Dr. Manasa Mantravadi of Ahimsa: “Trust your gut”

As a woman in science and also a mother to three young children — I always look at the evidence. It’s how I take care of my patients — evidence-based medicine. It’s how I take care of my children — evidence-based parenting. Right now, the evidence is that the industry disruptor decades ago is truly disrupting things far more important these […]

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As a woman in science and also a mother to three young children — I always look at the evidence. It’s how I take care of my patients — evidence-based medicine. It’s how I take care of my children — evidence-based parenting. Right now, the evidence is that the industry disruptor decades ago is truly disrupting things far more important these days — our planet and our health. And that is not a good type of disruption.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Manasa Mantravadi, Board-Certified Pediatrician and Founder of Ahimsa.

Dr. Mantravadi took matters into her own hands and created the brand Ahimsa to offer a safe alternative to the growing number of plastic products for children. Ahimsa (Sanskrit for “avoiding harm”) is the first colorful stainless steel dinnerware for kids that’s non-toxic and environmentally-friendly.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

After my husband and I became parents, we began to educate ourselves further on healthy food practices and the impact of our daily decisions on our environment. Although we did make the mistake of buying some plastic dinnerware with cute characters on it when our twins were infants — I was soon met with my mother standing in the kitchen, hands on hips, lecturing me about the dangers of plastic, particularly with heat. The next day, I came home from work to find that she had replaced all of my plastic with traditional Indian stainless steel dishes.

5 years later, my fellow pediatrician moms discussed the recent American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) recommendation to use alternatives to plastics, such as glass or stainless steel. I will let you imagine my mother’s response when I told her the AAP agreed with her — that chemicals in plastic negatively impact children’s hormones, growth, and development. Particularly with heat. Go figure — mother knows best. I will tell you that it was the biggest “I told you so” moment in the history of motherhood.

I quickly realized the lack of options for these types of products here in the USA. Billions of Asians have used stainless steel as a standard for generations — they can’t all be wrong, I thought. However, I knew that metal at the dining table in America would require some convincing. I wanted to get plastic off the table and put something safe, but still enticing to children, on it. Since necessity is the mother of invention, I thought about how I could make stainless steel attractive for kids. I had seen various colors of medical implants that were meant to be indwelling in the human body — they were made of steel and titanium. They were colorful. I started to voraciously read about the research that had been done by the AAP, the process of steel molding, the process of transforming stainless steel to take on color, and — anything else I could learn. I called numerous manufacturers and finally found one that could help me develop my products using the existing process that the medical world was using on its medical implants … to create a safe, non-toxic, environmentally friendly product that still excited children at mealtime.

I always say Ahimsa found me as my worlds truly converged right in front of me — my love for children, background in medicine, and Indian heritage intersected in a way that I just could not ignore.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

If you are a parent and have started the food journey with your infant, you likely purchased your baby’s first feeding utensils. It was more than likely made of plastic. The overwhelming majority of the market share in the children’s dinnerware space is plastic products. It’s cheap, doesn’t break, and comes in fun colors with your child’s favorite characters printed all over it. However, before the era of fast food, TV dinners, and mass-scale processed food in the grocery stores, people did eat fresh produce more often and yes, eat from materials other than plastic. Glass, tin, and stainless steel, and others were the norms before the disruption by the plastic industry. With the growing concern of plastic’s effects on the environment and now on human health, it’s time to change the way we live.

Stainless steel is typically thought of as camping gear or travel ware in the US — not traditionally at the dining table. However, stainless steel is the norm in many parts of the world, including India. Billions of Indians use stainless steel dishes daily at the family dining table and in restaurants. It’s durable, lasts for generations, is made of the most recycled material in the world, and is safe for human health. I am combining my roots in India and my knowledge of the rapidly-evolving science of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in plastic to change the American dining table. Adding color in a safe way to an already safe material (stainless steel is recommended by the AAP) is a game-changer for parents. They can feel good about what their children are eating from and their kids are excited to eat from a literal rainbow. It’s the next big disruption to the American market coming from India … yoga, coconut oil, turmeric, and now stainless steel dinnerware.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

