Community//

With Sabrina Paseman

Think critically about prior work in your field: If you’re a new player in any field, it’s easy to take “the way things are done” as the law of the land. But the benefit of being new is that you’re bringing a fresh perspective to your industry. There’s no harm in challenging core assumptions when […]

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

Think critically about prior work in your field: If you’re a new player in any field, it’s easy to take “the way things are done” as the law of the land. But the benefit of being new is that you’re bringing a fresh perspective to your industry. There’s no harm in challenging core assumptions when you’re just starting out. Often, that’s where the best ideas come from.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sabrina Paseman.

Sabrina Paseman is the CEO of Fix The Mask. She’s on a mission to solve healthcare inequality via simple innovation.

Prior to Fix The Mask, she was a Product Design Engineer at Apple for 6 years, where she learned how to bring high quality products to market, from idea inception all the way through mass production. She holds degrees in Biological Engineering and Mechanical Engineering from Cornell University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I was raised in a family of engineers, and growing up, I got to see my parents solve various types of problems first hand.

When our pool had a leak, my dad didn’t just call someone to help fix it. Instead he’d methodically figure out the problem himself. He let the pool drain naturally, marking the pool level daily. By looking at the rate of change and the final height, he was able to deduce the leak height and thus the location on his own.

When we’d travel, my mom, a computer programmer at heart, would run an optimization for our flights and hotels at the cheapest rate for the optimal number of days.

Seeing how they approached the world taught me if you think about things the right way, any problem is solvable.

I wanted to be an engineer too, so I went to Cornell to earn my BS in Biomedical Engineering and my MS in Mechanical Engineering. I ended up at Apple where I helped design the Macbook Pro and the Mac Pro.

As I got further in my career, it became clear that even though all problems are solvable, most problems look quite different on the surface than they do at their core. For example, we had an issue in one product where the glass kept cracking unpredictably. We could have gone down the route of trying to find some impossible substitute glass material that never broke, but the deeper problem was that the surrounding enclosure was not thick enough and was transferring too much load into the glass. Finding a way to support the glass and transfer the shock wave differently ended up being a much more effective way to solve the problem, even though it wasn’t initially obvious.

The trick to elegantly solving a problem is building a comprehensive understanding of the constraints. In other words, you need to dive deep and understand the actual problem you need to solve, even if it’s not the easiest one to fix. I’ve kept this idea close at heart when starting my company.

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Our goal is to solve healthcare inequality. We do this by designing affordable, scalable, and elegant solutions to complex health problems.

Our first product is designed to directly help in the face of the pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been severe shortages of masks due to supply chain constraints. This has caused the government and healthcare organizations to recommend inferior protection to the general public, reserving the high quality N95 respirators only for healthcare professionals. Unfortunately, because coronavirus is an airborne disease, in order to truly stop the spread every person needs access to N95 level protection.

We have a fix. Our product is a reusable brace that gives anyone with a surgical mask N95 quality fit. We’ve found a way to utilize widely available, high quality materials that were previously overlooked, and fix them to work to their maximum efficiency on the widest variety of face shapes.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I know the feeling. For the first 6 years of my professional life, I worked a comfortable, corporate job that was really interesting and challenging, but left me unfulfilled. If you’d asked me in college what I wanted to do with my life, I would have said “I want to design medical products that improve people’s daily lives.” I always hoped I was the kind of person who wanted to start my own business, but it was hard really hard to pull the trigger.

When the pandemic hit, and I saw my close friends and family directly being affected by the PPE shortage. After some research, I realized that this problem could be solved with some simple engineering. I finally had my call to action, so I took the plunge.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I knew I always wanted to find a way to use my skills to help others. The Fix The Mask solution has finally made that tangible. But, this one solution is just the beginning. As I dug deeper into the USA’s healthcare system as a whole, I saw the stark inequalities that have been baked into the system first hand. We have all heard that communities of color were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 in the USA, but I actually saw that wealthier hospitals in richer areas were able to afford higher quality PPE than lower income hospitals. Private hospital administrations were more organized and able to disseminate supplies and information in a more effective fashion than public hospital administration. Certain healthcare practices had never vetted the quality of their equipment before, and they didn’t have the resources or training to figure it out. Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown me that these problems are so much deeper than they look on the surface. Stepping back and looking at our healthcare system as a whole, there are hundreds of other health care issues that could use similar types of innovation, and that is what drives me to be passionate about this cause. Deep problems exist here, and I believe I know how to contribute to solving them.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I promise you that no one knows what they’re doing before they start. The only way to get better is to do things, make mistakes, and course correct.

