They say necessity is the mother of invention and today’s guest is the perfect example. Shalini Shamtani is the founder of Open the Joy, which partners with Spread the Joy Foundation aims to brighten up the lives of kids who are hospitalized and fighting major pediatric illnesses.
Although Shalini Samtani has a diverse background in law, real estate and interior design- her true passion lies in bringing joy to hospitalized children.
Through her youngest child’s repeated hospitalization, she experienced first hand the toll that childhood diseases have on children and their caregivers.
As CEO of Open the Joy and as the President of the Spread The Joy Foundation, her mission is to change the perception and dialogue about childhood diseases to a more positive, joyful and purposeful one.
How Did Open the Joy Get Started?
Shalini Shamtani: So unfortunately, Open the Joy did not really start in the most joyful place. But when my daughter was born, we found out very quickly about eight months into her life that she had a very rare immune disorder, one in a million type situation.
What happened over the next couple of years was frequent hospitalizations. And I think just being in the hospital room so often with her, I quickly realized that I couldn’t control her numbers. I couldn’t control how her health was doing as much as every mother just wants to be able to control that, I couldn’t. And the one thing that I could control was that it was still my job to let her be a kid. I tried my best in the hospital setting, even when we’re outside of the hospital and on different therapies to make it positive, to make it fun for her to just try to normalize our lives as much as I could.
I didn’t know how to start with this process of healing through play. That became my model. How do we work on making these kids just feel normal and have fun? And I love that people would hit visit us when we were in and out of the hospital. They would bring me the flowers or the little ones. And it was just such a waste of money for our family. There was nothing that we could do with that. And the people who I really checked in in the hospital setting were these people called Child Life Services. Now there are people that are, in my opinion, the unsung heroes of the medical workforce and their job is really to make a child feel like a child in that setting.
They were just so smart at what they did. The activities that they chose that they brought into work with children, they were all fun games, toys, things like that, but they were all therapeutically-based. They had found this perfect disguise for like to work with these children that were feeling down, but to make them feel kind of more uplifted through toys and play. And I just watched that and I worked with them and I learned from that. Just by watching them serving how well they did what they did. I said, we need a toy company that makes toys like this, who understands this and who makes toys like this. And that’s when I developed the Feel Better Box.
In the beginning, it just became a grab and go box for me that we were going to hospital, bring the Feel Better Box with us. And it was all the toys and things that I knew had that therapeutic kind of value that I could do with her while we were waiting in the ER or while we were waiting for rounds or whatever it was. And then finally, if she started to stabilize more and more, we started making these Feel Better Boxes and just donating them to local hospitals. And the feedback was just phenomenal, phenomenal. I remember one of the sweetest things I heard is a doctor who sum up on my cell phone and says, “I don’t know who you are, but I could see your heart through your work. And just please continue doing what you’re doing. You are changing the atmosphere on our pediatric floor.” Yeah.
I think that was when I knew that this was what I was meant to do. I was an attorney before all of this. And I was like, nope, this is what I want to do. I want to make these little Joy boxes. I’ve become good at this. I know how to do this. And then I just started… It became expensive a project. So I would start importing products and buying things in bulk.
Then hospitals would start reaching out to me and saying, “How are you sourcing some of the items that are going in here?” And I was like, “Oh, I just figured out how to outsource and manufacturer.” So that’s kind of where the origins of the whole company started off with just this little box that we made for ourselves and then we started delivering them to hospitals. And what happened was that people wanted more and more boxes, more and more boxes. And we needed to now find a way to fund all of this. So that’s how the company was started.
Can explain the difference between Open the Joy and then Spread the Joy?
Shalini Shamtani: That’s a great question. Open the Joy originally was Spread the Joy because all that Open the Joy was doing was giving out these boxes for free to hospitals across the tri-state area. And one day, my accountant pulled me aside and said, “This is a non-profit. This is not a business. You need to turn this into a non-profit if that’s our intention.” And that’s what we did. We turned it into a non-profit. It became the Spread the Joy Foundation. It’s a registered 501c3. And what that allowed us to do is allowed us expand or reach overnight because now that we were a 501c3, we could partner with other organizations.
We could partner with other foundations. And the foundation has grown exponentially since then. We’re in 20 hospitals across America. We just launched a campaign for 3,000 Joy boxes that are going to go out before Thanksgiving. So that’s the foundation, was Open the Joy at one point, but then the foundation took on its own wings. And Open the Joy became its own company that started manufacturing our own activity kits for kids in the hospital, kids recovering at home and just for play like generally healing through play.
