The introduction of Barbie at the 1959 Toy Fair disrupted everything anyone knew to be true within the industry. The disrupter, Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel and creator of Barbie, navigated her way through criticism. At the time, only 38% of women comprised the workplace; the thought of women operating companies seemed as foreign as speaking a second language. Through perseverance and persistence, she slowly broke barriers placed on women and gradually became known as a savvy businesswoman and inventor. For many women, she symbolized hope and was a role model to look up to in the fight for equality.
Fast forward to 2020. Handler’s influence and inspiration are still felt and respected throughout the industry. To amplify and continue her legacy, Mattel has partnered with Women in Toys, Licensing & Entertainment (WIT) to underwrite their new mentorship initiative. The Ruth Handler Mentorship Program housed under WIT is designed to advance career growth across the toy industry through mentorship, coaching, professional development, and learning. The launch of the program is timed to celebrate Mattel’s 75th anniversary.
The creation of the program began with a discussion between Amy Thompson, chief people officer at Mattel, and Janice Ross, WIT’s newly inducted president. “She [Thompson] shared with me her passion for mentorship,” Ross explained. “We both agreed that what a great focus for WIT…We peeled it back and discussed how important that is as something for women. As women, we don’t just naturally have it in the workplace candidly. That resource to WIT could be game-changing in terms of helping women advance their careers, providing them with role models and people that can at all stages of their careers, provide guidance, feedback and whatever it is that is needed.”
Throughout Ross’ career, mentorship has played a significant role in her success. After eight years in the entertainment industry, she was searching for a greater challenge. A colleague mentioned that a position in licensing was open. Through a rigorous interview process, Ross landed her first role in licensing at a marketing company. Throughout her tenure, she has worked for companies that include Lego and American Greetings.
“I had some really great experiences along the road in my career,” Ross states. “One, in particular, was at Lego. I had a boss that just made such a huge difference in my career and generally in my life. She opened my eyes up to a much bigger world; literally, she was sending me around the world traveling in my capacity that I was working for Lego. She was instrumental in advancing and helping me advance in my career and owning who I am and my voice. I realized as I progressed in my career that that was something that changed my career path and I wanted to pay it forward. When I was introduced to WIT simply as a member through friends, I felt that same kind of connection and passion about just wanting to mentor, help, connect, listen to, speak with other like-minded women and find ways that we could connect. In some cases, for me, also helps others along their path in their careers. That’s how it started.”
After 20 years in the industry, Ross decided to start her own agency, Brand Fresh Management, that transforms and accelerates brands through innovative strategies. In addition to operating her own company, she is also volunteering her time as president of WIT, which was made official this past February at the 16th Annual WIT Wonder Women Awards. Initially, she served as the co-chair for the Wonder Women Awards, then as vice president. Now, as president, her main focus is ensuring the success of the newly launched Ruth Handler Mentorship Program.
“The biggest challenge that we will face going forward is the challenge of opportunity,” Ross smiles. “We have so much opportunity ahead of us that it really becomes the challenge to resource it. One of the things that Ashley [Mady, former WIT president] did such a great job of is really preparing the organization for growth and continued success…The biggest challenge that we will have is actually bringing to fruition the numerous programs and events and resources for our membership base.”
Phase one of the mentoring program involves vetting and on-boarding the mentors. Since it is a guided program, the mentors will have modules that they will walk through with their mentees; the modules assist the mentees on what they would like to focus on throughout this program.
Throughout Ross’ pivots and now expanding WIT and the mentorship program, she focuses on the following essential steps:
- Be open to opportunities. Identify if this opportunity will challenge you and help you grow in specific areas.
- Learn to be uncomfortable in your growth. When you realize that you need to develop professionally, and it may set you out of your comfort zone, that’s the moment when you are going to have a breakthrough; you’ll be closer to where you want to be in your career.
- Open up a dialogue with others. Not only will you learn something new, but you may find the mentor you need to advance.
“Ruth [Handler] was a mentor to many,” Thompson concludes. “While she was the founder and creator of Barbie, she also mentored many employees and people in the community. She was a big believer in servant leadership. She inspired girls and women of all ages to reach their limitless potential. This program is designed to help women and members of WIT to unlock their full potential.”