Female Entrepreneurship: An Interview with MODMASK Founder Maryam Garg
More women in the US today are starting their own businesses than ever before. In the last 12 years, the yearly growth of women in business has been 4.2%. And, since 1997, women-owned businesses have grown from 26% of all businesses to 39%. Now is a better time than ever before to start your own business as a woman, but of course, there are still barriers that many self-starting female entrepreneurs encounter on their journey to success. Some of the most common obstacles include difficulties in securing funding, developing a support network, and finding entrepreneurial mentors. As a 35-year-old female business owner, grad student, and full-time mom and wife, Maryam Garg, the founder of MODMASK, has encountered many of these same challenges herself. We hope this interview will give you a chance to get to know our founder a little better as well as an opportunity to learn a little more about what’s at the heart of MODMASK:)
What got you interested in entrepreneurship? Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur. Growing up around my father, a professor who was always also pursuing entrepreneurial business ideas on the side, my family and I witnessed the many ups and downs of the life of an entrepreneur—its excitement and creativity, but also its uncertainty and instability. In my family, “entrepreneur” was another word for risk-taker. Because of this, my mom always encouraged me to pursue a more stable career. So, I took a job at Macy’s, starting in digital marketing, then moving to strategy, and then Product Management. I was never quite ready to settle into one role because I always wanted to be learning and trying something new. When I became a mom, I decided to transition to doing freelance work as a tech consultant. Soon, I came to love the freedom and flexibility of being my own boss. When inspiration struck with the idea of MODMASK, I knew it was my chance to try my hand at being an entrepreneur.
What inspired you to start MODMASK?
To be honest, I think it all started last year when my husband and I decided to go to Coachella together to check going to a festival event off my bucket list. As we researched the festival, I noticed that a lot of people wore creative, colorful masks to prevent breathing in the desert dust. Though Coachella got cancelled, my fascination with the masks led me to begin thinking about the idea of masks transitioning to more of an everyday item, worn for fashion and other practical uses, not just for medical purposes and in a few other specific contexts. A couple months later, I decided to wear a fun mask by a popular, high-end mask brand to a concert as a bit of an experiment, but I was highly disappointed by how uncomfortable it was. When later on that year California’s fire season set in, I spent time searching for an everyday mask I could wear to filter out unhealthy particles and smoke—but found that medical-grade masks were sold out everywhere and fabric masks were nowhere to be seen. Before the news started to spread about the coronavirus, I realized people were quickly going to need comfortable, well-fitting masks they could wear day to day. Because I have always been passionate about fashion and design, I decided to create my own mask design from scratch. I did some customer discovery with students in the grad school to find out what qualities and features people would want in a mask and decided on the material, style, and fit. After a lot of trial-and-error, six weeks later, the MODMASK was born.
Have there been any struggles you have encountered in starting your own business that you feel are unique to female entrepreneurs?
Initially I didn’t even think about the fact that I was a female entrepreneur. But it wasn’t long before I encountered one struggle that many young women today starting their own businesses encounter. I call it the struggle of being a “momtrepreneur.” One reason I started MODMASK was to be able to spend more time with my 2-year-old and 5-year-old daughters. Although that has been amazing, I’ve definitely learned that being an entrepreneur running your own small business is a 24/7 job. When you’re working for a large company, you can be highly invested in the company, yet when you take a vacation, you take a vacation. When you’re running your own business, you’re constantly coming up with new ideas, finding new ways to advertise, managing customer service, and trying to make sure things are running smoothly. So even when you’re present with your family physically, you may not be completely mentally there. Of course there are pros and cons to every job, and I’m thankful that running my own business has given me the opportunity to spend more time with my family, even if I’m a bit more distracted at times. I think it’s just something that moms thinking about starting their own business to increase family time should make sure they’ve considered first.
Do you think there are any strengths in being female as an entrepreneur? Are there any skills you feel that you specifically bring to the table as a woman?
In my experience, women I have worked with are good at listening to their own intuition, that gut feeling. I think that this is a really important ability when it comes to starting your own business. As you make decisions about the values, goals, and direction of your company, you need to be able to listen to your gut. On the other hand, in my experience, women also tend to be good at receiving feedback—they are often good listeners and are receptive to implementing the ideas of other people. This is a really great strength for a small business owner as well—not only can it make mentorship much more effective, but it can also help women achieve a healthy balance of internal and external perspective in running their business. Many women also have the ability to multitask (especially the ones who have been moms:) As a small business owner, you often have to be able to juggle many aspects of running a business at the same time, from production to shipping to sales, so this can really come in handy. The final strength I think many female business owners have is a sense of empathy, an important factor in delivering quality, personal-feeling customer service, which can be essential in getting a small company on its feet. Of course, these qualities I’ve been talking about don't necessarily define or represent all women, but in my experience, I feel that these are strengths that they generally bring to the table in the business world.
