DIVERSITY OF CLASS

I wanted to touch on an article from the Minnesota Public Radio news site based on an interview with Matt de la Pena and illustrator Christian Robinson. So they work together on the book Last Stop on Market Street. It's about a young boy who takes a trip with his grandmother to a soup kitchen where they volunteer. The book actually goes through what the boy sees on his trip; who he sees and meets on the bus. The reason I wanted to highlight the article (you really should listen to the interview as well as they talk in a little bit more detail with both the author and the illustrator) is that the book is a picture book. The boy is a boy of color. But what the author talks focuses on is he feels like he's known as someone who writes about race but he really thinks of himself as writing about class. Obviously sometimes those two things are intertwined and the reason this is struck me, as you'll hear when we speak to Flora, is that looking at diversity (and something we talk about at DIA) is that you have to look at a lot of different lenses of diversity. Flora sort of touches on the fact that there's been a lot of focus on gender neutrality within toys and maybe not as much discussion around girls of color. That's what she's highlighting but what this book also talks about, and what Matt and Christian both talk about is that diversity also has this class piece, and I think sometimes that class gets ignored in children's literature and the stories that we tell.

That's one of the reasons this is an interesting story. A setting of a soup kitchen is not normally what you hear about in a children's picture book. It goes through and talks about the story that he's trying to tell and obviously brings up many of the statistics that were familiar with, the fact that children's books don't reflect the society that we live in. That is across the diversity lens. It also makes note of how the sales teams look, the executive team looks in publishing. The piece that Matt touches on is talking about with you need diverse teams. We've talked about that so much on this podcast. He really puts it in an interesting way that everyone has blind spots and then that you have a diverse you can cover each other's blind spots, which I thought was really well said. That applies across the spectrum of private industry. So I think he kind of ends it with the point that the story is telling a story about a child who lives on the other side of the tracks. That doesn't mean a wealthy suburban family shouldn't read it the same way a kid who lives on the other side of the track wouldn't read a story about a wealthy suburban family. It's equally important, as he says, for kids to be exposed to a soup kitchen just as the kids who already understand what a soup kitchen is. 

INTERVIEW WITH FLORA EKPE-IDANG OF CORAGE DOLLS

Kabir: Alright, we’re at my favorite part of the weekly spotlight where I get to talk to people from the children's industry. Right now I'm really excited as we get to speak with Flora Ekpe-Idang.

Flora: Yeah!

Kabir: I got it, right?! Who is an MBA candidate at Babson College. But more importantly is the founder of Corage Dolls. What is Corage Dolls? It is a multicultural doll company that helps to motivate, educate, and encourage girls of color to shatter societal barriers to unlock their full potential and embrace themselves as they should. Beautifully made. I pulled that off the website. I absolutely love that, Flora. Thank you so much for being here today.

Flora: Thank you so much, Kabir, for having me. You definitely gave me a good entry. I was going to say that part but that's perfectly fine!

Kabir: So let's talk about Corage Dolls. How did you come up with this idea? How long did you have it? What was the process?

Flora: Okay, so I guess we're going to have to go back ten years. When I was in high school, in was back in 2005. I was in my health class. We watched this documentary called "A Girl Like Me." And it was just like a 7-min short video talking about race and identity and in the video, a doll test was conducted. In the video, this girl did an experiment where she took a group of black children and she had them look at a white doll and look at a black doll. She asked them various questions such as, who do you think is prettier, more intelligent; all these different attributes and characteristics. And the children overwhelmingly chose the white doll for the positive attributes and then they chose the black doll when it came to negative attributes. Then the question that really spoke out to me and got my attention when the girl asked, "What do you consider yourself?" and the children said the black doll.

Kabir: Wow. So the black children said I consider myself black.

Flora: Exactly.

Kabir: Basically she was asking them which doll is smart.... I remember.