Sherri Langburt: I saw that you now have more products in your site, which I’d love to talk about, but they’re amazing. And I think, especially now with COVID and so many kids at home and needing that pick me up, it’s definitely much needed. Curious to know because I have spoken to different non-profits, particularly the Teen Cancer Foundation, are you partnering with other non-profits like that? I mean, I know there’s just a desperate need in hospitals for different young children, even the premature babies when the parents are in the hospitals for so many weeks at a time.
Are you partnered with any other non-profits?
Shalini Shamtani: Yes we do. We partner with several non-profits. On the Spread the Joy Foundation, it’s actually works with a lot of different community-based organizations. So we do. We absolutely do. And more can be found out on the foundation’s website, spreadthejoy.org. And we’re constantly partnering with different hospitals with different non-profits. We partner with the Girl Scouts. With anybody and everybody who wants to join the cause really.
How many boxes have you done so far?
Shalini Shamtani: Spread the Joy Foundation has done between the three to 5,000 boxes in the tri-state area. And that keeps… That number keeps on growing exponentially because it’s very dependent also on volunteers. So it really depends on how many volunteers we get at a given time. And what happened in our situation with COVID hit, our packing parties and our ability to assemble went down significantly.
As we started out by saying that necessity is the mother of all infections, our foundation has actually learned how to ship out boxes to kids in the hospital. So it’s actually something amazing that happened because now what we do is we have these kind of virtual packing events where people just pick up the materials from the headquarters, the foundation’s headquarters, they take it home and then we send them shipping labels and they get automatically routed to the closest local hospital.
How do you work with the hospitals to determine how many and who they are for?
Shalini Shamtani: We actually have somebody who works specifically as a liaison with the hospitals and it’s exactly like that. We reached out to them. And the biggest problem that hospitals have is their ability to store. So it’s a continual process because they don’t have this huge storage space to keep all the boxes.
Every month we reach out to them and they tell us, okay, we need 18 boxes. We need 36 boxes. Can you send us 100 this month? And me continually manage those relationships. So we have somebody who works, volunteer who works specifically on managing that relationship-
What goes into every Open the Joy box and how do you kind of find products that appeal to the whole family?
Shalini Shamtani: I didn’t see products out there specifically that we develop this line that appeals not only to the child, but to the parent to kind of create that bonding relationship between them. And going back to what I said earlier, the biggest help for us was really working with Child Life Services in the hospital. They knew what they were doing. They just understood this science. And we worked with them to kind of develop our entire product lines, even if it’s something as simple as origami. The reason we choose origami is because it develops fine motor skills. It develops gross motor skills. It has this facial awareness. It develops a sense of confidence when the child is able to complete the project and everything we do, even if it’s magic or if it’s jokes or conversation starters, they’re all meant to create a bonding experience between the child and the parent.
More specifically, everything we do is very heavy on conversation. So even if we have a deck of playing cards, there’s conversation starters on the back where there’s Would you Rather questions on the back. And all of those questions that we developed, although it just looks like fun and it’s really uplifting for kids, there’s what I like to call nutrition that went into the development of those. And what I mean by nutrition is we worked with therapist to make sure we were getting the questions right, that they were open-ended, that they were creating conversations. And that sometimes there were the door to more meaningful conversations between families.
Are all the boxes fully custom or do you take products from toy companies and put them in your boxes?
Shalini Shamtani: No, Open the Joy does not. Open the Joy manufactures completely all box from beginning to end. But the Spread the Joy Foundation takes donations and they actually purchase a lot of products to make those boxes as well.
Okay. Interesting, and so I’m curious because I was looking through some of your new products, Feel Better, Decorate our Kits for your Room, Fighter Capes. These are just so inspiring.
Who comes up with the names, the themes and sources, all of them and designs them?
Shalini Shamtani: Actually, the themes will come up from a higher level, then having our teams that looks at what’s lacking in this space for kids and what they would enjoy. I work a lot in the background design as well because that’s what you have a background in design from FIT. But truthfully, everything has to be approved by kids. \
Our biggest product testers are our children. If the kids don’t like it, if the kids say, the color is wrong or it’s not appealing, it’s over. We won’t manufacture it. I could give you a funny example. My nephew is so opinionated and he’s fantastic. And I remember when we were developing our Would you Rather cards, I would call every day with would you rather questions to see [inaudible 00:12:01] passed or not.
One day I asked him, I said, Jay, would you rather have bubble come flavored snots or Hershey kisses for farts? And he… This is the mind of a child. He tells me, “Well, are the Hershey’s kisses covered or not?” I’m like, okay. The question has made it to the back of the card. So to really answer your question, it’s kids. Everything has to be fun and fun for kids. So even though we work with therapists and consultants to make sure that everything has that kind of nutritional aspect to it, it has to pass the kid test because the kids… It’s like feeding broccoli to your child. You have to put the cheese on it or something to make it fun for the child.
