Leaders Stretch to the Edge

You have to stretch to get close to the edge. ~Sara Little Turnbull (inventor of the N95)

The N95. In February you could have said the N95 mask and I would have asked what you were talking about. Three months later, all you need to say is N95 and I know exactly what it is you would be referencing. I only recently learned the story behind the N95.

Sara Little Turnbull was a design consultant working for 3M in 1958 focusing on gift wrap and fabric. What seemed to be an appropriate division for a woman in the 1950s. 3M used a unique fabric called Shapeen that could mold to a specific shape. Turnbull first created those pre-made bows for gift wrapping.

Stretch to New Ideas

She was intrigued by all of the potential uses for Shapeen. So much so, she came up with over 100 ideas. On that list was a design for a molded bra cup, which 3M enlisted her to design. [I do find it ironic that I’ve seen several people fashion face masks from bra cups. If they only knew!]

A few years later, Turnbull was caring for three family members all of whom required the care of a physician. She saw the health care workers constantly fussing with their masks that tied in the back. Then came yet another idea. Use that same moldable fabric and make a mask that would be both more comfortable and a better fit.

In 1961 3M patented the first lightweight medical mask based on Sara’s design. It did resemble a bra cup, was disposable, and included an elastic band that went around the ears and a nose clip. But there was a problem. It didn’t really work. Pathogens still got past the nonwoven material.

It’s reported that Sara always said that 90% of her career was made up of failure. To Sara, that was not defeating for anyone who wanted to innovate or create new horizons.

The N95 a technological feat that took years and years of work across multiple continents. And it all started with Sara Little Turnbull, who was famous for saying, “If you don’t stretch, you don’t know where the edge is.”

Bold Grace on the Edge

Sara’s mindset can teach us a great deal about leading with bold grace.

  • Be Bold: Willing to take risks; knowing that 90% of what she created likely wouldn’t work.
  • With Grace: Willing to be a player in creating something great; knowing that she likely would not be the sole creator.
  • On the Edge: Willing to chart new territory; knowing that she would need to stretch in order to get close to the edge.

Here we are in 2020 and now the N95 has become a common household term we all recognize. All thanks to a woman who was living, and leading, with bold grace. Thank you, Sara Little Turnbull.

[Note, Sara “Little” Turnbull was 4’11”.]

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