Name: Avani Modi Sarkar
AAs a child growing up in New Jersey, Avani Modi Sarkar always felt immersed in Indian culture, thanks to her parents who made the effort to keep their culture alive at home. Modi Sarkar was 8 years old when she and her family immigrated to the Garden State from India. When she became a mom in 2017, she wanted her children to feel a strong connection to their Indian heritage as well. Avani’s brother, Viral, had the same wish for his daughter, and together the siblings decided the answer could be found by creating soft toys and books that spark conversation about Hinduism and southern culture. -Asian.
Modi Sarkar co-founded Modi Toys with her brother in 2018 and she quit her job with the company in 2020. The company’s plush dolls and books are inspired by Modi Sarkar’s daughter and niece and have attracted national attention for the diversification of the toy industry. Modi Sarkar has been recognized as Inc. Female Founder 1000, Forbes Next 1000 and Tory Burch Fellow. The company won a Good Housekeeping 2021 Toy Award and even got a shoutout from actress Mindy Kaling on Instagram!
Mother of three children (Naavya, 5 years old; Saanvi, 2 years old and Sai, 9 months old), she is delighted to develop the business with her brother. We asked her how it all started, what she loves most about her job, and what she enjoys doing in New Jersey 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 the remover of obstacles in the Hindu faith and an auspicious symbol for all new beginnings, we started our business with the Baby Ganesh plush and a corresponding book that I wrote, How Ganesh broke his defense. After selling our initial stock within weeks, we realized there was a clear void in the market. Our customers demanded 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.
NJF: What do Modi’s mantra plush dolls symbolize?
ADM: Each of our plush toys depicts different Hindu gods and goddesses which symbolize specific qualities, such as knowledge, luck, power, strength and love. When you squeeze their belly, they play Hindu devotional mantras (prayers).
NJF: What was your bestseller?
ADM: Baby Ganesh has been our top selling item for three years because of what Ganesh symbolizes. Besides being the remover of obstacles, it 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, graduations or housewarmings to holidays.
NJF: Tell us about your children’s books.
ADM: Our books are equally popular because they present these gods in a fun and relatable way, unlike other books on similar subjects. Making our products educational and informative was just as important as making them fun and simple. So, I started writing a children’s book without having any prior knowledge of writing. There’s something really special about taking a bedtime book written by you, reading it aloud to your kids, and seeing them engage with it firsthand.
NJF: What has been your most exciting professional moment?
ADM: Last year was truly a pivotal year for us. Although we are a niche brand, we have been recognized by the mainstream media as entrepreneurs, as a small business, and most importantly, for our toys. Of all the awards we received last year, winning the Good Housekeeping The best toy award was one of the proudest moments. We received the prestigious honor among everyday brands like Crayola, LEGO, Lovevery, Fisher-Price, LeapFrog and Melissa & Doug. Testing all toys takes a month. the Good Housekeeping The team rates the toys in terms of skill-building attributes and gets feedback from kids, which I consider to be the harshest critics of all. Being recognized by the mainstream media as a “best toy” – as opposed to the best “miscellaneous” toy or the best “cultural” toy – is truly the best compliment ever.
NJF: How have your mantra plush dolls impacted people’s lives?
ADM: The story that touched us the most is that of a 4-year-old boy who was hospitalized for a 10-week course of chemotherapy. His mother shared that Baby Ganesh and Baby Hanuman never left her son during his entire stay, comforting him, while giving parents the strength to know that God was watching over him in their absence. Likewise, there is the story of a future grandfather undergoing aggressive chemotherapy to treat acute myeloid leukemia. [One of] his children shared, “My dad has been through so much and could very well be in his last days or weeks of life on this earth. We don’t know if he’ll ever see his first grandchild again, but we do know the comfort your toys have given him…you’ve created real good in this world with those toys. I know they are intended for children, but they impact us all the same.
NJF: How have your children been involved with Modi Toys?
ADM: As Chief Inspiration Officers of the company, their work never ends! I enjoy watching my children and my nieces play and observing what strikes and holds their attention. I often find myself asking things like, “How can I make this moment more culturally meaningful?” This is how the idea of our musical crib mobile was born. I often found myself humming and softly chanting the Gayatri mantra (a popular Hindu prayer for the goddess Gayatri) while putting my eldest 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 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.
NJF: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
ADM: “Your greatest life is on the other side of your greatest fear.” To be honest, I was pretty happy 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 business, and I figured I would keep juggling all the balls for as long as I could. But the pandemic has changed the trajectory of my career and my life. I not only had two consecutive pandemic babies (in March 2020 and August 2021), but I was also laid off while on maternity leave. Although I was confident in the potential of our business, I was afraid of the uncertainty that entrepreneurship brought. It’s funny how once you’ve bet on yourself, you build the confidence of others to bet on you as well.
NJF: What’s next for Modi Toys?
ADM: We’re launching a new plush goddess later this fall, along with three children’s books. And with any luck, in the not too distant future, we will enter the big box stores.
NJF: What do you like doing in New Jersey with your kids?
ADM: When I got married and started my family six years ago, we lived in Weehawken, by the water. Having easy access to kid-friendly spots like the Liberty Science Center and, more recently, the recently 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 walked in my late teens.