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.
"Steal the mesh underwear you get from the hospital," a friend said upon learning I was pregnant with my first daughter.
It was the single best piece of advice I received before giving birth in December 2013. My best friend delivered her daughter eight months previously, and she was the first to pass along this shared code among new moms: you'll need mesh underwear for your at-home postpartum recovery, and you can't find them anywhere for purchase. End result: steal them. And tell your friends.
My delivery and subsequent recovery were not easy. To my unexpected surprise, after almost 24 hours of labor, I had an emergency C-section. Thankfully, my daughter was healthy; however, my recovery was quite a journey. The shock to my system caused my bloated and swollen body to need weeks of recovery time. Luckily, I had trusted my friend and followed her instructions: I had stolen some mesh underwear from the hospital to bring home with me.
Unfortunately, I needed those disposable underwear for much longer than I anticipated and quickly ran out. As I still wasn't quite mobile, my mother went to the store to find more underwear for me. Unfortunately, she couldn't find them anywhere and ended up buying me oversized granny panties. Sure, they were big enough, but I had to cut the waistband for comfort.
I eventually recovered from my C-section, survived those first few sleepless months, and returned to work. At the time, I was working for a Fortune 100 company and happily contributing to the corporate world. But becoming a new mom brought with it an internal struggle and search for something “more" out of my life--a desire to have a bigger impact. A flashback to my friend's golden piece of advice got me thinking: Why aren't mesh underwear readily available for women in recovery? What if I could make the magical mesh underwear available to new moms everywhere? Did I know much about designing, selling, or marketing clothing? Not really. But I also didn't know much about motherhood when I started that journey, either, and that seemed to be working out well. And so, Brief Transitions was born.
My quest began. With my manufacturing and engineering background I naively thought, It's one product. How hard could it be? While it may not have been “hard," it definitely took a lot of work. I slowly started to do some research on the possibilities. What would it take to start a company and bring these underwear to market? How are they made and what type of manufacturer do I need? With each step forward I learned a little more--I spoke with suppliers, researched materials, and experimented with packaging. I started to really believe that I was meant to bring these underwear to other moms in need.
Then I realized that I needed to learn more about the online business and ecommerce world as well. Google was my new best friend. On my one hour commute (each way), I listened to a lot of podcasts to learn about topics I wasn't familiar with--how to setup a website, social media platforms, email marketing, etc. I worked in the evenings and inbetween business trips to plan what I called Execution Phase. In 2016, I had a website with a Shopify cart up and running. I also delivered my second daughter via C-section (and handily also supplied myself with all the mesh underwear I needed).
They say, “If you build it, they will come." But I've learned that the saying should really go more like this: “If you build it, and tell everyone about it, they might come." I had a 3-month-old, an almost 3 year old and my business was up and running. I had an occasional sale; however, my processes were extremely manual and having a day job while trying to ship product out proved to be challenging. I was manually processing and filling orders and then going to the post office on Saturday mornings to ship to customers. I eventually decided to go where the moms shop...hello, Amazon Prime! I started to research what I needed to do to list products with Amazon and the benefits of Amazon fulfillment (hint: they take care of it for you).
Fast forward to 2018...
While I started to build this side business and saw a potential for it to grow way beyond my expectations, my corporate job became more demanding with respect to travel and time away from home. I was on the road 70% of the time during first quarter 2018. My normally “go with the flow" 4-year-old started to cry every time I left for a trip and asked why I wasn't home for bedtime. That was a low point for me and even though bedtime with young kids has its own challenges, I realized I didn't want to miss out on this time in their lives. My desire for more scheduling flexibility and less corporate travel time pushed me to work the nights and weekends needed to build and scale my side hustle to a full-time business. If anyone tries to tell you it's “easy" to build “passive" income, don't believe them. Starting and building a business takes a lot of grit, hustle and hard work. After months of agonizing, changing my mind, and wondering if I should really leave my job (and a steady paycheck!), I ultimately left my corporate job in April 2018 to pursue Brief Transitions full-time.
In building Brief Transitions, I reached out to like-minded women to see if they were experiencing similar challenges to my own--balancing creating and building a business while raising children--and I realized that many women are on the quest for flexible, meaningful work. I realized that we can advance the movement of female entrepreneurs by leveraging community to inspire, empower, and connect these trailblazers. For that reason, I recently launched a new project, The Transitions Collective, a platform for connecting community-driven women entrepreneurs.
As is the case with many entrepreneurs, I find myself working on multiple projects at a time. I am now working on a members-only community for The Transitions Collective that will provide access to experts and resources for women who want to leave corporate and work in their business full-time. Connecting and supporting women in this movement makes us a force in the future of work. At the same time, I had my most profitable sales quarter to date and best of all, I am able to drop my daughter off at school in the morning.
Mesh underwear started me on a journey much bigger than I ever imagined. They sparked an idea, ignited a passion, and drove me to find fulfillment in a different type of work. That stolen underwear was just the beginning.