While I pride myself on having the desire and ability to learn — supply chain management and manufacturing are not quite the most translatable principles from medicine. As I learned about minimum order quantities and logistics to move the goods here, I thought I could simply store all of the products in my garage and basement. When I spoke with our freight forwarding company she asked me if I had a forklift and how I would be transporting the goods from the port to my home since commercial transporters didn’t deliver to residential properties. I remember thinking “Ok — you are clearly in over your head. But — don’t go find a forklift and semi-truck Manasa, find a fulfillment center”. My entire journey has been reading books and articles about each aspect of building a company. However, the most fruitful information has been from the “aha” moments in real life that highlight the real-world nature of the details and planning needed to actually execute. I’ve learned that talking to as many people in the fields you are learning about gives you the real and practical advice you need to bring it all to life.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Medicine is truly an apprenticeship — one of the longest of any professions. Mentors were at the root of my training to become a physician but I felt very alone as a business owner. Since most of my friends and family had not owned businesses, I did not have a built-in network of mentors in this space. Luckily, I had joined the JPMA (Juvenile Products Manufacturing Association) as they are the leading organization for quality and safety in baby and children’s products. They have great resources including access to a business consultant. There I was able to connect with Ron Sidman, the former CEO of The First Years — a widely known baby product line. He was highly successful and had decades of experience. But the most wonderful thing about Ron as a mentor was that he constantly shared his real-world wins and losses. By being able to discuss with and learn from someone who beyond success did have trials and tribulations, it made the journey for me as a new entrepreneur less frightening. One of the biggest impacts Ron had on me was to teach me that first and foremost — I need to know the finances in and out. This was important for me because as a physician, this is not at the forefront of what we do. We take care of our patients. Plain and simple. It’s the hospital execs that are chasing the billing, profits, and financial well-being of our healthcare system. Most of us did not go into medicine for the money — it’s a long road with a lot of sacrifice and a lifelong commitment to the health of others. There are much faster, more cost-effective, and less emotionally burdensome paths to money.

He taught me I had to think about it though — all the time. So, it was the first time I started to constantly dig deep into the numbers and strategy towards profitability. Learning that a successful business is what would actually move in the needle in my broader mission for children’s health was crucial to my development as an entrepreneur. I often say that I am a much better philanthropist than a business owner — I would give it all away for free if I could. However, it turns out that is a terrible business model. Striving towards profitability allows me to meaningfully impact the communities and missions I am passionate about.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I think we must just evaluate the outcomes. I am a scientist at heart so looking objectively at data to form a conclusion is a logical way to evaluate if the “disruption” is good or bad. In fact, the same thing can be a good thing and a bad thing at various stages of learning. Take plastic for example. When it was first introduced, it was a great solution to many of our everyday problems. For businesses, it was cheap and fast to produce — sourcing it wasn’t difficult since it was manmade. It made great packaging for food items that now needed a longer shelf life. For parents, it didn’t break when their kids tested gravity. In general, it was indestructible and simply lasted forever. At that time, being the disruptor in a world that was evolving towards a fast-paced life with more processed goods was a great thing.

Fast forward a few decades. All of the same things that made plastic the disruptor to help people’s daily lives are now ruining our environment and posing harm to human health. It’s cheaper to produce new plastic than recycle it. It lasts forever — yes, more than 400 years to start breaking down. This is affecting the worldwide problem with overwhelmingly increasing landfills and ocean pollution. It’s synthetic so easily made. Well — it’s those chemicals in plastic that are interfering with our endocrine (hormonal) systems — adults, pregnant women, and yes, children. The Endocrine Society and World Health Organization identify these endocrine-disrupting chemicals as an emerging global threat to human health. It doesn’t break — parents continue to purchase plastic products for their children. However, these chemicals in plastic interfere with a child’s hormones during crucial periods of growth and brain development. Yet, the market is saturated with plastic for kids — because it’s cheap, colorful, and lasts forever.