Sherri Langburt: Right, and I’ll tell you that I played plenty of games of Would you Rather with my son. It’s very interesting what we come up with.
What are some ways people can get involved and help?
Shalini Shamtani: Yes, I think the biggest thing, what we’re looking for right now is truly brand awareness. Our products have a good sell through rate. We’ve noticed that, especially in the hospital gift shops and stuff, they have a great sell-through rate. And the other thing we’ve noticed is that we don’t get testimonials, we get a love letters from the people who buy our products. Literally, we get these just beautiful, beautiful feedback from the people who love our products. But the problem is that not enough people know that we’re out there. And I think anybody who could just help spread our word will really help us to spread our cause as well. So when we started off, when we launched, we had some great momentum because we just launched the product line at New York now 2019 at which we won the award for the best new product for kids. And then we won the award, Rookie-
Yeah, and did a whole line. Won again, at Toy Fair for New Kid on the Block, If my Cat and then a Toy Fest, we won for the best amount of actors award. So all of this momentum was building and then COVID hit and all our trade shows finished. Our B2B became a little bit more difficult than slow as the country shut down. But so now as we kind of pivot to going online and direct to consumer, I think brand awareness is one of the greatest gifts that someone could give us.
We would love to partner with everybody who believes in our mission. Our mission is really you play, we give, kids heal. It’s very simple, but as we discuss it, it’s a big process from beginning to end to developing the right products, to developing the right partnerships with the hospitals and to making sure that the products we’re delivering to hospitals meet their standards and really have that healing effect on children during difficult time. So if you want to help us spread in that mission in any level, the play, to give or to heal, we are so open to partnerships.
Since COVID, what has it been like transitioning to e-commerce?
Shalini Shamtani: Yeah, so actually Sherri, just to correct you, when we did the first show that when we launched our product line in the Feel Better Kit, when the Award for the Best New Product for Kids 2019, we got amazing feedback from the industry and what they told us was, hey, we love this, but what about the child who’s not sick? Can we have a rainy day bag or can we have a non the goal box? And we said, well, why not. All the same therapeutical principles apply there. If you’re sitting in a car for some time with the child and a parent, why not have a conversation started where you’re using that time out and turning it into time in, where you’re making it an opportunity to have meaningful conversations.
Shalini Shamtani: By the time we did our second show, we’d already launched our collection, which is not only like the Feel Better stuff, but it’s also an entire line of toys and activity kits for kids that have that same nutritional value. But also aren’t necessarily only for the sick child. So we had done that. And we did that right before COVID and actually our next product launch is coming in very, very soon. Within the next month, we should have all the inventory in for that.
So that’s how we launched our e-commerce site and it’s very exciting. We have some great partnerships. We did a partnership with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. So we did an entire EQ-line. Going back to the question of what about the child who isn’t sick? You guys have learned so much in a hospital setting, how can we apply this to other forums? So we didn’t. An entire line focused on intelligence, emotional intelligence in kids. So we have the Love and Forgiveness box that’s coming out. We have the Anger Management box that’s coming out. We have the Kindness Mission that’s coming out. So all of that was kind of a part of our e-commerce initiative and launch.
What would you say so far have been your top tactics that have helped grow the brand?
Shalini Shamtani: I think TikTok. TikTok has been really great and-
I think I just slipped across it because my sister is actually a very famous influencer on TikTok.
It wasn’t something that we all kind of strategically did. It’s just that we’re all just so cookie in my family that when COVID hit, we all went on TikTok and we started posting these really ridiculous cookie videos of ourselves. And my sister turned out becoming an overnight sensation. She is having 2.4, 2.5 million followers.
Sherri Langburt: Oh my God, what does she go by?
Shalini Shamtani: Sheena Melwani.
Sheena and the real Indian dad is her partner in crime on TikTok. So when she was staying with me, sister come, could just come into TikTok video and I would go with her and I would do just ridiculous things in her TikTok video where you’ll see the Open the Joy box there and just silly, silly things. But I mean, we got great feedback from her TikTok. And whenever she… If I remember on her show, my Shopify stores, [inaudible 00:18:45]. They love that cookieness and they love that genuineness. I think TikTok has been a good one for us so far.
On the flip side, what are some of the obstacles you face with marketing?
