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.
Business entities can be defined as the corporate, tax and legal structures which an organization chooses to officially follow at the time of its official registration with the state authorities. In total, there are fifteen different types of business entities, which would be the following.
- Sole Proprietorship
- General Partnership
- Limited Partnership or LP
- Limited Liability Partnership or LLP
- Limited Liability Limited Partnership or LLLP
- Limited Liability Company or LLC
- Professional LLC
- Professional Corporation
- Nonprofit Organization
- Cooperative Organization
As estates, municipalities and nonprofits do not concern the main topic here, the following discussions will exclude the three.
Importance of the State: The Same Corporate Structure Will Vary from State to State
All organizations must register themselves as entities at the state level in United States, so the rules and regulations governing them differ quite a bit, based on the state in question.
What this means is that a Texas LLC for example will not operate under the same rules and regulations as an LLC registered in New York. Also, an LLC in Texas can have the same name as another company that is registered in a different state, but it's not advisable given how difficult it could become in the future while filing for patents.
To know more about such quirks and step-by-step instructions on how to start an LLC in Texas, visit howtostartanllc.com, and you could get started with the online process immediately. The information and services on the website are not just limited to Texas LLC organizations either, but they have a dedicated page for guiding fresh entrepreneurs through the corporate tax structures in every state.
Sole Proprietorship: Default for Freelancers and Consultants
There is only one owner or head in a sole proprietorship, and that's what makes it ideal for one-man businesses that deal with freelance work and consulting services. Single man sole proprietorships are automatic in nature, therefore, registration with the state is unnecessary.
Sole proprietorships are also suited to a degree for singular teams such as a small construction crew, a group of handymen, or even miniature establishments in retail. Also, this puts the owner's personal financial status at jeopardy.
Due to the fact that a sole proprietorship entity puts all responsibilities for paying taxes and returning loans, it directly jeopardizes the sole proprietor's personal belongings in case of a lawsuit, or even after a failed loan repayment.
This is the main reason why even the most miniature establishments find LLCs to be a better option, but this is not the only reason either. Sole proprietors also find it hard to start their business credit or even get significant business loans.
General Partnership: Equal Responsibilities
The only significant difference between a General Partnership and a Sole Proprietorship is the fact that two or more owners share responsibilities and liabilities equally in a General Partnership, as opposed to there being only one responsible and liable party in the latter. Other than that, they more or less share the same pros and cons.
Registration with the state is not necessary in most cases, and although it still puts the finances of the business owners at risk here, the partnership divides the liability, making it a slightly better option than sole proprietorship for small teams of skilled workers or even small restaurants and such.
Limited Partnership: Active and Investing Partners
A Limited Partnership (LP) has to be registered with a state and whether it has just two or more partners, there are two different types of partners in all LP establishments.
The active partner or the general partner is the one who is responsible and liable for operating the business in its entirety. The silent or investing partner, on the other hand, is the one who invests funds or other resources into the organization. The latter has very limited liability or control over the company's operations.
It's a perfect way for investors to put their money into a sector that they are personally not experienced with, but have access to people who do. From the perspective of the general partners, they have similar responsibilities and liabilities to those in a general partnership.
It's the default strategy for startups to find funding and as long as the idea is sound, it has made way for multiple successful entrepreneurial ventures in the recent past. However, personal liability still looms as a dangerous prospect for the active partners to consider.
Limited Liability Company and Professional LLC
Small businesses have no better entity structure to follow than the LLC, given that it takes multiple good ideas from various corporate structures, virtually eliminating most cons that are inherent to them. Any and all small businesses that are in a position to or are in requirement of signing up with their respective state, usually choose an LLC entity because of the following reasons:
- It removes the dangerous aspect of personal liability if the business falls in debt or is sued for reparations
- The state offers the choice of choosing between corporation and partnership tax slabs
- The limited legalities and paperwork make it suited for small businesses
While more expensive than a general partnership or a sole proprietorship, a professional LLC is going to be a much safer choice for freelancers and consultants, especially if it involves risk of any kind. This makes it ideal for even single man businesses such a physician's practice or the consultancy services of an accountant.
B, C and S-Corporation
By definition, all corporation entities share most of the same attributes and as the term suggests, they're more suited for larger or at least medium sized businesses in any sector. The differences between the three are vast once you delve into the tax structures which govern each entity.
However, the basic differences can be observed by simply taking a look at each of their definitive descriptions, as stated below.
C-Corporation – This is the default corporate entity for large or medium-large businesses, complete with a board of directors, a CEO/CEOs, other executive officers and shareholders.
The shareholders or owners are not liable for debts or legal dispute settlements in a C-Corporation, and they may qualify for lower tax slabs than is possible in any other corporate structure. On becoming big enough, they also have the option to become a publicly traded company, which is ideal for generating growth investments.
B- Corporation – the same rules apply as a C-Corporation, but due to their registered and certified commitment to social and environmental standards maintenance, B-Corporations will have a more lenient tax structure to deal with.
S-Corporation – Almost identical to a C-Corporation, the difference is in scale, as S-Corporations are only meant for small businesses, general partnerships and even sole proprietors. The main difference here is that due to the creation of a pass-through entity, aka a S-Corporation, the owner/owners do not have liability for business debt and legal disputes. They also are not taxed on the corporate slab.
Cooperative: Limited Application
A cooperation structure in most cases is a voluntary partnership of limited responsibilities that binds people in mutual interest - it is an inefficient structure due to the voluntary nature of its legal bindings, which often makes it unsuitable for traditional business operations. Nevertheless, the limited liability clause exempts all members of a cooperative from having personal liability for paying debts and settling claims.
This should clear up most of the confusion surrounding the core concepts and their suitability. In case you are wondering why the Professional Corporation structure wasn't mentioned, then that's because it has very limited applications. Meant for self-employed, skilled professionals or small organizations founded by them, they have less appeal now in comparison to an LLC or an S-Corporation.