We had the good fortune of connecting with Caroline Kim Palacios and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Caroline, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
The short answer is that I needed to help myself and my family after being laid off and I knew that serious athletes and people trying to stay physically and mentally healthy by exercising in the pandemic needed better options for face masks. After over a decade in the social sector, I was laid off at the start of the pandemic. At the same time, my mom, who is a first-generation immigrant small business owner, was beginning to feel the impact of the pandemic on her garment business. My husband was also preparing to start law school just a few months later. It was tough having those conversations around delaying his program and the possibility of losing our apartment. I knew that I needed to act fast and decisively to find income. In the first post-layoff months, the job search turned out exactly the way I thought it would with recruiters “ghosting” me or getting to the end of a process only to be told that a last-minute decision had been made to not fill the role because of budget concerns. I didn’t want to keep putting my future in others’ hands, so I established a social impact consulting practice to bring in the money we needed to make ends meet. I was very fortunate that I was able to secure some contracts fairly early on. I also helped my mom set up a website where we could sell masks she had started importing from Korea, which also helped to ease some of the worries around how to survive the disruption of the pandemic. However, I knew these efforts were only stopgap measures to alleviate immediate pressures. One thing that helped me manage my stress and give me those much-needed moments away from all of the worrying was training. Since my gym was closed for several months, I started running and working out outside. Since masks were required, I spent weeks struggling to find a face mask to wear during workouts. I got so frustrated that I started cutting up my workout clothes and wrapping my face with shreds of fabric claiming to be “moisture-wicking” and made for sports. Even after major sporting wear companies started producing masks marketed toward athletes, no matter what I tried, nothing worked the way I needed them to work. When I mentioned all the “mask-wrangling” trouble I was having to my mom, she told me I should consider designing something to solve the problems I was having. I knew other athletes were struggling with the same challenges as me. My mom has over four decades of experience in the garment industry and she is an expert in fabrics, construction, and production. After weeks of going back and forth on my sketches and consulting with pro athletes from different sports, we developed the first line of SMARTMASQ prototypes for what we believed to be the absolute best masks for athletes on the market. Since no two faces are alike and different people have different fit needs, we created a line of masks that address a lot of the biggest issues that athletes and active individuals experience when training in masks. We began the patent process and launched our website in December 2020. It has been amazing to see the responses from professional athletes and everyday movers to our products.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
One thing I am especially proud of is that I’m one of those rather rare folks who jumped out of the nonprofit sector into business. Throughout my career, I’ve felt this intense internal conflict between what it means to be a mission-driven leader in the nonprofit sector versus someone who pursues a business in the for-profit sector. I’ve had the privilege of working for some amazing nonprofit organizations that are doing incredibly important work in our communities around education and health access, juvenile justice reform, and immigrant’s rights. As a fundraiser, I learned the importance of keeping an equity lens and the voice of community central to my work. This has been my “North Star” that has guided me through every decision of my nonprofit career. When I started SMARTMASQ, I knew that I didn’t want to simply abandon that compass. I wanted to stay close to my passion for doing the most good, no matter where I am or what I’m working on. I realized that being a small business owner and helping fellow small businesses, especially those established by BIPOC women and immigrants, is another way to pursue my “North Star”. The companies on the S&P 500 don’t tell us how well everyday people are doing. Small businesses are the beating hearts of our communities. Just like how my family was raised by the hard work poured into a small business, I decided that as I step into this new identity as an entrepreneur, as the daughter of immigrants, and as a woman of color in a male-dominated industry, I want to make sure I’m sharing what I know from the journey as I’m walking it and not at the end of it. I found myself over the past few months seeking out advice about how to do “this” – this being all of the things you need to know to make a business work. I found lots of books and catchy “Instagrammable” quotes by successful entrepreneurs that were meant to be inspirational. But I didn’t feel like they resonated with me as I was struggling at 3am to figure out how to use Shopify. I started to share about my triumphs and frustrations on my blog (www.dsrptq.com/dsrptq-ideas) and on LinkedIn. I’ve found there are a lot of people just like me who just need to know that most of us don’t start businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars in our pockets. We struggle, we fight, we mess up, and nevertheless, we persist. This is a really special time in my life and for SMARTMASQ as a brand new business. It’s in many ways the most exciting, but also the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done. This is the time of the most concentrated and steepest growth, so I’m committed to sharing all of the good, the ugly, and the really, really tough parts of the walk because it can be a really lonely road.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I love sharing the hidden gems of our city where immigrants came and established communities; the places I think tell the real story of Los Angeles as a city of dreamers, adventurers, and risk takers. I would start in East Los Angeles and venture west, stopping in every little town that features different cultures along the way. In East Los Angeles, I would start at El Mercado on First and keep rolling west. There are so many amazing family restaurants, coffee shops, and stores to see that reflect Mexican and Chicanx culture. I would then go into Little Tokyo and the Arts District. I would go through Downtown’s historic core and definitely stop for some Phillipe’s and walk through Grand Central. On the way out west, there’s Thai Town, Koreatown, Mid-City and Museum row. There are amazing little markets and stores throughout these communities where you can find foods and goods that are very hard to find elsewhere. I would also definitely stop in Little Ethiopia at Merkato, my favorite Ethiopian restaurant along La Brea and at Yuko’s Kitchen, which is one of my favorite restaurants for fun, fusion Japanese food and amazing desserts. We would arrive at the beach around sunset. On the way back, we would stop for either BCD Tofu or Hodori for Korean food before a getting a drink at either the Dresden in Los Feliz or Damon’s in Glendale. Breakfast would be at La Cabanita – a wonderful family-owned Mexican restaurant in Montrose.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
A few years ago, I was on a business trip and our team was having dinner. This question was asked at the table: if you could pick any person, dead or living, who you could be or emulate, who would it be? Everyone went around and shared names of famous people. I was last to share my answer and I said, “my mom”. No one has been a better example of what it is to work hard, be resilient yet have grace and patience in the toughest of circumstances. As a first-generation immigrant, she came to this country, struggled hard, and established herself. And even after we lost our family business in the ’92 riots and though it has taken her decades to rebuild, I have seen her push through every possible challenge. She is an incredible designer, businesswoman, and founder of TERRA who deserves the recognition in this story. She is my forever inspiration and the person who I try to emulate in life. She is the person who brought SMARTMASQ to life. I am so grateful to be working with her on this venture. There would be no SMARTMASQ without my mom, Suki. As gyms, event centers, and schools reopen, SMARTMASQ wants to offer better mask solutions that support the safe return to sharing spaces where people are engaging in training, team sports, and other communal activities.
Other: My personal Instagram is @kimcypala
Karissa & Mike Reckling