Shalini Shamtani: I think with marketing and with influencer marketing and specific is really to find people who believe in your brand and understand your brand. I don’t feel that I’ve had as much success when it’s just more of a one-time thing where they don’t understand the company or they don’t understand really what it is that you stand for.
I don’t find that those see the same kind of results as when it’s somebody that you speak with, you take the time to build that relationship with the person who’s going to be your influencer. I think that’s a much more meaningful partnership. And I really use that word partnership because we’re nothing without the influencers. They are the ones who are voices for us. We’re nothing without our sales reps. So it’s truly developing that partnership. And I think finding that right fit of people who believe in the cause is so important.
Sherri Langburt: No, definitely. And I think that’s the trick with influencer marketing. It’s really finding the person who is going through the same thing or has the same needs. And it’s definitely fine tuning the types of influencers you work with.
Shalini Shamtani: I felt with my sister, there was no… It was so obvious her following that she wasn’t just promoting a product.
Shalini Shamtani: It was so obviously she loved our product and there’s pictures of her playing with our product. So, I mean, it was genuine. So it was real. So I think it’s just we have to… I think our company’s model from the start, what we do is just so wholesome. The work we do from the products we develop. So all our partnerships have to encompass that same kind of feeling.
Have you done anything to target nurses or doctors at hospitals?
Shalini Shamtani: I have not actually. That’s a very good point that you’re bringing up. And I think we’re always, having come from the hospital setting was very sensitive to how I approach because their main job is really to take care of their patients. But I do understand what you’re saying and I have not explored that, but it is a good point that you’re bringing up, Sherri.
Sherri Langburt: Yeah, even from an organic’s perspective, you could send them, maybe it would open doors to getting you into different hospitals, but just sending them the kit if they wanted it so that you have more people who are really the front liners in the hospitals being able to share.
I would definitely keep it as organic, not a paid promotion, but it’s definitely a vehicle that could open a lot of doors in terms of exposure, but also entry into new hospitals and facilities.
Shalini Shamtani: Yeah, and that’s a great idea, Sherri. You’re right. I do see a lot of doctors on TikTok nowadays actually.
Sherri Langburt: I say this because my neighbor is in the ER doctor and all of a sudden she’s on TikTok every day.
Okay, that’s good to know.
I know there’s a lot of tools on social media for non-profits and for charitable contributions and donations, are you using any of those online tools and have they been beneficial?
Shalini Shamtani: For the Spread the Joy Foundation, we have an incredible team that does use Facebook. But in terms of our company, we’ve just started launching some brand awareness campaigns, but we haven’t dug down deep into that as yet.
Have you done any traditional PR?
No, we haven’t done anything like hiring a PR firm. But a lot of our PR was starting to pick up when we were doing the trade shows. We were approached by Good Morning America and we’ve been approached by a couple of TV networks and shows, but everything just kind of slowed down right after it, the Home Shopping Network. But what happened after COVID, everything just kind of slowed down. So that’s why we’re really pivoting now to go online.
I would go back to what you started this interview with, Sherri, when you say that necessity is the mother of all invention. And I feel that we will learn so much through this. We have learned to develop our business in a new way that we weren’t thinking of before. So I think there’s much to learn from this opportunity as well.
What do you have in store if anything, for 2021 that you want to share?
Shalini Shamtani: Absolutely! The whole new product launch will be available for 2021. And right now, the most exciting thing that we’re launching is a stocking stuffers campaign for Christmas. And the whole idea is let’s stop fill your stocking stuffers with junk. As a parent, I know you’ve got all these little [talkies 00:24:15] that find themselves in the bottom of some drawer somewhere or stuck under your shoe and we’re like, why don’t we fill our stocking stuffers with meaning this year. So we’re doing a campaign with some of our activity cards, some of our grab and go conversation starters to make that a meaningful kind of stocking stuffer.
That’s the big thing that we’re working on for Christmas. And then all of our products are going to be in, our origami box, our magic box, our clay box. So our full product line should be here in time for Christmas. And in terms of 2021, what we’re super excited about is EQ collection, the one that we developed in conjunction with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, which really focuses on emotional wellbeing and emotional intelligence of kids.
Name an influencer you love to follow, but hate to admit that you do?
So the influencer that I love and I actually love to admit that I follow is @Sheena Melwani. She’s my sister as I mentioned and the real Indian dad, he’s her partner in crime and they are just a blast. They are hilarious. And they provide wholesome content, family, family content. And I just love that I’m a part of their world and I’d love to follow them.
Sherri Langburt: Thank you so much for everything and anything we could do to support your efforts, we’re here. And we just wish you much luck and love and joy and success. You’re really making a difference in the world for everyone and everyone could use more people like you. So thank you, Shalini.