term health benefits.
With the new work-from-home norm, it can be easy to bypass how much time you are spending sedentary. Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity. Struggling to find ways to stay active? Start simple with activities like going for a walk outside, doing a few reps in exchange for extra Netflix time, or even setting an alarm to move during your workday.
Tip 3: Start slow and strong
If you, like many others during the pandemic shift, have taken some time off of your normal fitness routine, don't push yourself to dive in head first, as this may lead to burnout, injury, and soreness. Plan to start at 50 percent of the volume and intensity of prior workouts when you return to the gym. Inactivity eats away at muscle mass, so rather than focusing on cardio, head to the weights or resistance bands and work on rebuilding your strength.
Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity.
Tip 4: If your gym is open, prepare to sanitize
In a study published earlier this year, researchers found drug-resistant bacteria, the flu virus, and other pathogens on about 25 percent of the surfaces they tested in multiple athletic training facilities. Even with heightened gym cleaning procedures in place for many facilities, if you are returning to the gym, ensuring that you disinfect any surfaces before and after using them is key.
When spraying disinfectant, wait a few minutes to kill the germs before wiping down the equipment. Also, don't forget to wash your hands frequently. In an enclosed space where many people are breathing heavier than usual, this can allow for a possible increase in virus droplets, so make sure to wear a mask and practice social distancing. Staying in the know and preparing for new gym policies will make it easy to return to these types of facilities as protocols and mutual respect can be agreed upon.
Tip 5: Have a good routine that extends outside of just your fitness
From work to working out, many routines have faltered during the COVID pandemic. If getting back into the routine seems daunting, investing in a new exercise machine, trainer, or small gadget can help to motivate you. Whether it's a larger investment such as a Peloton, a smaller device such as a Fitbit, or simply a great trainer, something new and fresh is always a great stimulus and motivator.
Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine.
Just because you are working from home with a computer available 24/7 doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your entire day to work. Setting work hours, just as you would in the office, can help you to stay focused and productive.
A good night's sleep is also integral to obtaining and maintaining a healthy and effective routine. Adults need seven or more hours of sleep per night for their best health and wellbeing, so prioritizing your sleep schedule can drastically improve your day and is an important factor to staying healthy. Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine. This can help the rest of your day feel normal while the uncertainty of working from home continues.
Tip 6: Focus on food and nutrition
In addition to having a well-rounded daily routine, eating at scheduled times throughout the day can help decrease poor food choices and unhealthy cravings. Understanding the nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy can help you stay more alert, but they do vary from person to person. If you are unsure of your suggested nutritional intake, check out a nutrition calculator.
If you are someone that prefers smaller meals and more snacks throughout the day, make sure you have plenty of healthy options, like fruits, vegetables and lean proteins available (an apple a day keeps the hospital away). While you may spend most of your time from home, meal prepping and planning can make your day flow easier without having to take a break to make an entire meal in the middle of your work day. Most importantly, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
Tip 7: Don't forget about your mental health
While focusing on daily habits and routines to improve your physical health is important, it is also a great time to turn inward and check in with yourself. Perhaps your anxiety has increased and it's impacting your work or day-to-day life. Determining the cause and taking proactive steps toward mitigating these occurrences are important.
For example, with the increase in handwashing, this can also be a great time to practice mini meditation sessions by focusing on taking deep breaths. This can reduce anxiety and even lower your blood pressure. Keeping a journal and writing out your daily thoughts or worries can also help manage stress during unpredictable times, too.
While the future of COVI9-19 and our lives may be unpredictable, you can manage your personal uncertainties by focusing on improving the lifestyle factors you can control—from staying active to having a routine and focusing on your mental health—to make sure that you emerge from this pandemic as your same old self or maybe even better.