Shereen Sabet - Academic, Entrepreneur and Public Speaker
Today we are very happy to introduce Shereen Sabet, a successful academic, entrepreneur & business owner, and public speaker. She exemplifies everything we mean by the term Collegiate Gigster.
What is your side-Gig? What made you decide to do a side-Gig? How long have you been doing it?
It's hard to know now which is the side-Gig--my college teaching or my private business. I trained as a scientist, receiving my PhD in Immunology from UCLA. I fully expected to have a typical academic career--do a postdoc after graduate school, then become a tenure-track professor undertaking teaching and scientific research. However, that didn't happen.
During my second postdoc, I established my own brand of modest/full-coverage swimwear at the encouragement of a retired businessman. I have no formal training as a designer, in apparel manufacturer, or in business; but I was naive enough to take on this 'project', which quickly became a full-fledged business endeavor. I decided to establish Splashgear thirteen years ago--one of only four brands in the world at that time--because of my own personal needs and after recognizing that I was not alone.
I became an observant practicing Muslim woman, which meant that at some point I decided to voluntarily abide by the Islamic modest dress code, a requirement of both men and women of the faith. I was already a certified scuba diver and realized, after choosing to dress more modestly, that I now faced a conundrum: how could I practice scuba diving, or any other water recreation, while being fully covered?
I wondered how other modest-dressing Muslim women participated in water activities and discovered that that they didn't precisely because there were no modest swimwear options available for them. After contacting a couple of different mainstream swimwear companies and getting negative responses, I realized that I had to create a modest, Islamically-compliant swimwear line myself.
I had worked full-time as an assistant professor at a private college, but that very suddenly ended due to the political climate there. I am geographically restricted and was not able to secure a full-time, tenure-track position at the local universities in a very competitive market. So, instead, I fell back on teaching as a temp (which is less than part-time). At this point, I am not really sure which is the side-Gig: my company or my teaching.
What did you study in college? How did this inform your career path and/or your side-Gig?
I majored in Biological Sciences at UCI because I wanted to grow up and be a veterinarian. That changed after taking several biology courses. I became utterly fascinated by science and decided that I wanted to instead become a biologist. I went on to be a lab assistant in two UCI labs before entering a UCLA PhD program in the Microbiology & Immunology department.
After I received my PhD in immunology, I carried out postdoctoral research work in a marine virology lab at UCI (Dr. Sunny Jiang's lab) and then in a hypersaline microbial ecology lab at CSULB (Dr. Dillon's lab). It was in between my first and second postdocs that I began thinking about establishing my own brand of modest/full-coverage swimwear based on personal experiences, and it was during my second postdoc at CSULB that Splashgear was born.
My scientific background could not prepare me in the least to run a business; but my analytical and scientific skills did help me to design a very thoughtful swimwear line, the features of which have been appreciated by customers as they have shared their feedback with me. My scientific skill set is what helped me to technically design a swimsuit that is modest both in and out of the water and is safe.
I knew that I would need to test my line to ensure that claims made were true. One of the characteristics that sets Splashgear apart from other brands is that I tested each garment in a pool before it was put on the market and that the line has safety, performance, and convenience features built-in. I credit my scientific training for helping me produce a technically superior modest swimwear line.
What is the best part about doing a side-Gig?
The customers. I am always tickled pink every single time I meet a customer or talk to one on the phone who shares her positive Splashgear swimwear experiences with me. Oftentimes, the swimsuit has literally changed their life! The only reason that I struggled so much to establish and maintain this company--the only reason all of my hard work, tears, and sweat even happened--is because of the customers. They really need and want Splashgear swimwear and they are the only reason that this company, or side-Gig, even exists.
What was the hardest part about starting a side-Gig? How would you advise others to address this? : There were a lot of challenges for me when starting up Splashgear because I had absolutely no business or website development experience or knowledge. The very first and most basic challenge was a practical one and that was setting up a website. I had no programming skills at all and I knew nothing about building a website. I had to figure out the details of setting up and troubleshooting an e-commerce website using computer programming. Keep in mind that these were the days before such user-friendly interfaces like Wix, Volusion, and Shopify.
