Make Room for Different Voices

by Victoria Ritter

Representation is important in culture, business, education and play. A concept that is gaining traction across the globe is diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Toy manufacturers and retailers can play an important part in incorporating DEI in their practices and products.

In a Higher Impact Survey published in 2022 by Amazon Ads and Environics Research, more than 5,100 consumers from North America, Europe and Asia were polled about their values and what they expect from brands. Forty-five percent of consumers stated they were willing to pay more for a product that “reflects and promotes DEI” while 46 percent said they go out of their way to choose brands that have commitments to DEI. Top areas related to DEI included race/ethnicity and gender equality, according to the survey.

DEI gains traction in the toy industry

Dr. Lisa Williams enjoyed her career as a college professor and founder of World of Entertainment, Publishing and Inspiration (World of EPI) for many years. But her life took an unexpected turn one night in 2009 as she watched a news program on the doll industry. When the interviewer asked a young Black girl whether she wanted to play with a Black doll or a White doll, she chose the latter. The girl said the Black doll’s skin was “nasty,” further stating that she sometimes thought her own skin was “nasty.”

“That changed my life,” Williams recalled. “I was driven to make sure that little girl and other kids would see themselves beautifully and authentically represented on the shelf.”

Williams entered the toy industry without any prior knowledge, experience or sponsor support. That same year, she created Positively Perfect Dolls. The baby doll line has custom-blended skin tones and unique hair styles and features representing various ethnicities, including Black, White, Asian, Latino and mixed races.

“Every doll is different because every ethnicity has beautiful features that are uniquely theirs. We make sure they’re all represented,” Williams said.

Since creating Positively Perfect Dolls, Williams has seen the toy industry improve when it comes to DEI. She observed how toy companies in the early 2000s were well-intentioned when creating products that aligned with DEI, but there were very few people of color involved in the creation process. As a result, ethnically diverse products were “unauthentic,” according to Williams.

Today, as a member of the Toy Association’s Board of Directors, she has seen the organization work with schools to provide scholarships and internships to bring more diverse voices into the industry. “It is a conscious and mindful intent that we’re focusing on DEI,” she said. “When you have the diverse talent, then you can create the products that are representative.”

The World of EPI is a “100 percent diverse company,” employing members of the Black, Asian and LGBTQ+ communities, among others. “Representation is important in the talent pool when creating a product.”

Still, there is vast room for improvement. Williams believes manufacturers need to be sincere in their pursuit to showcase DEI in their operations and products. She suggests that companies start with young students by reaching out to schools, sending speakers to explain what opportunities are available. Enterprises can support those opportunities by providing internships, scholarships and the skillset to make diverse products. Once a company has different ethnicities, abilities and genders represented, the easier it will be to reach out to different demographics.

“I didn’t even know about the toy industry as a career for me,” Williams said. “That has to change. If it doesn’t, you’re going to keep getting what you always got, which is unauthenticity – people of a different ethnicity creating for a different group.”

Azhelle Wade, founder of The Toy Coach, has seen first-hand the opportunities for improvement in the toy industry. When she was working as the vice president of brand and product at Creative Kids, she met a woman who was interested in licensing her game. Since Creative Kids was looking to license different games and products, Wade gave the woman a chance to pitch her product; unfortunately, the latter was unfamiliar on how to pitch.

“I wanted to help her and in the process of trying to help her, I realized there wasn’t a good resource I could point people to,” Wade said. “So, I decided to create one with my podcast.” As a result, Wade founded The Toy Coach in July 2020. She started with a podcast, which led to the creation of the Toy Creators Academy. Wade’s goal is to help toy inventors as they develop their products and brand by providing education and connections within the toy industry.

Manufacturers can promote DEI by recognizing that the playing field is uneven in the industry and “be brave enough” to make it fair, said Williams. Companies can help by recognizing every business has different needs and challenges and be intentional in creating programs that help overcome these obstacles. Partnering with diverse brands can also be a big help. “If companies could figure out a way where it’s cost-effective to bring in or partner with brands that are developed authentically by the people who come from diverse communities, that would be huge,” Wade said.


DEI products on shelves

Retailers can play a part in fostering DEI with their product selection. When specialty toy stores look for merchandise to sell, they ought to look at who’s creating the product and the story behind their mission. Some of the smaller manufacturers can be found and contacted through social media sites such as Instagram, Tik Tok and Facebook.

“When you ask a creator why they made a brand and what was the mission behind the brand and they have a story from their personal life, that’s when you know you’ve hit the nail on the head,” Wade said.

Another way to encourage DEI play is by providing gender-neutral toys. With gender-neutral toys, kids have the opportunity to explore all aspects of their personality and play style, Williams said. “Having more gender-neutral toys removes limits that are being put on kids at such a young age. I never played with Lego because it never was in the same aisle as Polly Pockets, which I also enjoyed. How different of a life and a career I would’ve had if I could have combined the Legos with Polly Pockets and built cities for Polly Pocket (toys).”

Wade recommends several brands including JoeyDolls, a line of dolls created by Samantha Ong that represent Asian cultures; In KidZ, which provides products and multimedia content about people and traditions around the world; Keiki Kaukau, a Hawaiian toy line centered around Pacific cultures and food; and, of course, Fresh Dolls by Williams.

World of EPI showcases more than 100 skin tones and is constantly developing new products that will join its Positively Perfect Dolls and Fresh Dolls lines. Its newest collection, Fresh Beats, features five girls that represent five genres of music through fashion: rock, hip hop, pop, country and K-pop. Three of the girls are set to release in August with the two remaining to release next spring. An animated series for Fresh Beats and Positively Perfect Dolls will drop in September and 2024, respectively.

When looking to bring in new inventory, Williams suggests that retailers listen to their communities, understand what products they want and pursue authentic items – products made by a certain demographic for a certain demographic.

“When customers see that you are truly wanting to provide authentic representation, people can feel it,” Williams said. “When they see that you’re invested in their community, they invest their loyalty in you.”


Representation’s ripple effect

Williams wants World of EPI products to create a “sacred space” for kids, where they see themselves represented and are inspired. Providing such as a space has paid off in large ways. In recent years, she has met entrepreneurs in the toy industry who played with Positively Perfect Dolls when they were kids. “Those stories are empowering. I’m seeing children inspired by our dolls,” Williams stated. “I’m seeing more people inspired to come into the toy industry, which is awesome. We’ve laid a roadmap for other new doll companies coming into the toy industry, which is amazing.”

A lack of toys geared for different ethnicities, genders and abilities has a negative impact on kids’ mental health, just like the young Black girl who thought her skin was nasty. Growing up, Wade attended a school that had very few Black students. Finding a Black Barbie doll on the toy shelves was rare, which further instilled the message of being abnormal, even less than in the eyes of society.

“It makes you feel like you don’t matter when you don’t see yourself represented in toys,” Wade said. “As you grow up, you have to remove that thinking and not believe it anymore. The representation is so important.”

Alternatively, providing representation through toys and embodying DEI through authentic business practices helps kids see the beauty in themselves and their background. “It’s confidence for kids,” Wade stated. “We can’t say that we love kids and we’re in this industry for kids if we don’t make products for all kids.”

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