Flora: And the funny thing is that this wasn't the first time that this experiment was conducted. It was originally conducted in the 1940s by these two awesome psychologists who were trying to test the effects of segregation on black children. They did the same test years ago and it garnered the same results. So even during that gap of 60 years, even CNN has done the test again, Anderson Cooper, ABC News has done the test again, and the same results were popping up. For me, I just spoke out to me how much of a lack of self-confidence that these children saw themselves with because they saw a lack of positive representation in leadership of color, as well positive images of people who look like them. And just a dynamic that it had for mixed children as they grow up and the mentality of how they consider themselves.

For me, I grew up with two–both of my parents are from another country. My father's from Nigeria and my mother is from Grenada in the Caribbean and they tried to instill into me having that pride of my culture and my heritage. When I was watching this video, I grew up with black dolls and white dolls and my parents really wanted me to be uplifted by representation that looked like me. It really affected me when I was seeing these children at such a young age we're having this stigma and self-doubt how they view themselves and in essence how they felt society viewed them, whether that meant looks or their intelligence. So with that said, I realized even when I watched the documentary, I was like I wanted to create a positive representation of these communities to boost self-confidence and build self-esteem. I didn't have an idea yet that it was going to be Corage Dolls. I knew it was going to be something with dolls and I knew I wanted it to be something uplifting, especially for girls of color.

When I decided to come to business school, I officially was like, okay I want to officially start this and have this up and running and doing this. Basically within the past nine months, I officially decided Corage Dolls is what it was going to be because throughout my time when I went to college and in undergrad, I worked in the past with toy companies. So I wanted to get experience in the toy space to see. If I want to do toys, let me get some experience in the toy industry. So I was fortunate enough to intern with Jakks Pacific and their electronic marketing department for my senior year of college. I then went on to work in advertising. I worked for one company and I was there for three years and I knew I wanted to focus on the multicultural audience. So I eventually went to another agency where I worked with account management, working basically with clients on creating campaigns that heavily targeted Hispanic, Asian American, and African American communities.

Kabir: So the idea was sort of the seed and then you have now private sector experience in the toy industry and with these communities that you're focused on. A lot of your work was done on the marketing side, the packaging side, how these products would work. Did you have some understanding of manufacturing of how these toys are made, where they're made, etc.?

Flora: So at that time, I didn't actually really know the manufacturing side. I just knew being exposed, the marketing aspect. I was working with Jakks Pacific, during my time there, they were potentially looking at a new product they were developing. My time there consisted of researching, analyzing competitors, and coming up and helping with a presentation proposal for how they could potentially segue themselves into this new market that they're going after. So I didn't necessarily get my hands on the manufacturing side. So I literally was like, okay I'm just going to learn as much as I can about toys because I knew even though I wasn't necessarily working at the business at that time, I knew I wanted to take some steps and whatever avenues i could reach at that moment to somewhat get me prepared for what I want to eventually be doing now.

Kabir: Over the past 9 months, that's when Corage Dolls has sort come to fruition, what have you sort of been focused on? Like building out the-- Did you sit down and write down a business plan? Was it part of a class? How did you approach it?

Flora: So what's so interesting about the college that I go to is that Bason College is very focused on entrepreneurship. They're like number 1 so that was definitely an avenue for me to have access to courses because I was like, okay, I don't know yet what it takes to be an entrepreneur. I know my marketing side. Now I want to be able to start building my minimum viable product, starting to get potential customer feedback and all these other elements. I actually took a very interesting course called Entrepreneurship and Opportunity; it's called E&O. It's a course that you take when you're a first year MBA student in your first semester where you actually get to–whether it be your own business idea or another of your peer's business idea–but basically you're developing your pitch around it. You're starting to understand what is the market for this? Is it viable? Is it feasible?

