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Changing the minds of boys and girls: Using action figures to teach what it means to be a powerful woman – Julie Kerwin, Creator of IAmElemental

IAmElemental Wisdom series

Julie Kerwin founded IAmElemental with another mom in 2013, after they became frustrated by what they saw, and didn’t see, in the toy market. The IAmElemental team mission is to create toys for play experiences that allow girls (and boys) to envision themselves as strong, powerful and connected beings at the centre of a story of their own making, creating female action figures with realistic body shapes. After a highly successful launch on Kickstarter in May 2014 which raised $163,000, the IAmElemental Team shipped their Series 1 (Courage) to customers in all fifty US states and six continents, and are now working on an animated series.

Julie Kerwin
Julie Kerwin

“We believe that if you change the way girls play, by making them the protagonists of their own empowering stories, you can change the way they think — about themselves and their role in the world around them. Same with boys.”

Spending every waking moment developing IAmElemental

I am a graduate of Wellesley College with a degree in English literature (I got my certification to teach high school English while I was in college) and Fordham University School of Law.

I went to law school intending to go into educational public policy. Instead, I wrote a young adult novel and put it in a drawer. Interestingly, that book has recently found a second life (stay tuned to learn why).

Having lost my own mother very young, I made the (easy) decision to stay home with my boys. As they got older, I dipped my toe in the small business pool when my husband and a friend started a music education programme that evolved into a music production company. It was a wonderful experience. We worked with some amazing people in the industry, and learned so much from them.

IAmElemental
Image: © Mitchel Wu

Then, in October of 2012, I had the idea for IAmElemental, and spent every waking moment developing the concept. We had an incredibly successful launch on Kickstarter in May of 2014, were named one of TIME Magazine’s Top 25 Inventions of the year and Top Ten Toys of the Year, and have been selling superpower action figures ever since.

Juggling a lot of tasks

My day-to-day task list varies. As an entrepreneur and owner of a small independent business, I juggle a lot of balls; everything from sales to social media to (recently) scriptwriting.

Like so many people these days, I spend most of my work time at my computer. I try to keep my inbox to one page (fewer than 50 emails). It is not always easy. I also make sure that orders process smoothly at our warehouses; I create all of the content for our social media accounts; and, right now, I spend a lot of time working on the development of an IAmElemental animated television series.

How COVID turned my work life upside down

When the lockdowns started, I naively said: “I’ve got this.” I had been working exclusively from home for years, so I didn’t imagine that there would be much of a change. I could not have been more wrong. My pre-COVID work-at-home routine had a very distinct rhythm. I would drop my son off at school, walk home through Central Park, sit down at my computer and work until the school day was over. Then, while my son did his homework in the evenings, I would sit with him and get more work done.

With everyone suddenly home all of the time (including my college-age son and an international student who came to stay when they could not get out of the country), my days were no longer my own. I got very little work done. My email inbox began to overwhelm me. And, when I wasn’t feeling like Dobbie the House Elf, I was “doom scrolling” through the news.

It also greatly impacted the way I thought about our business. Being in NYC at the very beginning — at the epicentre of the crisis — I was acutely aware of the tragedy unfolding around me. Sending a Mailchimp out into the world asking people to buy my product when so many people were struggling felt wrong.

Rational or not, all I kept thinking was: “People are dying … buy my action figures.” It didn’t work. Instead, we made our IAmElemental Workbook accessible as a free digital download to give parents something to do with their kids while they stayed inside.

We also sold a limited-edition COURAGE tee and donated all of the proceeds to feed frontline workers.

IAmElemental team
Julie (third from left) and the rest of the IAmElemental team

Expanding to the UK

We ship worldwide, and the majority of our international sales are in the UK. However, with an extremely limited marketing budget, we have had to rely almost exclusively on word of mouth.

Thankfully, we have the best customers on the planet. So, our UK sales continue to grow. But, frankly, I would love to be able to build our brand recognition.

Action figures both for boys and girls

While we are certainly not anti-doll or anti-princess — and we believe that there is plenty of room in a child’s toy box for princesses, Barbies and IAmElemental Courage figures — the way that girls play with dolls is very different from the way that they play with action figures.

Even if you dress Barbie up as a superhero, she is still a doll. Dolls you primp, you change their outfits, comb their hair, etc. Dressing up Barbie is a core element of that play experience. Action figures take on challenges, fight bad guys, and have superpowers.

That difference is at the heart of our tagline: If you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story.

We believe that if you change the way girls play, by making them the protagonists of their own empowering stories, you can change the way they think — about themselves and their role in the world around them. Same with boys.

