Nurtured by UCI’s Cove, alumna and her sister develop dolls to inspire the next generation of female business leadersBy Janet Wilson
These dolls wear high-top sneakers – not heels – and there’s no one named Ken in sight. They’re a diverse group of girls who are whizzes at computer coding, marketing, finance, robotics and graphics – and who use their skills to start successful businesses.
The Middle School Moguls are the brainchild of alumna Gina Heitkamp, MBA ’14 (above, right) and her sister, Jenae Heitkamp-Olivas. With backing from The Cove at UCI, the dolls debuted at 120 select Target stores across the U.S. for the 2016 holiday shopping season.
The Heitkamps are real-life role models for what the Middle School Moguls aim to do: encourage preteens to succeed in math, science, engineering and art. And The Cove, UCI Applied Innovation’s hub for researchers, entrepreneurs, investors and corporate partners, is nurturing them and hundreds of other startups.
Three years ago, Heitkamp was a successful technology consultant dismayed that so few women were attending industry conferences. Her older sister, a child therapist working in Los Angeles County elementary schools, found that by the time kids are 7 or 8 years old, gender stereotypes are already ingrained. “If girls don’t have examples of these careers in their homes, they rely on toys and media,” Heitkamp notes.
The sisters, Garden Grove natives, have turned the stereotypes on their heads, completing a $1.3 million round of funding last fall to fully develop their brand. Amid hundreds of the dolls in their Cove office, they describe their own path.
Heitkamp, 35, returned to school for her master’s degree after developing websites and social media platforms for myriad companies. For the 2014 national Blackstone LaunchPad student entrepreneur competition, she and her sister decided to write a children’s book about five girls whose online startup goes viral. When they conducted market research of 5- to 12-year-olds, the girls said, “Oh, yeah, a book would be great – but we want a doll.”
Heitkamp won the Blackstone competition and used the $15,000 prize to have prototype dolls made. Her sister quit her job and moved back to Orange County with her family to work on the business full time.
The five characters and corresponding storylines come straight from the sisters’ experiences. The dolls now include a social media influencer, a graphic designer, a financial wizard, an engineer and a coder. At first, they were dressed in business suits, but girls said they looked like moms.
“Through our research, we found kids wanted something more dynamic and characters that related to them and the way they look,” Heitkamp says. Now Jada the Graphics Guru sports a headband with cat ears, edgy safety pins and pink high-tops. McKinley the Business Boss wears tights of two different colors and a cutoff blazer over a tutu-style dress.
The company is in talks with a multinational cartoon company and several national retailers. While the road to success has been tough, Heitkamp says, “The Cove has been incredibly critical to our growth.” The sisters received free office space, “a la carte” legal and business mentoring from experts in residence and major funding when they needed it most.
Heitkamp squares her shoulders and breathes deep as she opens the door to The Cove’s “pitch room,” where, in October 2015, she and her sister faced a room full of investors. They were one of several teams picked to pitch a product in 12 minutes – with a neon clock counting down the seconds overhead. If they didn’t get the funding, the business was done. After grueling hours, low pay and manufacturing mishaps, “we were 100 percent tapped out.”
They’d already used proceeds from a Kickstarter drive to make a few thousand dolls – but the manufacturer produced a shoddy product with ink streaking the dolls’ arms. When they asked to have their prototypes returned, they came back headless. Meanwhile, Heitkamp had finagled a meeting with a Target national buyer in Minnesota.
“We had one prototype with a broken arm that I took with me,” Heitkamp recalls. “I had to convince the buyer that within 12 months we would be ready to ship them. It was terrible.”
But she did it. Her sister and others say Heitkamp is a skilled presenter. “Gina is terrific at meetings and pitching,” Heitkamp-Olivas says. “We have a great concept, but there’s a lot of great concepts out there. The reason we’ve gotten so far with all these big companies is because of her.”
“Through our research, we found kids wanted something more dynamic and characters that related to them and the way they look.”
John Kensey, a veteran investor who co-manages The Cove’s investment fund, also praised Heitkamp. She’s “one of the best young entrepreneurs I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with a lot,” he says. “She’s a very quick learner, and I like the way she worked through that bad experience with the first manufacturer. She didn’t get flustered; she just put her head down and charged and came out of it fine.”
When the investors emerged from the pitch room that October day, the sisters had been selected for $250,000 in seed funding – the first in a series of investments that are putting them on the map. “It was a real high point,” Heitkamp says.
She sounds very much like one of the Middle School Moguls as she discusses what’s next. “We could be a global brand,” she says. “There are so many different applications for this, from after-school kids clubs or summer camps to cartoons and toys and educational products.”
Their main goal, she emphasizes, is to encourage the next generation of female business leaders: “Seeing the little girls playing with the dolls, reading the stories and getting inspired is what really motivates us to keep moving forward.”