Thinking back to when I played with dolls as a child, the most frustrating part was choosing the outfits. Not because my six-year-old brain couldn’t color coordinate, but because when it came time to dress my doll for her day at work, there were very few exciting options. Nurse or teacher. That was about it.
At the time I had dreams of being a zookeeper, and my sister an archaeologist. I often think about how amazing it would have been to have more variety with our toys. We could have dressed our dolls like the women we hoped to be, and the ones in our lives we looked up to.
Fortunately, little girls growing up now have that chance, thanks in part to CEO and Founder of Build & Imagine, Laurie Peterson. The brand’s building block-style dollhouses and dress-up dolls not only challenge gender stereotypes, but get girls building to help them develop foundational STEM skills. Inspiring children to think outside the box and dream bigger, Build & Imagine is a breath of fresh air in a segregated industry.
As Jet.com celebrates Women’s History Month by spotlighting female CEOs and Founders, we chatted with Laurie to hear more about Build & Imagine and the real importance of play.
What was the original mission for Build & Imagine and how has it changed?
The original mission for Build & Imagine was to get girls building to help them develop foundational STEM skills, and ultimately contribute to overcoming the gender innovation gap.
While our mission to get girls building remains at the heart of Build & Imagine’s DNA, we are approaching design in an inclusive way, inspiring both girls and boys to build and imagine. We’ve also found that imaginative play is the most compelling aspect of our toys (and our biggest differentiator compared to other magnetic building toys).
How did you come up with the idea?
The “aha!” moment came when we were at family day at the SF MOMA art museum. Kids were playing with an installation of plain colored magnetic building tiles. Girls would walk up, build really cool towers, and take a step back and look so proud! I thought, “These girls love to build,” but they would get bored very quickly and walk away. I wondered, “what if we put illustrations on the tiles, so instead of just building a structure, they built a scene for their stories?” In that moment, the idea for our magnetic dollhouses was born.
What was the first Build & Imagine product created?
Build & Imagine launched with a Kickstater crowd-funding campaign, which allowed us to bring three compatible magnetic building sets to market: Malia’s House, Marine Rescue Center, and Day at The Beach. The kits work together so kids can build a coastal community. The amazing thing is, two of our first three sets went on to become finalists for “Toy of the Year” in 2017 (in addition to winning dozens of other awards)!
What do you hope kids take away from their experiences with the product?
By playing with Build & Imagine, I hope kids see themselves as the architects of their own stories. As toymakers, we have so much influence in the skills kids develop and how kids see the world. We succeed when we expand their possibilities.
Our Build & Imagine Career Dolls Magnetic Dress-up Set is a good example of this. Instead of choosing between polka dot and stripes, kids pick outfits to turn their characters into space explorers, detectives, super heroes, video game designers, and more.
What is something you wish had existed when you were a kid?
I had a wonderful childhood and for the most part wasn’t restricted by gender norms. I loved building toys, science kits, and dolls. Looking at the faces on the packaging and the characters included in the sets, I could tell the building toys and science kits I played with were not designed with me in mind. While this didn’t deter me, it did make me feel alone in my play, as none of my female friends shared these interests. I wish more had been done to attract girls to these categories when I was a kid.
What has been your favorite reaction to your toys?
It’s the unexpected stories that really touch me. A language therapist wrote a blog post about a breakthrough she had with a young autistic boy. When I read her telling of how the boy was engaging in imaginative play for the first time with our “Fairytale Theater” set, and the resulting leaps he made in communication, it brought me to tears.
What is a common misconception you see in the toy industry when it comes to designing or building toys?
The thing that bothers me the most is when we prescribe a narrow definition to who kids are, particularly when it comes to gender preferences. The toy industry (as well as kids’ media at large) has routinely served up two polar extremes. Boys get heroic blue combat themed toys with lots of moving gizmos, and girls get static pink nurturing dolls and princesses. Well, things aren’t that simple.
Kids are intelligent, have diverse skills and interests, and each child is UNIQUE. We should reflect this diversity in the toys and media we develop. Through exposing our children to a wide range of play styles and themes we can help them develop a rich individualized identity and encourage the belief that all interests are open to everyone.
What is your favorite part of your day?
As the CEO of a small start-up, each day has different challenges and moments of joy. I enjoy creative collaboration and seeing our Build & Imagine concepts brought to life, so it’s especially exciting when our illustrator Cathi Mingus shows me new sketches for the first time.
How do you keep your own imagination fresh?
I play! I think it’s really important as a toy inventor to keep a child-like playful spirit. My mom says I was meant to be in this industry because I’m “just a big baby” who clings to her childhood. While I rarely am able to fit playtime into my work day at Build & Imagine, it’s really helpful to have a five and seven year-old at home.
What is your hope for Build & Imagine in the future?
Build & Imagine is still so tiny. It’s really just me full time, with tons of help from advisors and talented contributors. I am so proud of what our small but mighty team has accomplished, but want to do so much more! My hope is that we can grow Build & Imagine into a thriving business that can have a bigger impact on the way our kids play.
Who are other female entrepreneurs you find inspiring?
I am so fired up that the female founding team from IAmElemental just partnered with the Jim Henson Company to bring their line of female super-hero action figures to life in an animated series. It’s an inspiring example that hard work, a powerful mission, and authenticity can win.
How will you celebrate National Women’s History Month this March?
Is it March already? Oh my, I have a lot of work to do! For Women’s History Month, we’ll be featuring women who inspire us on our Instagram. Hope to see you there.
Check out our shop celebrating National Women’s History Month!