ahead of her time

Shark Tank Contestant Who Pitched Face Masks in 2009 Has No Regrets

Irina Blok can spot a trend 11 years early. Photo: ABC

Last night, as I was performing my ritual of devouring multiple Shark Tank reruns on CNBC, I watched a pitch from the show’s first season featuring a woman who was ahead of her time. The 2009 episode featured Irina Blok, a woman who called her new product Face Blok, which she described to the Sharks as “a collection of fashion surgical masks designed for people with an edgy sense of humor who want to express themselves.” Sounds like something very normal and needed and common for people in 2020, right? Well, in 2009 — even with the swine flu in the news at the time— not so much.

I was instantly fascinated with Blok after watching her appearance on the show. I became even more fascinated when I looked her up and discovered that she had designed the Android logo when she worked for Google just three years before her Shark Tank appearance, despite not being more widely known for it. This woman has a record of not getting the credit she deserves! I needed to know more, so I emailed Blok, and she was both happy to hear her Shark Tank pitch was recirculating and kind enough to answer some questions. “It seems so surreal how something that was done ten years ago is more relevant today,” she said over email. “I wish that wasn’t the case and we didn’t have the pandemic.”

Despite Blok’s excitement about her face masks, her pitch totally bombed with all of the Sharks. Barbara Corcoran refused to even accept one of Blok’s samples at the beginning of the segment, telling Blok “I think I’ll pass,” before officially dismissing the pitch as too “freaky.” Kevin Harrington passed because he thought it was a “novelty item, not a serious item.” Kevin O’Leary asked Daymond John if he thought face masks could be turned into fashion statements, and Daymond said, “No, I don’t believe so.” Robert Herjavec also passed, but to his credit he offered Blok a little bit of (slightly backhanded) encouragement: “Keep doing it as a side business. Don’t quit your day job. I’m out.” After Blok told the Sharks about her low sales but recent publicity and website traffic, O’Leary offered the segment’s most prescient quote: “But is that because swine flu was all over the news for two weeks? Now we don’t see it anymore. It’s an epidemic that came and went. You need a new epidemic to get that kind of hit profile again.” (Mark Cuban is safe from this discussion, by the way, because he didn’t join Shark Tank until the following season.)

Watch a clip of Blok’s pitch below:

In defense of the Sharks, Blok’s masks contained no surgically protective properties — she said that was partly why she was looking for an investor — and she only had a “couple hundred” sales. O’Leary told her, “It’s a unique idea, there’s no question. But as an investable concept, it’s not there.” Looking back now, Blok said that the Sharks’ response to her pitch was “understandable,” adding, “If we could predict the future, we could all be rich. Manufacturing at scale needed a considerable investment of time and money; for example, printing designs on surgical masks is not trivial, as machines were not set up for it.” She looks back on her pitch fondly and says it was “a fun experience even if they didn’t invest.” Still, Blok’s pitch doesn’t track as remotely “freaky” through a 2020 viewer’s eyes. She pitched the right product, just in the wrong decade.

While Blok’s face masks are sadly not available for purchase, she has a line of “Only in Silicon Valley” greeting cards you can buy and has been working on multiple design projects for fun to manage her lockdown stress. One of those projects is a series of funny illustrations about COVID and quarantine that Blok has been tweeting during the pandemic. As for her current job, Blok recently returned to Google and now works as a product-design lead at Google Research/AI.

But all hope is not lost. When asked why her newer face-mask designs aren’t available to purchase, Blok said she wants to make it happen: “I’ve designed the masks, but in order to have physical masks available, they need to be produced and distributed. I am currently looking for a manufacturing partner to produce these,” she said.

Okay, Mark Cuban, you are now no longer safe from this discussion.

Woman Who Pitched Face Masks on Shark Tank in 2009 Was Right