The other challenges were finding factories to manufacture the line. Having no formal training or knowledge about sewing garments, I learned 'on-the-job' basics from those in the industry including patternmakers, fabric suppliers, and sewing contractors. My classroom was literally the factory floor or a patternmaker's office. Some advice I would give to someone starting out on a side-Gig is to do thorough research and educate yourself on the field you want to side-Gig in. Take your time to prepare yourself to maximize your success, or at least your comfort. Seek out others who have expertise in the side-Gig you are interested in and learn from their successes and failures in order to avoid pitfalls, as much as possible.
How have you leveraged social media and the web to grow your side-Gig?
Not as much or as well as I should have been. In the beginning--way back in the earlier days of internet search and e-commerce--I saw how SEO (and more specifically, the Google search engine) was driving traffic to the Splashgear website; but then Google changed its algorithm over time and I wasn't able to keep up. I was working full-time, and keep in mind that modern social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, didn't even exist then.
Getting on board the social media wagon when it arrived was very challenging due to a) lack of time (did I mention I was working full-time as a college professor?) and b) a lack of understanding about how to effectively use these new social media tools. Now that I have a better understanding of how to use social media, I am viewing it in a different perspective and stressing out about it much less than I did before.
Now I am viewing social media really more as a hobby where I can finally get out and do photography like I had wanted to earlier in my life, and share information with others that is still relevant to the Splashgear mission; but it's not about a 'hard sell', instead it will be more about "hey, check this out, isn't it cool?!" So, I aim to have fun with social media for my business while focusing on SEO and other related functions to drive sales, including blog articles and e-newsletters.
In the end, though, business experts still recommend a monthly spending budget for online advertising. So, at the end of the day, it looks like we are back to where we began pre-social media, and that is paid advertising, which is still necessary even in the age of free social media.
Many people start a side-Gig to reach financial freedom. Is doing a side-Gig profitable?
Splashgear was indeed quite profitable in the beginning and I was pretty amazed at how much so with little effort; however, I did not go full-time with my side-Gig, so, it lost profitability. Profitability really depends on the type of side-Gig one is undertaking and requires very low overhead in order to be financially successful.
In the end, Splashgear really wasn't a side-Gig, or should never have been treated as such. It is a full-fledged business enterprise of its own and really deserved to be treated that way. So, one has to choose very carefully what side-Gig to do. Driving Uber or Lyft for a living is not a side-Gig. Manufacturing anything is not a side-Gig. By definition, a side-Gig is a job that supplements one's main income, but oftentimes, people begin a side-Gig hoping and thinking it will become the main source of income. If that is the case, then they really ought to give it the full attention that a revenue-generating project requires.
How do you balance your side-Gig with your personal life (family, vacations, leisure-time, etc.)?
It's not easy, but I will admit that life is definitely better when not working a full-time year-round job. On the one hand, Splashgear-related activities can occur on the weekends, which are typically reserved for family or leisure time. On the other hand, I don't answer to anyone else, so, I have more flexibility and less stress (or different stresses).
Furthermore, I have been planning new preps for college courses over the past 5 years, so, I have had to invest quite a bit of time with my teaching. I don't think I have found an actual balance, yet, between my side-Gig and my personal life. As they say, it's still a work in progress. *wink*
What is your goal in the next 5-10 years?
Well, what I would really like to do is teach college courses on a regular basis every Fall term and manage Splashgear the rest of the year. That would allow me to carry out both passions since I do enjoy teaching and sharing knowledge, helping to prepare the next generation of medical professionals and scientists through teaching; while at the same time serving women's full-coverage swimwear needs, which may be a relatively small niche, but it does exist and does need someone to provide a broader swimwear option than what is currently available on the market.
I would be thrilled if I could establish my dream lifestyle of teaching in the fall while running Splashgear in the spring and summer. My specific goal for Splashgear within the next 5-10 years is to have the swimwear line offered in sporting goods retail stores. Splashgear pioneered the modest swimwear category at the largest online retailer, swimoutlet.com, which has carried the line for the past twelve years; but I also envision the Splashgear swimwear line in sporting goods stores like REI, Dick's Sporting Goods, etc, as I think it is a very fitting product that aligns well with those stores.
For more information about Shereen Sabet and her company, see below: