Name: Avani Modi Sarkar
Hometown: Skillman
Business: moditoys.com

AVANI MODI SARKAR

As a kid growing up in New Jersey, Avani Modi Sarkar always felt immersed in Indian culture, thanks to her parents making the effort to keep their culture alive at home. Modi Sarkar was 8 when she and her family immigrated to the Garden State from India. When she became a mom in 2017, she wanted her kids to feel a strong connection to their Indian heritage, too. Avani’s brother Viral had the same wish for his daughter, and together, the siblings decided the answer could be found in creating plush toys and books that spark a conversation about Hinduism and South Asian culture.

Modi Sarkar co-founded Modi Toys with her brother in 2018 and she left her corporate job in 2020. The company’s plush dolls and books are inspired by Modi Sarkar’s daughter and niece and have gotten national attention for diversifying the toy industry. Modi Sarkar has been recognized as an Inc. Female Founder 1000, Forbes Next 1000 and Tory Burch Fellow. The company won a Good Housekeeping 2021 Toy Award and even got a shout-out from actress Mindy Kaling on Instagram!

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A mom of three (Naavya, 5; Saanvi, 2 and Sai, 9 months), she’s excited to grow the business with her brother. We asked her how it all began, what she enjoys most about her work and what she loves to do in NJ with her husband and kids.

New Jersey Family: Tell us about the first product you developed and how Modi Toys has evolved since then.

Avani Modi Sarkar: Since Ganesh is considered to be the remover of obstacles in the Hindu faith and an auspicious symbol for all new beginnings, we launched our business with the Baby Ganesh plush and a corresponding book I wrote, How Ganesh Broke His Tusk. After selling out our initial inventory within a matter of weeks, we realized there was a clear gap in the market. Our customers clamored for more representative toys and books like these, so we launched four more collections in the following years. In addition to Baby Ganesh, we now also offer Baby Hanuman, Baby Krishna, Saraswati Devi, Durga Devi and the Shhhanti Musical Crib Mobile.

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NJF: What do Modi’s mantra plush dolls symbolize?

AMS: Each one of our plush toys represents different Hindu gods and goddesses who symbolize specific qualities, like knowledge, luck, power, strength and love. When you squeeze their bellies, they play devotional Hindu mantras (prayers).

NJF: What’s been your best seller?

AMS: Baby Ganesh has been our top-selling item for the past three years because of what Ganesh symbolizes. Besides being the remover of obstacles, he is also a symbol of good luck. Naturally, people turn to Baby Ganesh for all of life’s occasions—big and small—from baby showers to birthdays, get well soon to graduations or housewarmings to holidays.

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NJF: Tell us about your children’s books.

AMS: Our books are just as popular because they introduce these gods in a playful and a relatable manner, unlike other books on similar subjects. Making our products educational and informative was just as important as making them fun and simple. So, I began writing a children’s book without having any prior knowledge of writing. There is something truly special about picking up a book for bedtime written by you, reading it aloud to your kids and seeing them engage with it firsthand.

NJF: What’s been your most exciting business moment?

AMS: Last year was truly a milestone year for us. Despite being a niche brand, we were recognized by mainstream media as entrepreneurs, as a small business and, most importantly, for our toys. Of all the accolades we received last year, winning the Good Housekeeping Best Toy award was one of the proudest moments. We were awarded the prestigious honor among everyday brands like Crayola, LEGO, Lovevery, Fisher-Price, LeapFrog and Melissa & Doug. Testing all the toys is a month-long process. The Good Housekeeping team assesses the toys in terms of skill-building attributes and obtains feedback from kids, who I deem to be the toughest critics of all. To be recognized by mainstream media as a “Best Toy”—as opposed to the best “diverse” toy or best “cultural” toy—is truly the best compliment ever.

AVANI MODI SARKAR

NJF: How have your mantra plush dolls impacted people’s lives?

AMS: The story that has touched us the most is about a 4-year-old-boy who was hospitalized for a 10-week chemotherapy treatment. His mother shared that Baby Ganesh and Baby Hanuman never left her son’s side during his entire stay, giving him comfort, while giving the parents strength in knowing God was watching over him in their absence. Similarly, there’s the story of a soon-to-be grandfather undergoing aggressive chemotherapy to treat acute myeloid leukemia. [One of] his children shared, “My dad has gone through so much and may very well be on his last few days to few weeks of life left on this earth. We don’t know if he’ll ever see his first grandchild, but we do know the comfort your toys have given him…you created some real good in this world with these toys. I know they’re meant for kids, but they impact us all the same.”

NJF: How have your kids been involved with Modi Toys?

AMS: As the company’s Chief Inspiration Officers, their work never ends! I love watching my kids and nieces play and observing what strikes—and holds—their attention. I often catch myself asking things like, “How can I make this moment more culturally meaningful?” In fact, that’s how the idea for our musical crib mobile came about. I would often find myself softly humming and singing the Gayatri mantra (a popular Hindu prayer for Goddess Gayatri) while putting my oldest daughter to sleep. I wondered if there was a crib mobile that played Hindu prayers in a soothing instrumental melody. When my brother and I couldn’t find it anywhere on the market, we decided to make our own. Three of our five children have now grown up listening to our very own musical crib mobile.

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NJF: What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve gotten?

AMS: “Your greatest life is on the other side of your greatest fear.” To be honest, I was fairly content with my corporate 9-to-5 job, and wasn’t sure if or when I would pursue Modi Toys full time. My brother and I had been able to grow our small business as a side hustle, and I thought I’d continue juggling all the balls as long as I could. But the pandemic changed the trajectory of my career and my life. I not only had two back-to-back pandemic babies (in March 2020 and August 2021), but was also laid off while I was on maternity leave. Although I was confident in our company’s potential, I was afraid of the uncertainty entrepreneurship brought. It’s funny how once you bet on yourself, you build confidence in others to bet on you as well.

NJF: What’s next for Modi Toys?

AMS: We’re launching a new plush goddess later this fall, along with three children’s books. And hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we will enter big box retailers.

NJF: What do you love to do in New Jersey with your kids?

AMS: When I got married and started my family six years ago, we lived in Weehawken on the waterfront. Having easy access to kid-friendly places like Liberty Science Center and, more recently, the newly-opened American Dream mall were great options for cold or rainy days. Now that we live 10 minutes from downtown Princeton, I love exploring the same streets with my three kids that I once walked in my late teenage years.

 

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