And so kind of the moment that I realized, okay, Corage Dolls could really be a thing. Even though it may seem kind of lame, but we have this competition at our school called The Rocket Pitch. Basically, the entire class, you have to record a video of your pitch in three minutes. You have three slides and three minutes to do your pitch. That includes your target market, the market potential, and all these different avenues. So I pitched it and then your class has to vote on the top 8 people to pitch in front of the entire class. So I ended up finding out that I was one of the people selected. And I was like, "Oh wow!" For me, I didn't even truly honestly think that people would pick my idea because I was like this is an audience focused on children and especially the diversity spec. I was like okay, these MBA student are not going to pick this. They're looking at biotech and that stuff. I think what really resonated with people when they spoke with me was the story and kind of telling people about this stigma and this effect that many children, especially children of color when they're not seeking themselves and how that stigma kind of carries with them. The whole point of this diversity, we live in a country where it’s becoming so much more of a melting pot, but yet we're not seeing as much positive–not even representation, positive representation at that, and I think that resonated a lot with my class and made people come to the realization that, okay, we've made some strides. We have this president now. There are all these things, but there's still a lot of work that needs to be done.

Kabir: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I think you touched on two keys things: the idea that more than 50% of kids in elementary school are not white and that there's a much more diverse world out there. And then the second piece that while that is true, there's the positive representation. It's something that you're definitely focused on. I think you sort say it right there on the website that you're changing the perception and transforming how girls of color see themselves. So, you were selected as part of the class. Then when where did you go from there? What were the next steps?

Flora: Yeah. So after I pitched it and got some great feedback from my peers, one of my peers. This is where it kind of transitions into the next phase. One of my peers told me, he said, "Flora, you should enter into this Harvard pitch competition." And I was like, "Harvard, what?" Their business school has their annual entrepreneurship conference and they have a pitch competition they've been doing the past couple of years. It's a one-minute pitch competition. And If you know, the top 3 people get $1500, $1000, and $500. And you get one minute to pitch. Basically taking my three-minute pitch that I mentioned earlier and shrinking that down into one minute. You always hear about the 30-second elevator pitch. It's basically just putting your idea out there. You don't talk about the market side. I was scared. I was really unsure. I've done it before but this is Harvard. So I actually entered into the competition and I actually made it in. And on the day, I remember, the day of the actual event, it was the first event they did for the conference that day. It was a lot of people. We were in this one room that, I kid you not, had room for like nearly 250 people and it was still overflowing. Everyone in that room wanted to see the pitch, wanted to see what was going on.

Kabir: Where are we in the calendar? What day was this?

Flora: So I did my pitch initially In October and then I did the Harvard pitch in November, maybe the second week or so of November.

Kabir: Okay So November 2015. So just a few months ago.

Flora: Exactly. I was one of 19 companies. We had to pitch in a room in front of venture capitalists just to get-- basically we get one minute to pitch, and they get 30 seconds of questions. Like a speed lightning round.

Kabir: I can't–that's faster that's faster than lightning.

Flora: Just imagine people pitching really quick and running off stage and then pitching really quick and running off. That's really what it was. And so when it was my turn, and this was still basically when it was an idea–some people had people had metrics and stuff; I didn't have that. I pitched, I remember everything I said. The majority of those students didn't actually finish in one minute. I was one of only a few people who did and then I got some great questions from the VCs. Then at the end of the day, I ended up finding out that I got second place. I was like oh my goodness! I think in that moment, that really was like, okay, there is validity in what I'm saying. This is not just something like I feel is an issue that is only with me. Okay, I'm at Harvard, people are all over from different schools and meeting with VCs and talking to people who are like, "I love what you're doing. I appreciate what you're doing, and I support you in that." That was kind of that first moment truly for me that I was like, okay, Corage Dolls can truly become truly. From there, basically it's been a whirlwind of events. I've been able to spent that month networking with a lot of people on getting feedback, meeting with people who would become my advisors eventually, meeting people who either had experience in the manufacturing space or had experience with maybe toys or something in that realm. Some people I got some feedback from; this one guy I remember, he was actually trying to go me to manufacture with this company. I think it was based out of India. He was like really, really, really pushing it. I was like I'm going to weigh things out. I didn't mention it earlier but an attribute of the Corage Dolls that I was developing would be 3D printed.