Female entrepreneurship statistics show that 70% of female business owners are over the age of 40. Not only are you a female business owner, but you are also younger than most female small business owners! Do you feel this has posed any extra or unique challenges for you?
That statistic doesn’t surprise me. I think the majority of female business owners are over the age of 40 because they have had more time to acquire financial resources, are accountable for fewer personal financial responsibilities (like buying a new home and a car or potentially supporting a family), and, more than anything, have gained confidence in their own abilities and ideas. Many younger women lack the resources to fund their own business aspirations, as well as the confidence in themselves to pursue making these aspirations into a reality. Though I have a family to support and am still in a younger, perhaps less established stage of my life, I was fortunate enough to have a husband with a stable job who encouraged me to invest the time and money required to pursue what I wanted to do.
Statistics suggest that one primary struggle for female entrepreneurs is finding a mentor. Have you had any mentors? Who would you say your most influential mentor has been?
Tommy Knapp. He is the head of the MSEI graduate program at Marshall School of Business at USC, and is probably my most immediate mentor. He’s constantly pushing me in directions I never thought I’d go, and he has been a great source of knowledge, encouragement, and resources. When I told him my idea for MODMASK at the very beginning, he encouraged me to go for it. My other mentor is my uncle. He’s very academic, but also has a bit of experience in the entrepreneurial world. He started his own software company and sold it years ago. My uncle is more of a life advisor—he is always encouraging me to strive for balance, offering an outsider’s perspective on any struggles I face. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a female mentor, which is something I really hope to have someday, but I feel lucky to have two great mentors in my life when many entrepreneurs, especially female small-business owners, have none. Being a small business owner can be lonely—you don’t have the daily interactions with a network of coworkers that many jobs offer. Conversations with others, especially those you can collaborate on ideas with, can be both energizing and stabilizing: they can help ground you and your perspective. A lot of female entrepreneurs don’t have that kind of outlet available to them.
Other than being a woman-owned business, are there any ways MODMASK is specifically seeking to empower women interested in entrepreneurship?
MODMASK has offered me a great opportunity to give back in terms of mentorship to the up-and-coming community of young female entrepreneurs. Through MODMASK, I was able to create two internship-mentorship positions through which I have been able to work with and encourage two female undergraduate students at USC. I was also able to begin mentoring the female model for our masks on the site. With a little bit of encouragement, she recently founded her own company, and I just heard that she landed her first job the other day! For anyone who is interested in entrepreneurship and reading this blog, feel free to reach out to me through the contact form (just make the heading mentorship). I would love to talk to you and support you in any way I can! Speaking from my own experience, I really believe in the power of mentorship. I truly believe that the more mentorship we can offer to women, the more female leaders we will see.
Do you have any advice for women who are interested in becoming an entrepreneur?
Just do it. Don’t be afraid and don’t hesitate. A lot of people over-analyze their business plans, get wrapped up in working out every small detail, and drag the process out until the inspiration fades and they stop before they even get started. So my biggest piece of advice is to start today. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Start small and take things one step at a time—but begin making tangible progress. All that you need to get started is a vision and a direction. And of course, the future is an essential consideration as you begin to make more concrete plans of action, but don’t get married to your long-term plans. When your business is financially lean, as most small businesses are, things are always changing. And that’s part of what makes starting your own business so exciting! Approach the present with optimism, and the future with an open-mind. My final encouragement is to strive to learn something new in everything you do. The skills and knowledge you will accumulate through your experience are priceless, and they will help form a solid foundation for both you and your company moving forward. In starting MODMASK, I’ve learned more in three months than I did over the course of the previous ten years!
Are there any ways those reading this blog can support female entrepreneurship, even if they don’t plan on becoming a female entrepreneur themselves?
If you’re a woman and have been considering starting your own business, do it! There has never been a time where there has been more support for female entrepreneurs. You don’t have to start a business with the end goal of running a large company—many women today are running successful, small lifestyle businesses all on their own. If you already are an entrepreneur or small business owner, no matter your gender, seek out women you can mentor. And even if you aren’t an entrepreneur, you can support women you know who are considering starting their own business or encourage young women to consider it as a viable option for a career path. One final way you can support female business is to learn more about the leadership of the companies you buy from. Most people don’t give a lot of thought to who they are supporting through their purchases. Maybe take the time to dig a little deeper and find companies who stand for causes you support, whether that’s female entrepreneurship or something else!
Thanks for reading! We hope you enjoyed meeting our founder and digging a little deeper into who we are and what we’re all about:)
Written by Rachel Cassar
MODMASK Content Writer