Play It Forward: Shona Gupta Relaunches a Pioneering Toy Line to Empower Girls
When the Get Real Girl toy line was first introduced in fall 2000, it was ahead of its time. The industry wasn’t ready to fully embrace a doll that deviated from a well-established blonde and blue-eyed blueprint with improbable proportions.
Nearly 20 years later, Shona Gupta (MBA, ’99) has taken the lead to relaunch a children’s product now expected to resonate with millennial parents hungry for more choices — an alternative to Barbie that encourages adventure and athleticism more than fashion and fairy tales.
The Drucker School alumna and CEO of Get Real Girl International says the line was designed to empower young women, embrace their diversity, and celebrate realistic body types—moving away from toys that portray women as playthings and eye candy.
“Let’s dump those old stereotypes and embrace the 21st century,” Gupta said.
Get Real Girl was originally co-founded by Michael Cookson, a Pomona College alumnus who was the founder and then-CEO of Wham-O, the Southern California-based company behind the Frisbee, Slip ‘N Slide, Hula Hoop, Hacky Sack, and Boogie Board. The dolls — which featured African American, Brazilian, and Asian American characters — hit the market two years later.
The line immediately attracted positive media attention, with news reports describing the new toys as “alternative dolls.” Proponents of Get Real Girl and others argued that traditional dolls encouraged age-old stereotypes about women, promoted unrealistic body types, and normalized a white standard of physical beauty.
In those pre-e-commerce days, the retail world wasn’t prepared for the disruption that Get Real Girl posed to major brands and their sway over shelf-space.
“Get Real Girl offered change, and although girls were ready for change in 2000, the toy industry was not,” Gupta said.
But now, reactions from the marketplace as well as the success of a social media campaign clearly indicate a relaunch of the line is needed, Gupta and Cookson said.
Dreams of Adventure
After working in publishing, business development, marketing, and public relations during the 1990s, Gupta took a job at Mattel in 2002. There, she was the senior producer for Barbie.com and was also part of the team that produced the Barbiegirls.com game portal.
She left Mattel in 2007 and worked for Hearst Media for five years, where she managed digital marketing campaigns and website development for several Fortune 500 clients. Following that, in 2013, she led several large-scale e-commerce projects and continued to consult for various innovative startups in marketing and branding. In 2016, she crossed paths with Cookson, who had worked with Gupta’s brother. Gupta, Cookson, and Gupta’s brother decided to revive the pioneering toy line.
Gupta’s decision to help spearhead Get Real Girl was influenced, in part, by her own childhood experiences.
“The dolls I played with during my childhood years didn’t look like me,” she said. “Looking back, I wish that there was a doll that would have sparked dreams of adventure and action, dreams that would help me see and feel like my real self.”
Over the course of a 30-day campaign between October and November 2016, Gupta’s Kickstarter campaign raised more than $44,000—mostly from donors pledging small amounts. The average pledge was about $180.
Gupta spent a mere $100 on social media advertising for the campaign.
The venture also got a boost from professional athletes who backed the campaign on their personal social media accounts or served on the Get Real Girl advisory board. They included Brandi Chastain, a two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist who was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in March 2017; Kaitlyn Farrington, a 2015 Olympic gold medalist and snowboarder; Joanna Lohman, a former member of the United States women’s national soccer team and a 2015 women’s soccer Sports Envoy for the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs; and Yael Averbuch, also a former member of the United States women’s national soccer team and current midfielder for the National Women’s Soccer League.
More recently, Hilary DeCesare, an entrepreneur and co-founder and former CEO of preteen social media site Everloop, joined the venture as an investor and co-chair of Get Real Girl.
“Hilary is an active mom who passionately does her part to empower young women and girls to achieve their goals—both on and off the field,” Gupta said.
Alternative Role Model
On the heels of a successful campaign, Gupta is currently working to secure investors’ backing to reintroduce the toy line to a new generation of children ages four to eight — and their millennial parents — for fall 2017. Get Real Girl will be available at Amazon.com and eventually, Gupta hopes, to a mass market.
She is currently in discussions with some groundbreaking athletes to join its advisory board, as well as several organizations regarding potential promotional partnerships.
Four Get Real Girl action figures are planned: Corey, a surfer; Skylar, a snowboarder; Nakia, a basketball player; and Gabi, a soccer player. Each comes from a different country, represents a different ethnicity, and is equipped with sports gear and clothing. Each figure also comes with a passport—to encourage travel—and is equipped with movable joints to allow girls to move limbs, wrists, and ankles freely for realistic play.
“Most doll lines are focused on fashion, fantasy, and personal style,” Gupta said. “Get Real Girl is an alternative role model. Our goal is to empower girls to play, connect, and express real values such as authenticity, activity, and diversity. Now, more than ever before, this message is critical.”
A Real Difference
The Get Real Girl line differs from traditional dolls in that they were explicitly created to inspire activity, adventure, and diversity.
- The action figures are designed with realistic proportions, and come fully articulated—they can literally stand on their own two feet. Each is equipped with sports clothes and gear.
- They come with their own passport journals to jot down travel adventures.
- The figures are multiethnic, representing characters from four continents.
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