A mask is a mask is a . . . potential impediment when you’re trying to decipher a torrent of words pouring from a toddler’s mouth. Or so I discovered when, after months of hyper-cautious isolation, I was finally adopted into my daughter’s “pod” with her 4-year-old twins.
As we embarked on jaunts to a vast, bucolic historical cemetery — the safest, greenest space we could think of — I realized that, in our time apart, the girls’ vocabulary had increased a thousandfold, in inverse proportion to my ability to decipher their nonstop stream-of-consciousness commentary. If we were going to re-establish clear lines of communication, I would need some kind of visual assist.
I looked into child-sized face shields — no help, because the girls would still have to cover up. A cursory Amazon search brought me to Rafi Nova, a small Newton company that offers “Smile Masks” in both adult and child sizes. The “smile” element is a transparent rectangle framing the mouth.
I sprang for two pairs of each, large and small. Many satisfied months later, there’s only one downside that I can see to wearing a Rafi Nova smile mask: Everywhere you go, you’ll be barraged with questions: Where did you get it? How can I get one?
Curious to learn more about the company, I talked with co-founder Marissa Goldstein, who has quite the origin story.
She and her husband/partner, Adam Goldstein, were teenage sweethearts, prom dates at the Rivers School in Weston in 2003. A decade later, having married, they wandered around the world for six months and “fell in love” with Vietnam. Seeking a way to stay, Adam founded a consulting company, Timroon, which acts as a liaison for US businesses interested in manufacturing there.
The Goldsteins remained bi-continental even after their twins came along. Or perhaps I should say “twinses”? They have two sets, ages 5 and almost 3.
I know firsthand the kind of chaos twin toddlers can create. The idea of starting up a business while wrangling an entire quartet seems unimaginable. Undaunted, the Goldsteins introduced Rafi Nova in February 2020 with a line of backpacks and luggage decorated with ethically sourced, “up-cycled” Hmong embroidery.
It was maybe not the best time to start up a business predicated on the Goldsteins’ own passion for globetrotting. “Two weeks after launch,” Marissa Goldstein reminisces, “there was a stay-at-home order in Massachusetts and nobody was buying $200 travel bags.”
Rafi Nova — the name combines syllables from the names of the couple’s four children — had to “pivot” rapidly.
The idea for a transparent mask arose early on. Marissa Goldstein and the fledgling company’s marketing manager at the time were in the Goldsteins’ garage, fulfilling orders. “I kept saying, ‘I’m smiling behind the mask, but you can’t see it.” Her co-worker daylighted as a speech and language pathologist. “I have all these students who are deaf and hard of hearing,” Goldstein recalls her saying. “They aren’t going be able to wear masks, because they rely on lip-reading.”
“We’re always open to trying things,” says Goldstein, “and we are very quick with developing new products. Within a couple of weeks, we sent samples out to get feedback. We thought that the smile mask would be just for a small subset of the community that relies on lip-reading. Turns out, the same facial cues are vital to children’s education and communication.”
After they commissioned a fabric design for the see-through mask from deaf actress Millie Simmonds (“A Quiet Place”), the notion went viral: “Thousands of schools from all over the country were sending us purchase orders.”
Ravi Nova’s latest innovation, prompted by a customer inquiry and designed in concert with the Easter Seals organization, is a silk-lined mask designed for kids and adults with autism and sensory sensitivities in general. “It sits off the face so that you don’t feel it,” says Goldstein. “It’s very comfortable.”
And when — may the day come soon! — the current crisis has abated?
“We started Rafi Nova with a mission to create products that get families out to do fun things,” she says. “Not necessarily traveling in Southeast Asia, but just like going to the park, to the zoo . . . doing things as a family that gets you out and about.”
I know two little girls and one grandmother who are very grateful to be able to do so.
More information about Rafi Nova and its products can be found at www.rafinova.com. Sandy MacDonald can be reached at @sandymacdonaldnyc