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Enjoying Diversity Through Play

Apr/14/2024 / by Melanie Fourie

Avani Modi Sarkar of Modi Toys makes toys incorporating South Asian cultural elements

South Asian woman holding Indian cultural stuffed toys
Photo courtesy: Avani Modi Sarkar

Avani Modi Sarkar is the co-founder of Modi Toys and also a devoted mother and author. Her steadfast commitment to inclusive toy design, specifically tailored for South Asians and embodying Hindu culture, has garnered her notable award nominations, including the Inc. Female Founders 100 and Forbes Next 1000. A Tory Burch Fellow and recipient of the NJ Family Mompreneur of the Year award, she also advocates diversity in business while crafting engaging play experiences for children. Dive into her SEEMA interview here. 

Please can you tell us a bit about your background?

I immigrated from Ahmedabad to the U.S. as an eight-year-old, without even knowing the [English] alphabet. My parents, with their broken and accented English, were similarly navigating this new chapter with me and my brothers. We were all figuring things out as we went. Unlike my parents, I had the luxury of time on my side. I didn’t have to jump into a job to earn an income or figure out the grueling college application process. Our family of five lived in a one-bedroom apartment for eight years, while my parents and brothers worked multiple jobs and eventually saved up enough to buy their own convenience store. To them, everything could be figured out, a trait I would learn to value much later in life.

Meanwhile, the biggest threat to my joy at the time was my homesickness. I missed India terribly. Luckily, we lived in a part of New Jersey where access to Indian grocery stores, Indian restaurants, Hindu temples, and even Indian festivals was all within close proximity. At home, my parents enforced Gujarati as the primary language. We ate traditional homemade Indian food daily, watched Bollywood movies on bootleg VHS tapes, and were reminded to pray each morning before rushing off to school or work. It didn’t feel like home, but it was the closest thing I had to it. 

What sparked your entrepreneurial journey with Modi Toys?

My parents have always been fairly religious. Their devotion is apparent even today. Like clockwork, they pray each morning for over 10 minutes, visit the temple every Saturday, host and attend kirtans every few months, and sponsor religious events at temples. This has been their way of life for as long as I could remember, and it’s a big part of their identity.

While my brothers and I aren’t nearly as pious, we appreciate the core teachings and values practiced within Hinduism. To be honest though, we took all of this for granted until we were thrust into the driver’s seat as parents. 

Unlike our parents, we are now raising first-generation Indian American kids whose identities won’t be as hyphenated as their immigrant parents’. As we desperately tried to assimilate with the American culture, my parents struggled to ensure we preserved and maintained our Indian roots. My brothers and I now struggle with ensuring our kids are curious and connected to their Indian roots. Sparking curiosity is the key to fostering a lifelong connection. Since so much of our Indian heritage is rooted within the Hindu culture, and given our upbringing, it only felt fitting to begin by creating children’s products that would be loved by all ages. 

Your dedication to inclusive toy design has garnered recognition, including nominations for prestigious awards like the Inc. Female Founders 100 and Forbes Next 1000. How did you come to prioritize inclusivity in your toy designs, and what impact do you hope to make in the industry?

Inclusivity in our toy design wasn’t the priority—it was the very essence of our toy itself. In an aisle filled with stuffed animals, Disney characters, and Barbie dolls, finding a toy like ours—representative of Hinduism—is impossible. We wanted our kids to be able to see their identities reflected in something they do all day, every day: play. We wanted to demonstrate that there is a way to intertwine purpose and play in a meaningful way.

The biggest impact I’m hoping to make is in the minds of families who uphold traditional views about how their kids may potentially misbehave or mistreat our plush toys. Yes, the possibility of your two-year-old dropping or throwing our plush toy does exist. However, we view instances like those as teachable moments. Have a conversation with your kids at eye level and explain to them the difference between right and wrong, and the difference between these toys and other toys. 

You’ve received recognition for your contributions to both business and family as a Tory Burch Fellow and NJ Family Mompreneur of the Year. How do you balance the demands of entrepreneurship with your personal life?

The true juggling act began once I became a mom of three and found myself short-tempered and constantly struggling to find “me” time. I felt consumed by trying to fulfil the needs of others before mine, professionally or personally. I realized I needed to create the proper “work environment” to maximize my productivity and reduce distractions. I began delegating, starting with a full-time nanny who alleviated my cooking, feeding, and bath time responsibilities. This helped reduce my mental load and give me more time to focus on Modi Toys. Also, every night, my older two kids (ages four and seven) do a gratitude ritual in which we each share our favorite part of the day. 

Diversity in business is a central theme in your work. Could you share some strategies you’ve implemented to champion diversity within your company and the broader business community?

I’m proud of the repertoire we’ve built over the past five years, because not only does it encompass play-related information, but it goes well beyond that.

About four years ago, I started a series called Theology Thursdays out of sheer curiosity. As a mom, I found myself looking at our Indian holidays and traditions through a new lens. I didn’t simply want to follow the rituals without having any understanding behind their reasoning. I became really interested in getting to the heart of “why,” because I knew that it was only a matter of time until my kids would begin asking me these very questions. “Why do we touch our elders’ feet?” “What are the five days of Diwali?”, etc. Admittedly, I didn’t know the answer to these seemingly basic questions. So, in a quest to find out, I decided to also begin sharing my learnings with the Modi Toys community online.

“Modi-ern Family” is another online series that I launched about three years ago in an effort to highlight the various types of multicultural families and dynamic lifestyles found within our Indian communities. The goal was simply to demonstrate that “love is love,” no matter how you’re starting or growing your family.

Lastly, we also began co-hosting our Diwali Play Date, now in its third year, to provide young kids with an immersive experience. We invite families for an afternoon of storytelling, ladoo making, Indian dancing, diya painting, gift wrapping, and rangoli making for a sensory overload of all things Diwali. 

What challenges have you faced as a female entrepreneur, and how have you overcome them?

I’m not sure if the comparison trope only runs rampant with women, but I often find myself to be my biggest enemy. I have to constantly remind myself that my worth isn’t based on the events I get invited to, the number of PR packages I receive, or any of those other vanity metrics. When these insecurities creep up every so often, I try to reflect on the meaningful difference I’ve made through Modi Toys. At the end of the day, I want to be remembered for how our brand made them feel, not for what I said or did. 

What are your goals and aspirations for Modi Toys, both in terms of business growth and social impact?

I want Modi Toys to be as ubiquitous as Disney is globally. I not only want to take up space physically on store shelves, but I also want to take up mindshare. When people think of Indian cultural toys, books, and resources, I want them to think of Modi Toys first and foremost. I want our products to appeal to people of all ages and have a part of their identity reflected in them.

And with the success we find, I want to give back to the community in a meaningful, sustainable way. I would love to partner with an Indian children’s charity, such as Children’s Hope India, to help provide education and promote our culture. I want to be able to extend the same benefits that are available to our customers to all children.

What advice would you offer to aspiring entrepreneurs, particularly women?

Use your strengths as your biggest assets, and double down on them. For example, if you’re good at storytelling, then test and explore a variety of mediums and channels to tell your story. That’s going to be your secret sauce that no one can replicate.

Seema

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