Kabir: I definitely want to dig into that a little bit more. I want to hear about that. So you're networking, you're meeting people, understanding a little bit more of the manufacturing side. You're also understanding how just generally the industry works. You're finding mentors and advisors. At this point, I got a chance to look at your video. It seemed really similar to a pitch video. It wasn't 1-minute long. You talked about how we've touched on the authenticity and reaching out to the community that you're focused on. But the 3D printed piece, one of your big tenets is customization. What's, at least right now, I know ideas and business plans changes, what is your approach with the 3D printing?

Flora: Yeah, so the idea for the 3D printing... during the course of the past year hearing more about 3D printing and mass customization, I wanted to look further into that avenue because I really wanted to give this uniqueness for girls and boys for dolls who are not just getting the dolls, but also having a hang in creating it. So combining that technology aspect with a physical play aspect. I had a great friend in my program who had his own–he taught people CAD design and did that as an engineer. I would spend hours literally hours a day sitting with this guy having him explain to me 3D printing, the materials, the machinery. I was really fascinating with it just because how technology had really transformed. I was like I really want to be able to develop a platform where you can go in and customize how the dolls look. The eyes and the skin tone, the eye color, to the lips, the nose, and the initial phase with the hair of course expanded over time from there.It was something when I started on my MBA program and met that person, I was like okay now I've gone to so many events. I went to the New York Toy Fair a few months ago (in February). There's so many new companies there that were doing 3D printing. And just basically the fact that you can print 3D metals and 3D print plastic and all these different things. I was like this possible. This is capable. So from that moment, those two elements, so far from there, I've actually got my 3D-printed model. I've done a prototype that was 3D printed.

Kabir: Do you see this... obviously the cost of 3D printing continues to fall. I would say right now it sits in a school space. It hasn't reached a home. Do you see Corage Dolls as a school product or do you see that it's really focused on the home use?

Flora: Yeah, my goal is for it to be the home use in the initial phase because 3D printing patents have slowly expired but there are still heavy costs associated with that. What I'm looking at doing; there are four dolls that are going to serve as the initial phase of the brand. I'm calling them the Corage Crew. Different ethnicities, different storylines. One is an entrepreneur, one wants to be in STEM and focus on coding. One wants to focus on being an artist. Another one is focused on social justice. One is African, one is African American, one is Afro Latina, and one is biracial.

Kabir: To talk through how this works. So I sit down... so I'm going to your website. I’m selecting the STEM doll. Do I get to customize it or is it a case where I'm purchasing one of those initial dolls part of the crew?

Flora: Yeah, so the initial crew, the four. The goal is to launch those four dolls first. Those would be the premade dolls first because I do realize developing a platform is going to take a little bit longer. So I was like, okay, I want to get more validity by having the market of the premade dolls first and develop the brand there from their stories and characters. So you'll be able to go online through the website and purchase one of the dolls. Of course you can add any accessories from there. I've been talking with a peer of mine about children's books and developing the characters to really give that representation there. My goal is within another year to have the beta stage, the 3D printing platform. So now that you're aware of those four dolls, the Corage Crew, you can go and make your own Corage Doll. 

Kabir: That's a really interesting phase. In terms of the plan for the premade dolls, what is the timeline for that? When do you expect to have them ready for pre-order or purchase?

Flora: I'm actually looking at doing a Kickstarter. I'm hoping to do it by the end of August, if not late September. My goal is to do it and get it by August and actually get it out in time for Christmas and the holidays. Reversing back from that, I've been meeting with my advisors and starting initial conversations with manufacturers who do 3D printing and making a lot of great connections there. This summer is a little bit interesting for me because I'm actually interning with a toy company. I just wanted to make sure things weren't overlapping. This summer is heavily the research phase and I already met someone who has done Kickstarter campaigns in the past who said he would love to help me with a video and everything, so that's really exciting. And I also have a toy designer that I working with who is helping me design the 3D version of the biracial doll. But my goal by doing the Kickstarter is to officially launch with the doll I've already created, Aaliyah.

Kabir: I love that name.

