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Exploring Life & Business with Caroline Kim Palacios of THE SMARTMASQ

Today we’d like to introduce you to Caroline Kim Palacios.

Hi Caroline, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
At the start of the pandemic, like so many others across the country, I was laid off from a career in the nonprofit sector. At the same time, my mom who has been in the garment industry for decades was feeling the impact of the pandemic on her business. Amidst the uncertainty of the times, one thing that helped me maintain some semblance of sanity was working out. I’ve been training in functional fitness for the past five years and since my home gym, Ganbatte Fitness was closed, all I could do was workout at home and run.

For months, I tried mask after mask and none of them worked the way I needed them to. Cloth and disposable paper masks would become so saturated with sweat and become impossible to breathe in. Even the ones made by big sportswear companies marketed toward athletes were not working for me in terms of how I wanted them to fit and function. As the scorching summer heat set in, I knew that other athletes and everyday people like me were struggling with the challenge of wearing masks while training and trying to survive pandemic life. So, my mom and I started working on some prototypes. We began with the understanding that simply living and moving through life in masks is difficult. We set out to answer the question of how we could make masks that were minimally distracting to the wearer as they moved through life – whether it was going for a walk or run, wrangling little ones in public, or enduring a grueling training session as a serious athlete. My mom is an expert in fabrics and construction and she was able to bring my very rough sketches to life. Over a few months, after testing our prototypes on athletes of diverse sports and backgrounds as well as “everyday movers”, we launched our SMARTMASQ line in December 2020.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I think there is a certain glamorization of what it is to be an entrepreneur. We hear about all of these companies that grow out of someone’s garage into the Amazons and Facebooks of the world. But, taking that leap into starting a business with little to no capital, in a male-dominated industry as women of immigrant heritage, during a time of unprecedented uncertainty, with none of the connections and access to the people and places that could help you get to that overnight success fantasy – all of that does have its share of struggles. But it is such an amazing rollercoaster of an adventure. There are some days where you’re on cloud nine because you conquered how to set up your e-commerce shop and you start see customers leaving amazing reviews of your products. Then, there are weeks of feeling gutted because you feel like you’re spinning your wheels in the mud sending out hundreds of outreach messages and precious free samples, only to hear nothing back. But, amidst these challenges, something that fuels me is thinking about my mom, who is a first-generation Korean immigrant. Very few immigrants come to this country with resources at their disposal to pursue whatever it is they want without the very real possibility of failure. Immigrants, like my mom, come here and simply make the decision to make something work. There is no such thing as simply giving up because you had a few hard days, months, or even years. My mom established herself as a small business owner and that small business is what provided for our family through all our ups and downs. So, while this process does have its share of struggles, this experience of starting a small business with my mom is an invaluable experience.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know?
Living in masks is hard, but knowing that they can help us begin to reclaim our community spaces and return to the things and people we cherish – that’s why we created SMARTMASQ. Each of our masks are thoughtfully designed to help as many people find the mask that allows them to move through life the ways they want to. SMARTMASQ is a line of performance masks created by athletes for athletes and everyday movers. Our masks are specifically designed to address the many fit and function issues that people experience when they are engaging in either physical activity or simply moving through life. We know that even with vaccination rates rising, masks will continue to play a role in helping to maintain the health and wellness of our communities. SMARTMASQs were designed to improve the experience of wearing masks by introducing unique, patent-pending innovations that help the breathability, wearability, and functionality of masks. We offer a variety of different mask options that take into account the fact that no two faces are like. There are a lot of masks out there that come in a single shape or size. SMARTMASQs come in different variations, sizes and have unique adjustable features that help people find their optimal fit. Currently, we offer five different models that provide people with different fit and function options. Whether you’re a serious athlete that needs their mask to fit a specific way or you just need a comfortable and durable mask for everyday use, SMARTMASQ has the mask for you. We are especially proud of the fact that individuals of so many different backgrounds and sports are finding masks that solve their most annoying mask problems – everything from the reduction or elimination of fogging while wearing glasses, to not experiencing skin irritation, to finally finding a mask that fits and doesn’t suffocate you during workouts. That’s what it means to #masksmarter.

What makes you happy?
Nothing makes me happier than seeing the promise of hard work pay off in ways that benefit the people I love. I value hard work and I feel really happy when I reach the end of a day knowing that I gave my best effort to everything I pursued that day – whether it was for work, my training, and in my life overall. But, when that hard work ends up bringing joy to the people I love the most – that’s a level 1,000 feeling and it’s what brings out the best in me. As an athlete, though I have trained in sports where I have competed as an individual, my best and most rewarding performances were when I was contributing to the collective efforts of a team. I’ll often joke around and say that while I might not be the fastest or strongest individual competitor, I will push myself to the edge of death for my team. That’s a mentality that I maintain in everyday life. The ability to deliver for my team is the result of the hard work that occurs consistently, and that’s what motivates me. On many days, the satisfaction of knowing that the hard work got done has to be enough. But, seeing the results of that work make my mom, my husband, my family, and friends proud – and also sharing the lessons I’m learning along the way to help others who might be experiencing a similar journey – these are the things that make me feel most fulfilled and happy.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Karissa & Mike Reckling (@wildflowerphotoco)

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