For Fix The Mask, we created our initial product prototype and a strong mission statement relatively immediately, and I think that was the sole reason for our early success. The mission really carried us through in the early days as we were finding our footing. The next step was to assess product market fit, which we did through a series of prototype releases and tracked the verticals where we got the most traction. The simplicity of the solution really took off and gave us confidence that it was worth moving forward. We then validated the success of our solution by researching the validation methods for our main competitors, and kept one step ahead of them by keeping validation core to our mission.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

When I was just getting started, I had to do small batch prototyping of our design. The prototype was made of a flexible silicone, which was a manufacturing process I was completely new to. I had a really generous mentor named Mark Deadrick who guided me through the process of making one at a time, but when I needed to scale up production to ten at a time, he referred me to one of his friends. It turns out that one industry that does lots of silicone molding in small batches is the film industry. As such, I got to meet Hollywood’s best mold maker and special effects artist, Pedro Valdez. He designed the molds for the initial Ironman helmet, which is pretty special because ironman is my personal hero. He’s also now able to say that he makes masks for all types of heroes, both superheroes as well as our frontline workers.

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

Our product is designed to create a seal between a surgical mask and the wearer’s face. The first prototype was made with just rubber bands, and when I tried it on my own face, I was thrilled to find out that it worked perfectly — by securing a rubber band over my nose and mouth, I’d achieved the elusive N95 fit!

I was so excited. I stopped by my sister’s apartment to test the rubber band prototype on her and her boyfriend. Both of them said that it was uncomfortable, and they weren’t able to get a perfect seal like I was.

As we looked at each other’s faces, we had a revelation: I happen to have the world’s smallest nose and the world’s fattest cheeks. Since the front of my face is basically flat, it’s easy to create a product that covers my nose and mouth and creates a seal. And, to my surprise, most people don’t have a face that is the same shape as mine.

To make a brace that fits many faces, we had to evolve beyond rubber bands to the patent pending nose cushions on the Essential Mask Brace today. Since then, every version of our product has gone through extensive user testing before we’ve made it publicly available. My sister still makes fun of how flat my face is though.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

As I said before, nobody knows anything before they start. I was blessed to have two amazing mentors from the get go, David McCalib and Bill Paseman.

I met David McCalib through a connection of a connection that happened to see my Linkedin post about my rubber band solution. We’d never met before, but even after reading about my underbaked idea online, he immediately saw the grander vision. We got on a video chat the next day, and we just clicked — it felt like we’d known each other for years. We brainstormed iterations via video chats and discussed business strategy by phone. David already had an established business so he was able to give me pointers at all the critical pointers. He’s been a huge cheerleader throughout the process and helps me in whatever way he can.

Bill Paseman is my father, and he’s been my advocate from Day 1. He founded a few companies in his time, so his advice when it comes to starting businesses has been invaluable. I’d always dreamed of starting a company and following in his footsteps, and It’s been really special to be able to share the highs and lows of Fix The Mask with him. My favorite story of his influence was when I was designing our latest iteration, the Essential Mask Brace. I’d been iterating on the design for a full week, 12 hours a day of nonstop failure after failure. I finally called him, defeated, saying that maybe this couldn’t work after all. In a 30 minute phone call, he picked me right back up onto my feet, dusted me off, and by the end we’d invented the concept for the nose cushions, which is the key feature to making our product work. Fix The Mask wouldn’t be here today without his support.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Workers at dentists offices, homeless shelters, and universities have all tried the Essential Mask Brace, but my favorite and our earliest supporter is Loren Bast of Bainbridge Prepares

Bainbridge is a small island next to Seattle; Bainbridge Prepares is a nonprofit organization that provides a variety of services to help protect their small community from disasters like earthquakes, fires, and recently, pandemics.

