Friday, May 29, 2009

Professional BusinessWomen of California Conference: Session I

I still have so many more notes to post from the Professional BusinessWomen of California Conference, but here is my entry on the first session!

Leadership Lessons from Barbie's Mom: 10 Lessons About Leadership, Reinvention and Redemption from the Founder of Mattel Toys.

Who knew that the founder of Mattel, one of the largest toy makers in the world, was founded by a woman? I didn't. I always knew that Barbie was created by a woman, but had assumed she was just the spouse of someone that worked at Mattel (which is sort of right, as she and her husband did run the business together, but both working in very different contexts).

Ruth Handler, inventor of one of the most beloved girl's toys, Barbie, is relatively unknown herself!

Barbie has had over 108 careers in over 50 years - quite a busy lady! And it all started with a simple idea from Ruth Handler - "Little girls want to play at being big girls."  In 1952 Ruth observed that dolls for girls were all baby dolls. There weren't adult dolls to play with. When she brought up the idea at Mattel, she was told that the doll she described could not be made, that the right materials were not available and no parent would buy a doll with breasts for their daughter.

Now to the part of the story that most of us do know: in 1955 the Handler family was visiting Switzerland when Ruth and her daughter came across a German doll based off of a sexy cartoon prostitute. Her daughter immediately wanted one to play with - so did Ruth. It was the doll she had envisioned, finally brought to life.  She saw many young girls on her trip playing with this doll, which had been simply made as a gag gift for men.  She bought one and took it back to Mattell and told the design department to "make this!"

Three Barbie dolls are now sold every 3 seconds. Wow!

It was not an easy journey for Ruth Handler. Even though she had helped found the company, and ran all the finances, she had to be hidden from view when it came time to talk to the men on Wall Street about taking Mattell public. Literally, while her husband entered the Wall Street office from the front door, she had to enter via an entrance used to discreetly remove garbage from the building. I can't imagine such a thing happening today, so I am so glad for pioneers like Ruth for opening doors for the rest of us.

Ruth Handler was also not perfect - when Mattel hit hard times, following a bad fire in one of their Mexican plants and they were suffering from poor sales in Europe, she wasn't sure what to do to keep the stock price up and keep investors happy.  She was approached by an accountant then who  suggested she cook the books... and she did.

Thirty years later, we all know how these types of shenanigans pan out. You can fool folks for awhile, but eventually the gig is up.  Ruth had lost sight of her goals and values, and for that she served 5 years of 500 hours of community service and was fired from Mattel.

Ruth Handler then found her self struck by breast cancer and had to get a mastectomy. She was so horrified by the "falsies" and at the poor treatment she received from sales associates in department stores that she reinvented herself and started a new company: Nearly Me.

There was so much more covered about Ruth Handler in this talk that I couldn't begin to recount it all here, but fortunately for all of us, Robin Gerber wrote a book on Ruth Handler so we can all learn more :-)

One thing that most stuck with me from this presentation actually came from a comment from a woman in the audience. Her father had worked at Mattel and knew the Handlers well, so she also got to know them and had found memories of getting to test out new toys before they were available to the general public. Her father had received a recognition award while at Mattel and it was the wording I found most interesting: "Companies are made up of men and women and the work they do."

Something to think about.

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