Meet the Woman Behind the Mask
Behind every thriving business is a passionate individual who once dreamed up the idea of a great service or product. In the case of SmileMask, that individual is Brenda — the founder and now president of the company. A motivated businesswoman, Brenda was committed to making a difference and bridging the gap of communication for underserved individuals. From serving communities that are often overlooked to promoting effective communication, SmileMask has a vision, and here is the story of how it came to exist — and of the woman who started it all.
How SmileMask Came to Be
As the pandemic spread throughout the United States in the early months of 2020, the need to wear a mask quickly became apparent. Wearing a mask helped prevent the spread of COVID-19, but it also created new difficulties for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. With this in mind, Brenda came up with the idea to create SmileMask.
Brenda graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, followed by an internship, with the goal of becoming a registered dietitian and obtaining her master’s degree in nutrition. As she began working as a dietician, she felt the urge to expand her skill set beyond the realm of simple nutrition. This prompted her to slowly edge her way into health care quality, risk management and even workflow redesign.
The Inspiration for SmileMask
The idea to create SmileMask came to Brenda in February 2020. The inspiration came during a discussion around a kitchen table (as the inspiration for so many great companies does) with a friend who is deaf. While the CDC recommended wearing masks, Brenda and her friend discussed how this could create additional barriers for communication. At the time, Brenda was facilitating in-person groups of people through change and found it difficult to read the emotions of the room with people’s faces covered up with masks. Additionally, the usage of masks also presented a new set of communication hurdles for those who were deaf or hard of hearing and utilized lip reading. That’s when the idea to create SmileMask was born. And — as they say — the rest is history.
The Beginning of the Business
What started as a conversation around a dinner table in February 2020 quickly grew to something much larger. Here’s a look into some of the early days of SmileMask, as well as some of the initial challenges the company faced.
The Early Days
Armed with the idea to create an ADA-compliant mask, Brenda moved quickly. The company officially became an LLC in June 2020, eager to create a product that would serve communities that often are overlooked. After all, the heart of the company is centered on human connection, and part of this is prioritizing inclusivity of all. While traditional masks prohibit the ability to read lips or pick up on facial cues, SmileMask offers a top-notch alternative. The idea went from a vague concept to actual sales in an impressive four months.
Like any business, SmileMask experienced growing pains in its early days. The first hurdle was designing the mask, which included finding the right materials to use, selecting a non-fog clear product, and establishing a manufacturer to make prototypes. The second hurdle was marketing the product and raising awareness about just who SmileMask is. But, as Brenda quickly discovered, the key to success was to keep going and finding other ways to achieve the ultimate goals.
How Is SmileMask Different?
There are plenty of companies that now make clear masks. So, what makes SmileMask different from its competitors? There are four primary factors that set SmileMask apart, starting with size. SmileMask boasts a size of the transparent section that is larger than that in competitors’ masks, enabling the ability to read more facial expressions and cues. Additionally, the transparent component is anti-fog, which means that no anti-fog solution is required. Third, SmileMask offers both reusable and single-use masks, enabling consumers to choose an option that best suits them. Finally, the single-use mask meets ASTM1 criteria, which successfully filters out 95% of bacteria and harmful sub-particles.
What Makes SmileMask Special?
SmileMask was created to fill a need during an unprecedented, challenging time. While masks help to stop the spread of the coronavirus, they also hinder effective communication. According to the Rochester Institute of Technology, approximately 11 million individuals consider themselves deaf or have serious difficulty hearing. Individuals who were deaf told Brenda about feelings of humiliation, anger, and fear when they couldn’t understand what was being said and no longer had the ability to read lips. That’s what makes SmileMask special — it understands the value of human connection and inclusivity for all. Unlike many other companies, SmileMask realizes that human connection is a basic need and, without it, people can feel isolated and alone.
Not being able to see someone’s face means the inability to know if someone is angry, sad, happy or confused. SmileMask’s ADA-compliant clear masks empower individuals to connect, communicate and be present with others. For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, the masks provide a way to lip read or pick up on facial cues that are missed when a traditional mask is used.
Anna Bell is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.
Rochester Institute of Learning - Collaboratory