Not all face masks are made equal. After finding herself in Hong Kong during the outbreak of SARS back in ’04, London-based founder Faiza Seth has found herself ahead of the game after combining the experience with her background in design to create The Avantguard.
Setting these masks apart from the average unsustainable disposable is the trademarked Aerosilver technology – a ‘next generation healthcare fabric that has built-in anti-viral, and anti-bacterial functions that survive washing’.
Unlike nanosilver, Aerosilver is not released into the skin when worn, or into the environment when washed. The product has also been awarded a Product Class I certification from Oeko-Tex, an internationally recognised textile testing and certification organisation that renders The Avantguard (AG) safe even for babies.
Alongside scientific effectiveness, AG also recognised the need for comfortable, stylish and skincare-friendly designs that encourage people to actually wear them. Whereas many masks cause irritation, eczema flare-ups and ‘maskne’ (acne), AG fits snugly on the skin while boasting a protective layer that helps to move sweat and bacteria to the outer layer of the fabric, preventing clogging and build up.
Tell us a little bit more about your role within the company and why you came up with the idea of AG?
I am the Founder and CEO of The Avantguard and when I travelled to Hong Kong from London during the SARS pandemic, I noticed how masks made a massive difference – helping to save both lives and the economy. Therefore, I wanted to create a mask that is luxurious, effective and saves the environment, as well as encouraging adoption of mask wearing.
How does the Aerosilver technology work on a molecular level?
Our masks are made from a fabric that we have developed in-house, using Aerosilver fibres that are made of pure elemental silver. Silver is an antimicrobial element which has been used for millennia dating back past the ancient Romans. When in contact with a virus or bacteria it deactivates the virus/bacteria. We chose Silver over other antimicrobial elements as some can cause allergies or can be toxic, and Silver is neither.
How does the skin protective layer move sweat and bacteria away from the skin?
The skin protective layer consists of modal fabric – a plant based textile made from Beechwood pulp – which is silky soft, and super breathable. Its natural properties allow breathability so sweat and excess moisture are quickly released and not trapped next to the skin. Modal is 50% more absorbent than cotton, and efficiently absorbs sweat. This inner skin protect layer is especially good for eczema prone skin because it collects excess sweat quickly. This way preventing breakouts or ‘maskne’.
Do these properties stay after washing?
Avantguard’s antimicrobial (antiviral and antibacterial) properties are inherent in the masks and pouches. Since the elemental silver is part of the fibre that makes the mask, these antiviral and antibacterial properties are permanent. Most other solutions available right now use an external treatment of their fabric which of course washes out and also leeches out, leading to skin irritations or worse.
How do these compare to the N95 Masks currently ranked no.1?
N95 Masks only offer protection sufficient in a very controlled environment and have to be fitted properly and changed every three to four hours of wearing. The slightest unevenness (like a beard stubble for instance) will render the fitting dysfunctional and the mask useless.
N95 masks are also uncomfortable to wear which makes it more likely to try not to wear them. Also the material of the mask is not antiviral which bears the risk of contamination when touching the mask or taking it off. And we have not even looked at the environmental impact of disposable masks: if everyone in Britain used a single-use mask each day for a year, it would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging. Evidence also suggests masks may be a source of harmful microplastic fibres on land and in waterways and litter.
The Avantguard mask is antiviral and antibacterial, super comfortable to wear and to breathe. Disposable masks produce 20 times more environmental pollution than our mask. Because the Avantguard mask is so comfortable to wear and easy to breathe one is more likely to wear it which is why it effectively offers better protection than the N95 in a practical setting.
As a serial entrepreneur, how and why did you first decide to enter the world of business?
As an entrepreneur you develop products and services that help improve people’s lives.
Did you fundraise for your business?
Fortunately, I had some savings to fund Avantguard. I am so grateful as having the freedom to make investment decisions without shareholder pressure especially in the start up phase is a huge blessing.
What difficulties have you faced and how did you get around them?
The biggest difficulty I have faced is being an Indian woman in a largely male dominated business world, especially in Hong Kong, where I started my career when I was 21. I still find being a non-white female in the business world a challenge, however, I feel that I just have to be confident, resilient, and focused, and everything will fall in place.
What social challenges have arisen, and what sacrifices have been made?
Challenges are always opportunities for growth. I’ve put in a lot of time and effort into work, and as a result had to sacrifice personal time as well as sleep on many occasions. As a result, I focus on giving quality time to my personal life.
How did studying for your degree(s) help as opposed to just launching into running a business?
My Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Northwestern University and my MBA from Stanford University has given me confidence, has given my stakeholders confidence in me, and has given me the frameworks to creatively problem solve.
What’s the smallest change that’s given the biggest return?
I feel that inspiring people as well as incentivising them the right way brings alignment and help facilitate the largest returns financially, professionally and personally.
What motivates you?
Helping people motivates me, and that’s why I launched Avantguard. I wanted to make luxurious and fashionable masks that use cutting edge technology to make masks more of a fashion accessory to encourage people to wear them.
What’s been your biggest achievement in life thus far?
And biggest lesson / failure?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned has been to give my team members clear and actionable feedback. It makes a huge difference to everyone’s professional satisfaction if they know how they can improve and contribute more positively to the overall success of the company.
What you know, or who you know?
How do you deal with burnout?
Do you have a mentor or people you ask for advice?
I believe your mentors evolve as you progress in your career. I now have different mentors to when I was 20. I am a firm believer that all people have a lot to offer, and you can learn from everyone. Currently, I feel my best learning happens from my peers, and my classmates from The Graduate School of Business at Stanford University have always been a good sounding board.
What percentage of your time do you keep unscheduled?
Currently very little, but that’s ok. I have so much on my plate, and I care about details, so I spend a lot of time working.
If you weren’t running your business, what would you be doing?
I’d be focusing on my charity Soham for Kids to increase its impact. I also love learning, and I would love to have time to study Mandarin as well as taking more courses focused on my other academic interests.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
My strength is that I am an incessant source of positivity and this makes me resilient. I never need a reason to be positive, I just inherently am. As a result, I always think everyone always means the best and always see the good in everyone. I am also very detail oriented, however this is a weakness because I can become my own bottleneck sometimes.
How has what you do changed you as a person?
I think as a person, I have learned to compartmentalise better as the nature of work is always challenging and consists of problem solving. As a result, I try more to be present in the moment, whichever moment. Whether it is pumpkin carving with my children, or enjoying the beautiful colours of a sunset.
If time and money were no object – what would be on your to do / to see list?
I absolutely love to travel and experience different cultures. There is so much to learn from other cultures. I feel that one of the best gifts one can give to themselves or their families is the ability to travel and experience the beauty of the world – it broadens thinking, and increases learning. I have not explored much of Africa and South America, and would love to visit and explore these continents further in the future.