Wisdom Sparkler Fire
Image: © Mitchel Wu

After I gave some Courage figures to two brothers, their mother told me it was a revelation to hear them playing with female action figures. It hadn’t occurred to her until they started incorporating the IAmElemental figures into their typical play patterns that she had never before heard them say, “She’s coming to save you.” “Here she comes to save the day.”

It’s a subtle but important distinction. It doesn’t change their play, but it does have the power to change their thinking.

And that is why IAmElemental is a girl-targeted, boy-inclusive toy company. As the mother of two boys, I think that it is equally important that boys have the opportunity to play with a strong, powerful, healthy image of a female action figure as it is for girls. How can we hope to promote the notion of gender equality if we only teach girls what it means to be a powerful woman?

Bringing IAmElemental to the screens

There has been a lot of exciting progress over the past six months. While the concept and the characters have existed for a while, everything came to a sudden stop when COVID-19 took over our lives. It wasn’t until November that I finally sat down and focused on getting the story down on paper.

I signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and spent that time building out the characters and the story. Then, I signed up for a story world building class with the wonderful Alison Norrington (based out of the UK) in January.

A majority of my work time in 2021 has been devoted to finishing the story bible, creating a pitch deck, writing a pilot script, and working on my pitch. The amazing artist Annie Wu has done some fantastic character images for us, as well. It has finally come together, and I am excited at the prospect of finding a network executive who loves it as much as we do.

A sad story that turned into something great

Our BuyOne/DonateOne Childhood Cancer Awareness Month Fundraiser launched in September of 2016 in memory of a fierce 14-year-old superfan named Anna Bosma.

Anna was a fan of our Courage action figures. She understood more than most about superpowers and characters, and she channelled them into her four-year fight with a rare cancer called epithelioid sarcoma.

Wisdom collection
Wisdom collection. Image: © Mitchel Wu

Knowing her granddaughter would not live to see the release of our second set of action figures, Anna’s grandmother called to ask if there was a way to get the Wisdom series into Anna’s hands before it was too late. We sent Anna our Wisdom prototypes. A few weeks later, she was gone.

When I first proposed the fundraiser to Anna’s father, I worried it was such a small thing that it wouldn’t be “enough.” I see what superhero cancer doctors are doing, so handing an action figure to a sick child, even one embedded with a powerful message, seems like such a small act. Nevertheless, the family was receptive. They welcomed the opportunity to share Anna’s story and honour her memory.

Then, I began to get emails like this: “This cause touches me personally because in 2011 I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 11. After four rounds of chemo, I am cancer-free… The many toys, books, etc. that were given to me … are still treasured by me and I am sure that any kid that receives one of the Courage figures is going to feel the same way.”

And I quickly came to understand that what we are doing isn’t small at all.

When I spoke to the Bosma family, I was honest with them. I explained that there was no way to know how many figures we would actually sell/donate. However, I also explained that, even if we only sold a handful, I believed it was worth doing.

IAmElemental CourageFour years have passed and more than 1500 Courage figures later, September has become my favourite month of the year. It is what I call a happy/sad story (like so many are). This past year we were overwhelmed by the response; particularly in the collector community, where they helped to spread the word and ensure we had hundreds of figures to donate.

Organisations include Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer CenterMake-A-Wish, the Rally Foundation for Childhood Cancer ResearchChildren’s Hospital At MontefioreHassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, and C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, where Anna was treated. We also continue to ship Courage directly to children fighting cancer. It is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Always learning

We aren’t ready to launch our third series of action figures quite yet. While we are looking forward to introducing the world to the Justice series, we have had to slow down on production while we work on the animated series.

Season One is centred around Series One: Courage. So, for now, we are focused on continuing to build brand awareness while we get ready to sell the show.

IAmElemental costumes
Image: © Blue Lily Photo

However, we do have a new product launching soon. During the lockdown, I was walking in Central Park daily (it was the only way I could get exercise), and I started to notice more and more girls on skateboards. I also started following female skateboarders on social media.

I am sure that all of that exposure contributed to the fact that the very first scene in my pilot script opens with a girl on a skateboard. It inspired me to find a company to produce IAmElemental skateboard decks and grips for us, and I am very excited. They look fantastic.

One of the most wonderful gifts that IAmElemental has given me is the freedom to continue to learn new things even though I am no longer school-age. I didn’t know how to design and produce an action figure before I started. I didn’t know how to sell a product, create content for social media, write a story bible, or create a pitch deck.

Some of the lessons are harder than others, but I love it all. As Michelangelo (the artist, not the Ninja Turtle) said: “Always learning.”

 

https://www.linkedin.com/in/juliekerwin/

http://iamelemental.com/

https://twitter.com/IAmElementalToy

https://www.instagram.com/iamelementaltoy

https://www.facebook.com/iamelementaltoy