Her child’s comment sparks $5M multicultural business

“Mommy, I can’t be a superhero because He-Man is white.”

Yla Eason, Assistant Professor of Professional Practice, Department of Marketing

Leveraging educational theories and methodologies to design, develop, and deliver successful curriculum and learning programs in business communication and marketing. Teaches Search Engine Marketing in the Master of Science in Digital Marketing program. 

Award-winning marketing professional internationally recognized as pioneering the market niche of multicultural toys. She founded Olmec Toys, a multicultural toy company, growing it to a $5 million business. Eason is among the three women who will be honored by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce with the 2020 Alice H. Parker Women Leaders in Innovation awards.

Olmec Toys:

A casual comment by her three-year-old son in 1984 would change the toy market for ever.

“Mommy, I can’t be a superhero because He-Man is white.”

Yla Eason’s initial thought was to buy her son a Black action figure; however, she quickly found that there were none.  She spoke with other mothers who said that the absence of a Black action figure for their sons to play with was a concern to them as well.  “That started me researching the toy industry,” Eason said.  “How big is this industry? How many children are there?  How many children of color are there?  What kind of revenues are coming from the action figure market?”

Eason performed a great deal of census data analysis.  In 1985, the majority of children in the U.S. two-years-old and younger were people of color.  Following the projected trend, and currently, the majority of people in the U.S. 18 years old and younger are people of color.

She next asked herself: “Is this important?  Is this bigger than me and my son, bigger than the mothers and children in my neighborhood?”  She was able to arrange a meeting with Dr. Kenneth Clark.  He and his wife Dr. Mamie Clark were the first African-Americans to earn doctorates in psychology at Columbia University.  Their research demonstrated the harmful effects of segregation leading to a poor self-perception in children of color.  Their testimony before the Supreme Court contributed to the landmark case that desegregated American public schools: Brown v. Board of Education.

Eason asked Clark, “From a psychologist's point of view, is it important for children to have toys that look like them?”  His answer was an emphatic yes; otherwise, children internalize that certain things are not available to them and they develop a poor self-perception.

Eason’s research proved that there was a growing market and an unmet need for multi-cultural action figures and dolls.  There were none being produced at the time so she decided that she would make them.

Olmec Toys, Sun-Man and the Sun People, 1985
Olmec Toys, Sun-Man and the Sun People, 1985

“It helped that I had earned my MBA from Harvard Business School; had a business background, understood an approach and a method of how to work through these things,” Eason said.  “My then-husband had been working with MESBICS - Minority Enterprise Small Business Investment Companies, which had recently been started by the Nixon administration, to increase the number of African-Americans who were in business.  So he had first-hand business knowledge, understood finance, and had networks.”

After securing investors and developing her product, Eason created Olmec Toys, producing multi-cultural superhero and superheroine action figures for boys and girls. Eason coined the phrase "ethnically correct," referring to the doll's appropriate color as well as its sculpted facial features to accurately represent each doll's ethnicity.

Professor Yla Eason discusses pioneering the multicultural action figure and doll company Olmec Toys in 1985.

Eason started by selling the figures to friends and at barber shops and beauty salons. After proving that the action figures sold, she approached the larger retailers, eventually growing the company to $5 million in sales, with worldwide distribution in major retailers. Later, other toy manufactures followed Eason’s lead and created multi-racial toys and dolls. Olmec’s success remains a case study for business school classes teaching multicultural marketing. 

What she brings to the classroom: “I bring my full experience and scholarship to my teaching. I talk about everything that I did related to economics, market research, promotion, advertising, finance, supply chain, selling. Getting customers interested, staying current and innovating in terms of what you are presenting.That is the approach that I bring to my teaching: not just the academic but also the practical.  Because I have done it: I have taken an idea, made it happen and ran a successful business.”

-Sean Ireland

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