Ask Questions. Be Creative. Change the World.

How’s your face mask fitting these days? Do you go with the standard disposable surgical mask, 50 in a box, or perhaps the custom-made cloth ones in fancy patterns and designs? Perhaps you just go for the handkerchief tied around the back of your head for easy on/off and no pressure on the ears. Or maybe you got your hands on a hard-to-find stash of N95 masks, which seem to continue to be ranked among the top for curbing transmission of the Coronavirus and COVID-19.

I’ve been mostly using cloth masks that reflect my different interests (I have one with bees, a couple wine themed masks, funky designs, and even a dinosaur one to represent my fondness for the T-Rex) and sometimes a disposable surgical mask every now and then. I haven’t tried the N95, but I’ve seen them in the wild and I noticed that it’s quite a different design; it’s not flat. Instead, the design is more conical and extends out from the face but also cups around the mouth and nose. It forms a cup of sorts, and without the gaps I often find from the flat designs of surgical or some cloth masks.

This post isn’t about mask fashion, etiquette, efficacy, or any of that, I promise. It’s about diversity. It’s about seeking out and accepting embracing different viewpoints. It’s about seeing and respecting how people’s different experiences in life can give us valuable insight into life, business, and literally add value to our wallets and our lives. It’s about stepping out of your comfort zone to continue to grow and push your own limits.

If you don’t stretch, you won’t know where the edge is.

Sara Little Turnbull

I first heard of Sara Turnbull a few months ago on NPR. I don’t want to merely regurgitate the 7-minute listen because it’s really worth the time to hear for oneself, but I marveled at her story. Her tenacity and contributions to the world inspire a lot of my own advocacy; listening to those with “unique” perspectives, and her unintended advocacy for those without their own voice.

To summarize Sara Turnbull’s maverick nature in the 1950’s, she started pointing out and asking why companies were creating products for the buyers (men) and not the end users (housewives). It’s a common practice to get into without the right frame of mind. Companies will often just cater to the person with the checkbook, forgetting that the one paying the bills might not even use the end product so didn’t really care about its use.

Back in the 50’s, the big company 3M took notice of Turnbull’s advocacy for the end users of products. Sure, as a woman she was hired for the stereotypical gift wrap ribbons and tape division of 3M but with access to the new materials and manufacturing techniques being developed, she branched out and ended up creating something very tailored to the end user: a molded bra cup!

Using her personal experience, as well as her own creativity and ingenuity, she designed a product that 3M invested in. But not stopping there, she was caring for three family members who were dying of various ailments. In helping with their care and various doctor visits, she saw doctors and nurses fumbling with the flat masks that needed to be tied and took her ideas to the executives at 3M to do more. The custom shape of the molded bra, paired with elastic bands would make a much more comfortable and formfitting face mask! And while the material first used was not effective, her idea and design were the precursor for what was to become the N95 face mask that is all too familiar to us in 2020.

That’s not her only contribution to our daily lives, either. She consulted with most of the prominent manufacturing companies and brands of the 20th century, including Coca-Cola, Corning, Procter & Gamble, various car companies, and NASA! She even contributed to the creation of CorningWare, which I suspect nearly everyone reading this has used, or at least eaten a delicious casserole from. CorningWare was another great reuse of materials… the cookware that stands up so well to temperature changes was developed from a material originally used on missile cones.

Though today Sara’s story is mostly lost to history, the lesson is timeless. Similar to my post about designing for disability to make things more accessible for everyone, Sara used her experience being a woman to design a product that should have always been designed for women. But it wasn’t just her gender that made her successful in new and innovative designs. She found curiosity to be her biggest asset; when she didn’t know something she asked questions and made observations. These are skills we all can leverage!

Sara Turnbull stretched her curiosity, the preconceptions of those around her, and old habits of society to change the world. Using her ingenuity and especially her curiosity, she contributed to products benefiting us all. But those attributes she are not as rare as you might think, and we can all implement them in our own lives. The first step, which we all are capable of doing, is merely being aware and curious of others’ backgrounds, abilities, and experiences.

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