Glen Ellyn toy maker who breaks stereotypes goes to White House

CEO of Glen Ellyn toy company joins White House conference on breaking gender stereotypes

No one makes Jodi Norgaard cringe quite like "Lovely Lola."

She's told the story countless times of when she first met Lola, sitting on the shelf in a crop top and full makeup.

Norgaard was mad then, and she's mad now.

"I thought there's not one parent out there that wants their daughter to look like a Lovely Lola," she said.

Lola, a doll marketed to young girls, would inspire Norgaard, a Glen Ellyn mom of three, to start her own toy company that's working to shatter gender stereotypes in the industry and earned an invite to a recent conference at the White House.

"What was so cool about this whole invitation, this whole event, is that it was really validation to what I've been doing for the last seven years," said Norgaard, founder and CEO of the Dream Big Toy Company. "It really doesn't get much better than this."

What she's been doing for the past seven years is giving girls options for dolls and books that don't pigeonhole them into thinking they need to be fashionistas or princesses.

"Research is showing that this most likely - this gender stereotype - will affect the studies these children choose as well as their occupations," said Norgaard, who runs the company out of her Glen Ellyn home. "So as a nation, we have to come together for our economic strength to give these kids role models across the board, not just boys playing football and girls playing with baby dolls. We need to broaden that."

Roughly 150 educators, researchers, retailers, small business owners and media members gathered at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to study that research and offer solutions.

Companies such as Discovery Communications pledged to air programming on its Spanish-speaking Discovery Familia and Discovery Family Channel networks that will promote gender equality and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Parents have their own power as consumers, Norgaard says.

"Talk to your children about it. Point out the different stereotypes they may see or you may see," she said. "Encourage them to ask questions. Kids are pretty savvy."

Change has been slow. Buyers have told Norgaard, "Love your product, but it'll never sell because it's not mainstream."

"You're bucking the system, and in the toy industry, that doesn't go over very well or very easily," Norgaard said.

The Go! Go! Sports Girls wear athletic gear and promote healthy living and self-esteem, their creator says. Courtesy of Jodi Norgaard

But parents often rave about her line of Go! Go! Sports Girls that wear athletic gear, not high heels or dresses.

"I was doing back flips," author Kara Douglass Thom said. "I was excited to see dolls that represented the kind of life we were living. We're an active family, and I wanted my girls to grow up active."

Douglass Thom, now mom to four kids, ages 7 to 12, reached out to Norgaard and quickly formed a partnership that led to her writing children's books to accompany the dolls. Each story has simple tips for healthy living and empowering girls, tailored to the main character.

"To do this with Jodi, who is so sincere about her mission - for her, it really is more than selling a doll," said Douglass Thom, who lives just outside Minneapolis and attended the conference. "It really is putting the girls first and foremost and helping them to realize there's all of these options for them and so many ways to see themselves."

"I was excited to see dolls that represented the kind of life we were living," says Kara Douglass Thom, who went on to write books to accompany the line. "We're an active family." Courtesy of Jodi Norgaard

Norgaard first launched with nine dolls, but the economy nose-dived, and buyers were reluctant to embrace a new product. Still, she stayed the course and got five minutes to pitch the dolls to Wal-Mart at the 2013 Toy Fair in New York.

"That was the easiest sell I've ever had," she said.

The Go! Go! Sports Girls products have now been in 160 Wal-Mart stores for about a year, in addition to online retailers.

And Norgaard and Douglass Thom are considering whether to bring their vision to an animated TV series.

"Mainstream ideas never create change," Norgaard said. "It's always the different ideas that create change, and change is needed."

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