As a woman in science and also a mother to three young children — I always look at the evidence. It’s how I take care of my patients — evidence-based medicine. It’s how I take care of my children — evidence-based parenting. Right now, the evidence is that the industry disruptor decades ago is truly disrupting things far more important these days — our planet and our health. And that is not a good type of disruption.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  • Trust your gut. While I have learned from books and sought advice from others — I’ve learned that my gut did bring me this far and when I trust it, more often than not I have made the right decision. My initial business plan had eCommerce first and then a B2B model specifically for schools and children’s hospitals. I was told I should look at retail first. However, I felt my margins would be lost at retail and that institutional change would be important for our broader mission of children’s health as well as our profitability. We have officially dipped our toes into wholesale and received our first large order from a Montessori school in Atlanta. More schools are contacting us and I hope we can change the dining landscape in schools as they are truly the second home of children (and as a pediatrician, I advocate for our children to be back in this important home as soon and as safely as possible during this pandemic).
  • Hire slow, fire fast: When I first launched the company it was just me and my Shopify store. I knew it was important to build a team of great people around me. I like to hire based on recommendations but I’ve learned that sometimes what works for one founder or company may not work for another. I was too patient with certain people or agencies — in this world, every dime and every minute counts. I typically give others much more time after mistakes or the inability to deliver — I’m an educator after all. I train medical students and residents to become physicians one day — that requires patience and encouragement from a teacher. However, I was using those same principles here and realized that I was paying people for their guidance and deliverables. As a start-up, we don’t have time or money to waste. I’ve been better about evaluating based on KPIs and deliverables to make my decisions more objective rather than subjective. That has proven successful as we are building a team of people who are executing and have the right attitude.
  • There is no such thing as work-life balance. It’s just about integrating your work, health, relationships, and roles into your one life. This is my biggest goal for 2021. I feel I just emerged from the newborn fog a mother feels after her baby is born; those first three months are just filled with emotional and physical exhaustion — in the name of the child you love so much. Ahimsa is like that for me — it truly feels like another child. However, I have not done a great job of ensuring all the other aspects of my whole life get the same time and attention. There is no such thing as true balance if you want to be successful in all your roles at the same time — as a mother, a wife, a physician, an educator, an entrepreneur — it’s humanly impossible to be great at all of those in a given moment. I am learning from other women who have built successful businesses that being a CEO doesn’t stop at work. You need to be the CEO of your life — planning and committing to all aspects of your life. Now my daily, monthly, and yearly planning has three main buckets: work, relationships, and myself. They all need to work in unison and for me to be healthy, happy, and successful. It’s a work in progress.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I am just getting started. It’s a work in progress. As a new member of the Council on Environmental Health at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), my goal is to reduce the footprint of plastic on children’s health and the environment. I am proud to announce our newly formed scientific advisory council for Ahimsa. A leading expert in pediatric environmental health, Dr. Leonardo Trasande, and author of The Endocrine Society report on plastic (2020), Dr. Jodi Flaws, are here to guide us on the latest research. I’ve seen firsthand how science, policy, and industry intersects — we hope to lead the way for safe and toxic-free children’s dinnerware. I started Ahimsa with children’s health as my top priority. It’s what I do for a living but with my new role as a founder of a company. I am now advocating for kids in a new way: safe products, public health education, and hopefully one day, regulatory change.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Often, it’s simply that we have more roles to fill. Motherhood is essentially one full-time job per child. Managing the household is another full-time job. Being a “disruptor” takes a lot of time. I think women feel the constant pull towards each of their roles. We often have guilt when we feel we are doing a suboptimal job at any role — which typically is all the time. Men have multiple roles too — but it is easier for them and the industry to separate their roles. There is a reason the term “Mompreneur” is so mainstream but “Dadpreneur” is not. It’s more often described as a male founder or disruptor paving the way for the world. At some point, you find out he also happens to be a father. But see, even in these terms you cannot separate the mother from the entrepreneur. We are described rather as “a mom on a mission”. But, I take that with great pride and many women may feel the same — I am first and always, Mom.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

I was always a fan of the podcast “How I Built This”. It was fascinating and inspiring to hear the stories of such successful people. It humanized them and gave me the extra push I needed to get started. Knowing that each of these individuals was an ordinary person who took a leap of faith and worked tirelessly to achieve extraordinary success made me think “maybe I can do it too”.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Ahimsa is a movement, not just a company that sells products. Much like my job as a Pediatrician, I aim to educate parents and children, empower them to make decisions about their health, and provide tools and guidance to help achieve positive outcomes. In this case, the outcome is to decrease the footprint of plastic on the environment and human health. As parents, we want to protect our children and provide them with opportunities to thrive in a safe and healthy world. While this may feel like a mountain to climb given the overwhelming amount of plastic that persists in our lives, I have always believed in the power of parents and the cumulative effect of small changes. Taking baby steps in your own home and uniting with parents across the globe to ensure the future is bright for our kids — now, that’s a mountain worth climbing together.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My father always told me that, “When you are given opportunities, you should take them and work hard to achieve success. But always remember to reach back and provide opportunities to those who aren’t so fortunate to be given them. You see, success is the combination of opportunity and hard work. Not one or the other.” I have seen many children and families who face adversity every single day. The answer for them is not just to work hard to overcome adversity. It’s having the opportunity to even be able to do so … it is something I will never forget.

My commitment to food insecurity is born out of my own experience as a resident physician in Chicago. On a routine basis during my training, we saw young children with health problems like obesity and type 2 diabetes. We had clear-cut solutions — healthy eating and regular exercise. But what I quickly learned was that I was counseling my patients on the solutions but they didn’t have the opportunities or tools to help them achieve the solution. Many of my patients had no access to a grocery store because they lived in a food desert. I would drive to my clinic and realized that only fast-food chains and liquor stores were present; the first grocery store was miles away. There are no gyms or YMCAs and if there were, parents could not afford a membership. Children could not safely take family walks as a form of exercise in their neighborhood because the gun violence in Chicago they face every day is real. They did not have internet access to participate in free online dance classes. So — what is a child to do?

While my children’s stainless steel dinnerware company, Ahimsa, aims to get plastic off the table, I know all too well that for many families the priority is just putting food ON the table. This is why childhood food insecurity is so closely tied with our mission. I have an amazing opportunity with Ahimsa — and I won’t forget my father’s life lesson, “reach back and provide opportunities to those who aren’t so fortunate to be given them.”

How can our readers follow you online?

Follow us on social at @ahimsahomeusa — Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Pinterest. Visit our website at ahimsahome.com for information on our products and advice from our team of expert Pediatricians on raising a happy healthy child.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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