Flora: I haven't figured out all their names. I know that the biracial girl's name is going to be Zola. The Aaliyah one is the African American one who is the entrepreneur who is the first one I plan to release through the Kickstarter campaign. If that goes really well, hopefully the biracial will be the next one, then the Afro Latina doll. Basically this summer is going to be crazy so I'm excited for my internship to really learn more, but also–just basically in a matter of 9 months, I know I still have a long way to go, but in terms of developing a board of advisors, getting a designer, getting so much support from my peers and other mentors who see–I think it's been a process of either talking with people who are like, "Is diversity really an issue?"

Kabir: Yeah, I do want to talk to you about that. I think we've talked about this more on DIA than more of once, this idea of "we're product creators," we find ourselves at times when we're going to someone go talk about our product, we don't necessarily lead with our focus on diversity or that diversity matters a lot to us. We want to talk about the product. So in your case, the video that you saw in high school and everything you've worked on since then has been with that in mind. Diversity is a focus of the product. You could almost argue that that is the product. My question (which I know I'm taking a long time to get to) is when you're talking to someone about it, talking about your idea, is that the lens you approach it from talking specifically about the diversity piece?

Flora: Yeah, when I do one of my pitches, one of the first lines that I say is, "Hello, my name is so and so and I believe that representation matters." That's kind of my opening line. My whole slogan is "because representation matters." It's simple, but for me, I think you hit the nail on the head. For me, diversity is a very big passion of mine and inclusion. Because I think sometimes people get diversity but being included and feeling included in our products, in our shows, in our apps, in everything, and doing it well. Sometimes that unfortunately doesn't happen. But there have been times, there are funny stories, I’m trying to think. One of my first times I was telling a potential advisor of mine, I was telling her about Corage Dolls and having start off with a doll line that was girls of color. Then one of the first questions I got was, "So are you going to create a white doll?" And that wasn't the last time I got that question.

Kabir: You're like it seems like a pretty sad trademark.

Flora: I was like, "So my whole story is that there are barely any toys of color on our shelves. 38% of this country is of people of multicultural backgrounds but our toy shelves carry less than 29/30% even dolls of color. The thing is that we have a lot of these avenues for the white dolls or mass–that's another element. When I've been talking to some VCs, just to get initial feedback, it was like, "You're looking at a niche market, but have you thought about looking at the mass market?" I was like, "When you say mass market, I want my children to have these dolls the same way a white kid growing up had a white doll." I think sometimes that stigma–I think teaching kids at a young age how to be culturally competent, and being able to embrace that diversity and having kids of all different background. Same way that if I'm a person of color of mass market, we live in a time that everyone should be taking the time and the energy to inspire their kids. Because when they go into a school, they're going to be interacting with kids who are different than them.

Kabir: Absolutely. That's really beautifully said. I think that's exactly right. The idea of how a mainstream doll needs to or should look, that needs to change. A child that isn't black playing with a doll that is black shouldn't be something that isn't mainstream.

Flora: Exactly. It's like when I'm pitching, I don't even say it's a niche market. I say this is becoming the new mass market, the new mainstream market. As we were highlighting earlier, the US census said in 2014 that kids under 5 now who are part of a minority are majority. This is where the multicultural audiences grow by 2.3 million a year. Who are the people consuming our products online and apps and everything are people of different backgrounds.  Who do we see creating the majority of them? People who are not looking like that. It's making sure that inclusion is there and being thoughtful in that approach. And when kids have so much access to so many things online and apps and with Corage Dolls as well, it's not just having a doll. My focus is–I have no intentions of creating a fashion doll line. The dolls that I say I envision on my website–Corage Dolls is to provide every girl with the courage to be unstoppable. I don't want to curse, but I want girls to be badass. I want guys to be badass. I'm not anti-pink. But giving girls inspiration to be that coder, flight pilot, that construction worker, that police officer, especially girls of color. Because I think the conversation is now being brought up about gender neutrality and allowing girls to be exposed and encouragement to do things that historically have shifted more to boys. But I think girls of color are still ignored in that conversation. They're finding their way in, but the media is still heavily looking at it from one angle, especially of kids of color, there are more barriers we have to go through.