Loren’s team performs fit testing which helps healthcare professionals determine what PPE is the best fit for them. He started including the Essential Mask Brace as a free option in September. Since then, he has purchased over 350 braces to distribute to the community of Bainbridge Island.

Loren’s support means so much to us because not only is he sharing our solution, he’s proving to each new user that they can receive N95 level fit without an expensive respirator. The greater Seattle area remains one of our most popular shipping destinations, and we can’t help but think it’s at least partially due to the word of mouth generated by Loren and Bainbridge Prepares.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

For our short term goal:

  1. Recognize that a high quality mask is 50–100x more effective if it seals to your face than if it does not.
  2. Understand that we have the power of getting mask fit into the hands of everyone quickly
  3. Take action to recommend mask fit to be considered when picking a mask solution

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Make sure you are solving the right problem: Often the answer for solving a problem well is one level deeper than most people want to dig. As an example, at the beginning of the pandemic, people became aware of PPE shortages, and an overwhelming amount of people turned to quickly producing face shields as a solution. The problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. Face shields aren’t effective against protecting individuals from an aerosolized virus like SARS-CoV-2, so while they were easy and straightforward to make, they weren’t actually solving the most critical PPE deficiency. Fix The Mask took a different approach and first learned about how the virus was transmitted. From there we were able to identify that the focus should actually be around well filtering, well fit masks, not shields.

Think critically about prior work in your field: If you’re a new player in any field, it’s easy to take “the way things are done” as the law of the land. But the benefit of being new is that you’re bringing a fresh perspective to your industry. There’s no harm in challenging core assumptions when you’re just starting out. Often, that’s where the best ideas come from.

We were told at the start of the pandemic that N95s are the best mask because they’re made of a special material that is a better filter than any other mask material.

Rather than taking that at face value, we decided to learn more about this material and what made it so special. What we found out is that the filtration medium of an N95, meltblown fabric, is the same material that surgical masks are made of. So the thing that makes N95s special is not just the filtration material, it’s also how well they fit.

Your mission is key: Starting a business is hard. Unforeseen problems will arise. If you don’t have a strong mission, it will be hard to know what you’re fighting for. Developing a strong mission will get everyone in your team aligned through the good times and the bad.

Pick the right team: Your team is imperative for success. When picking a team, do not get falsely swayed by people with impressive sounding backgrounds. Instead, understand what problems within your organization need to be solved, and understand how an individual’s specific skill set can help solve those problems.

Prioritization: In both life in business and outside of business, it’s hard to know what to do first. This comes down to setting clear quarterly goals, and then breaking them down into monthly, then daily chunks. If you find yourself working on something that does not help achieve your quarterly goal, stop doing it and pivot to something that does.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

If you’re struggling with lack of fulfillment in your day to day, do something about it. You have the power to make the difference that you want to see in the world.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I never really had celebrity role models until I learned about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

When I turned 22, I thought I knew what successful women my age looked like. They had nice jobs at big companies, and got promoted every other year. They earned their success by not making waves and treading carefully on a well defined path paved by successful women before them.

AOC completely redefined my view of what women in their 20s could be. She taught me that if you are smart and care for others, you can actually change the world for the better, even if you’re a woman under the age of 30.

I remember watching her Instagram stories when they selected which office each congressperson would get to use that term. Her special mix of pride, honor, and giddiness is exactly how I felt when I signed the papers that incorporated Fix the Mask. I’d love to have lunch with her to thank her for being such a relatable, strong role model.

How can our readers follow you online?

Follow us @FixTheMask on twitter or Instagram, and subscribe to our newsletter at fixthemask.com

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Community//

The Importance of Teaching your Children Entrepreneurism and Tips to Showing them the Ropes, from a Momtrepreneur

by Dena Roché
Well-Being//

Lessons I Learned From Mothering My Cat That Made Me a Better Spouse and Parent

by Stephanie Fairyington
Community//

Sabrina Bradley: “Stay in touch with loved ones”

by Karina Michel Feld
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.