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
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Dear Armchair Psychologist,
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