What I Learned From Barbies Mom

By: Donna Schwartz Mills

When my daughter received a gift certificate at KB Toys for
her birthday this month, she announced her intention to
spend it all on Barbie.

Never mind the fact that she already owns a Veterinarian
Barbie, Lifesaver Barbie, Prom Queen Barbie, two Barbie
Ballerinas and a Prince Ken... She's got Barbie's Beach
House, a Barbie Steering Wheel, two Barbie autos that each
seat four, a Barbie tape player, Barbie Hair and Makeup
Model, Barbie Nail Designer Software, and a big box full of
clothes. But Megan wants to have a *collection*, a
peculiarly human urge understood well by the Mattel Toy
Company, which comes up with all this stuff.

It's too bad they don't make a Work at Home Mom Barbie. If
they did, they could draw on the life of Ruth Handler for
inspiration. Handler, who passed away last week, is best
known as the inventor of the Barbie doll. She was also one
of the most successful female entrepreneurs of all time,
beginning in an era when women were expected to stay in the
kitchen and out of the boardroom.

Like many of us, Ruth's career as an entrepreneur began by
accident. Money was tight when she married her husband,
Elliot. She was working as a secretary and he was studying
industrial design. He decided to use his skills to make some
housewares for their apartment. *She* decided that there was
a market for them. They operated their first business out of
their garage. Ruth handled the sales, which reached
$2 million within the first few years... and that was in
1945 dollars. Today that amount would equal ten times as
much!

Ruth and Elliot joined with another designer, Harold "Matt"
Mattson, to form the Mattel Company (named for Matt and
Elliot).

They manufactured picture frames. Elliot
realized that he could take the wood scraps from the frames
and turn them into doll furniture. This side business proved
to be so successful that the company changed its focus to
toys.

The folks at Mattel credit Ruth with playing an integral
role in their success. Her natural talent as a marketer
helped the company turn a profit its very first year as a
toymaker. But her biggest was her ability to identify a
market void and fill it ("niche marketing," which is what
the experts all tell us we should be doing.)

It was just such an instinct that led to the Barbie's birth.
The 1950's were an era when little girls played with baby
dolls -- in fact, those were just about the only kind you
could buy. But Ruth noticed that her daughter, Barbara, was
fascinated with paper dolls representing adult and teenage
women. She would change their dresses and imagine how life
would be all grown up.

The male ad executives at the company were not impressed
with Ruth's doll. Neither were the mostly male buyers who
saw her debut at the American Toy Show in 1959. But as Ruth
had guessed, little girls loved her - and 350,000 Barbies
were sold that very first year, which was a record. Mattel
introduced more dolls to the Barbie line over the next
several years, some of which were named after other Handler
family members, such as Ken -- Ruth's son -- and Stacie,
Todd and Cheryl, who were named after the Handlers'
grandchildren.

All was going well until 1970, Ruth was diagnosed with
breast cancer. It was a difficult time, bad decisions were
made and the Handlers' eventually left the successful
company they had founded. But Ruth not only survived her
bout with cancer; her experience inspired her next business
venture.

Ruth told the Los Angeles Times about her fruitless search
for natural-looking prosthetic breast. What was available at
the time was less than adequate. "I looked at the shapeless
glob that lay in the bottom of my brassiere and thought, 'My
god, the people in this business are men who don't have to
wear these,' " she told the Times. Once again, Ruth
discovered a niche to fill.

Ruth found a designer who created a new prosthetic to her
specifications. Made of liquid silicone and polyurethane, it
looked and felt natural. Her stroke of genius was her
realization that like shoes, it needed to be made up in
"lefts" and "rights." Then Ruth assembled a sales team made
up of other breast cancer survivors, who demonstrated
her new product to department store buyers and helped train
their sales staffs on how to fit their customers. In 1991,
Ruth sold her company to a division of Kimberly-Clark and
retired.

"Women--and men too--can do almost anything they set their
mind to," said Ruth. "You have to believe in what you want
to do and have the courage of your convictions."

Good advice for us all. Rest in peaceFind Article, Ruth.

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