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.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.