Kabir: when we're putting together a set of guidelines for DIA and talking specifically about character design, this conversation came up about how there are different types of diversity. Like you're saying, there's this Lena of looking at it from a gender neutral perspective of what our girls are encouraged to do. Then there's also the racial component to it. And girls of color, like you're saying, is who you're focused on and that's who you're attempting to reach first. And I think that makes a lot of sense and I think that always has to be taken into account that people who are behind building the dolls. I think you touched on a lot of things that we talked about. And this conversation continues, not just like you're saying in the toy aisle; it continues in the app aisle, it continues in the book aisle. I'm excited for your upcoming summer. I know you have certain challenges, quite a few challenges in front of you. What would you say is your biggest challenge and if you could get advice on that, or what do you ask for advice on in terms of the challenges that you face?

Flora: I feel like there are so many challenges in life. But to think of it, the challenges that I definitely this about regularly: I've been looking for a cofounder in that space. I haven't secured one yet, but there are elements that I'm working on with that because I realize when you're looking at a lens of becoming an entrepreneur, I never realized that there are never difficulties you have to go through. At times you're alone and you're up late at night and you're crying. Me trying to balance school and trying to figure it all out and trying to start a business during this time as a sole entrepreneur but who's been able to get a lot of great support from awesome people, there are moments when I'm just like how do I even function? There are moments when I have no idea. Is there a certain manufacturer to be looking at? One of my peers told me when you're asking for quotes, ask for this amount, that amount, that amount. I'm like okay. I thought I would just ask for one amount. And then I think for me, one of the biggest challenges is a hurdle that is not just being a woman entrepreneur but a woman of color as an entrepreneur. I think you're not just facing the sexism barrier with that, but also the racial barrier with that. In terms of when I'm trying to meet with potential VCs; right now, I'm doing a Kickstarter so I'm not doing VC funding in that aspect, but just the initial conversations that I've had with some people and kind of the stigma of, "Okay we're familiar with this type of industry." I find myself a lot of times kind of educating more so on the aspect of diversity and the impact. And a lot of times, some people are like, "Oh, I never knew this was an issue. Oh, wait." Like you'd be surprised how many times I've gotten that question. I think that, and I even see it with my peers as being a female of color entrepreneur there is unfortunately less funding that you get in those type of historical type of VC spaces. That's why I've mainly been looking at places that focus on women and minority entrepreneurs, and I think having that support system when you're not seeing that many people who look like you in that industry. At my MBA program, I'm the only black female in my class out of like 150 students. It's definitely been up and down this past year being the only one, but at the same time having a great group of support from mentors and peers. I've just been so thankful for the amount of support that I’ve gotten. But at the same time, there are still those barriers of could I potentially have gotten this a little quicker if I was a white male?

Kabir: No, that makes a lot of sense. That could be a whole podcast in and of itself for sure. Obviously you're getting your Kickstarter ready. What should folks do in the meantime? Obviously there's a place on your website to join your mailing list?

Flora: Yes, exactly! Basically I have a newsletter I'm working on creating on my website, CorageGirls.com. You can definitely sign up for the E-newsletter for information that's popping up. I'm preparing to get the Kickstarter off the ground. I'll be sharing information about how that path is going and getting feedback from people as I'm still testing my prototype and meeting with children and parents. Because the products I'm creating are for their audience and I really want feedback and to put them along in this process. Then I also have my Twitter and Facebook page, Corage Dolls that I've been using heavily to post a lot of great, interesting articles and media outlets especially for girls of color. Girls of color are doing phenomenal, phenomenal things that don't always get portrayed heavily in the mainstream media.

Kabir: I'm looking forward to hearing more for you. I hope we can touch base right before your Kickstarting gets going.

Flora: Absolutely. Exactly. Anybody out there who wants to help give support, in the same way that you, Kabir, are giving people a platform for people to talk about diversity in apps and technology and doing it powerfully well.

Kabir: Thank you, Flora. We really enjoy having people like you on to serve as a platform for your story.

Flora: Absolutely, thank you so much, Kabir.