Outdoors Is for Everyone

By Casey Halas

Qudsia Khan (ARCE ’09, M.A.S. STE ’11)

TO DEVELOP A “HARD” MATERIAL product good enough to stand out amongst an army of software apps at the prestigious TechRise Chicago pitch competition, longtime friends Qudsia Khan (ARCE ’09, M.A.S. STE ’11) and Sana Jafri had to come up with an idea that wasn’t just promising, but timely.

They found one in the great outdoors that stood out among their peers to win the top prize of $100,000 in the TechRise competition.

Whether it was enjoying long hikes or spending time at the local park with their kids, Khan (chief operating officer) and Jafri (CEO), co-founders of Babygami, discovered that the availability of easily packable, collapsible, and accessible containers and cups for their young children was slim to none.

Tired of buying and bringing along several different products on her outings, Jafri approached Khan with an idea for a collapsible, silicone baby bottle, and together they brainstormed and collaborated on its multipurpose functionality and sustainability.

But that wasn’t the duo’s only inspiration for wanting to break into the outdoor industry.

“The outdoor industry has only 1 percent founders of color,” says Khan. “We also found that a lot of people of color just have a barrier to the outside in general. They feel like they don’t fit the persona of what it means to be an outdoorsy person. So we want to show that the outdoors is for everybody, outside is for anybody.”

They had the vision, they just needed the resources and business acumen to get Babygami off the ground. In 2021 Khan and Jafri joined REI Co-Op and Founded Outdoors’ Embark program, a virtual, three-month program designed to support minority entrepreneurs in the early stages of their business ventures.

Having primarily an engineering background, Khan found the program to be integral to understanding the business side of a startup, including the importance of establishing a mission and a brand. Community and the idea that “outside is for everybody” became the central theme of Babygami, in addition to sustainability.

Khan and Jafri even started monthly outings for families in the Chicago area, where everyone could enjoy the great outdoors together and where parents could see the ease of Babygami in action.

With the business knowledge and solid customer base acquired through the Embark program, Khan and Jafri took on TechRise Chicago’s pitch competition, which included the $100,000 top prize.

After several rounds of pitching, Babygami found itself up against five software application companies in the final round of the TechRise competition.

“We were the only ones with a hard good,” says Khan. “When I came up on stage, I handed each of the judges a bottle, and being able to have it in their hands and see how it works…that was a moment that really sealed the deal for us.”

Khan’s feelings of hope were assured as she and Jafri placed first, securing the capital that they needed to start mass-producing their product. “It came at such a pivotal moment for us,” Khan says. “We really were at a turning point, and it meant so much.”