IAmElemental; The Global Toy News Interview

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Rsz_julie_kerwin (1)Julie Kerwin is the Chief Elemental Officer of IAmElemental. Founded in 2013, the company conducted a Kickstarter campaign in 2014 which was fully funded in two days and was named by TIME Magazine as one of the “25 Best Inventions of 2014” and “Top 10 Toys of 2014.” In 2016, Kerwin was selected by the White House for their conference on “Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes in Media and Toys.”  IAmElemental's groundbreaking products were honored by the Toy Industry Association as 2017 Toy of the Year finalists in the Action Figure of the Year and Rookie of the Year categories, and Kerwin received a Wonder Woman Award in the Rising Star category from Women in Toys, Licensing & Entertainment (WIT). The company was also named a 2018 Toy of the Year finalist in the Action Figure of the Year category.  Kerwin appears regularly as a speaker at events hosted by New York Comic Con, New York Toy Fair, and Kickstarter.  

Before launching IAmElemental in 2013, Kerwin spent five years as co-owner of independent music label Club Rock Records. Club Rock started out teaching original Mastery (1)songwriting to teenagers and grew into a full-service production company, where Kerwin advised bands including The NowhereNauts (available on iTunes) on all business and creative aspects of album creation.  

Kerwin holds a BA in English and a certification in Secondary Education from Wellesley College, as well as a JD from Fordham University School of Law. She is a non-profit fundraiser, a patron of the arts and sciences, and a not-so-secret pop-culture critic. Her first novel, shortgirldeadmom.com, launched as an online diary in 2014.

Richard:    
You have two series of IAmElemental figures. One is called Courage and the other Wisdom Warriors. I have to ask: Which are you?

Julie:    
In the IAmElemental universe, we believe that all of the Superpowers that make up the Elements of Power reside inside of each one of us. Having said that, I definitely identify with certain powers more than others (don't we all?). At my core, I am a Wisdom Warrior. I am a voracious reader and researcher; one of my all-time favorite quotes is Michelangelo's "Always learning" (the artist, not the Ninja Turtle); and my most channeled Superpower is Creativity. But, my sons think my Superpowers are Bravery and Industry. So, I suppose it all depends on who you ask!

Richard:    
What drove you to create IAmElemental?

Julie:    
When we created IAmElemental back in 2012, we had three goals. First, arguing that the female action figures on the market at the time were hyper-sexualized in a way that rendered them inappropriate as playthings for children, we designed a figure with a healthier breast-to-hip ratio, a bum that wasn't offensive, and legs that were proportional to her body. Second, we reinvented the Superhero myth. In the IAmElemental universe, the child is the Superhero, and our figures represent her Superpowers. Hence our tagline: It's Character, not Characters. Third, we created a figure that was forward-thinking in its design and engineering. We knew that if it wasn't super cool and fun to play with then there wasn't any point in making them at all. Also, as the mother of two sons, I was very much invested in ensuring that boys would like them as much as girls. I argue that it is just as important to put a strong, healthy female figure in the hands of a boy as it is a girl. How can we hope to promote the notion of gender equality if we only teach girls what it means to be a powerful woman? That is why IAmElemental has always been girl targeted, boy inclusive.

IMG_2426 (1)Richard:    
How do you classify IAmElemental? Are they Action Figures, Action Dolls, Dolls or something else?

Julie:  
IAmElemental makes action figures. Having said all that, we are not anti-doll or anti-princess. We believe that there is room in a child's toy box for both dolls and IAmElemental action figures. But, we also believe that they are different things. Even if you dress Barbie up as a Superhero, she is still a doll. Dolls you primp, you change their outfits, comb their hair, etc. Dressing up Barbie is a core element of that play experience. Action figures take on challenges, fight bad guys, and have Superpowers. That difference is at the heart of another one of our taglines: If you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story. If you change the way girls play, by making them the protagonists of their own empowering stories, you can change the way they think – about themselves and their role in the world around them.

Richard:    
I find the aesthetics in your product to be elegant, active and very interesting. Did you do the design work and what was in your mind in designing them?

Julie:    
Thank you so much for the kind words. I am having the time of my life designing the figures. It is my favorite part of my job. First, each IAmElemental Series has a different Muse and, therefore, a different aesthetic. For example, the Muse for Series1/Courage is Joan of Arc, and the Muse for Series2/Wisdom is the ancient Greek philosopher, astronomer and mathematician Hypatia. Once the Muse has been selected, I start compiling images. There are no limits. For the Courage series I started with literal interpretations – knights and Joan of Arc images – and shifted over time into high-fashion reinterpretations (and everything in between). These collected images then go to our designer, Haz Minor. He is the magician who takes my ideas and transforms them into a figure. From there, the team works together to tweak each figure until we're satisfied that she is a perfect representation of her Superpower. A lot of thought goes into both the accessory and color design. Nothing is random. For example, Persistence’s cape was modeled after an ocean’s wave and the idea that, while waves might keep coming and knocking you down, if you channel your power of persistence, you can always get back up. And Ingenuity's Octopus claw came about after my son showed me YouTube videos of an octopus escaping from a jar, and another changing its shape to look like a flounder. They are amazing problem-solvers, who use their powers of Ingenuity on a regular basis. When it comes to color design, we intentionally select colors that have no relation to skin tone; we do not want ethnicity to play a role in how any individual power is defined or perceived. Everyone jokes that I sleep with my Pantone Book. I am obsessed with color, and I veer toward the modern and unexpected. Same with the hair, articulation and engineering. And, based on your enthusiastic response, it sounds like we've accomplished our goals.

Because of this attention to detail, we always explain that you can go as shallow or as deep into the IAmElemental universe as you want. For some people, our action figures are just a fun toy, or a beautifully articulated collectible, and that's great. But, then there's a whole other group who love the "hidden Mickeys" and layers of meaning that we embed inside the toy.

Richard:    
I understand that you have recently struck a deal with the Jim Henson Company to bring your products to television as an animated show. Can you tell us about it or is it a secret (we won't tell anyone if it is)?

Julie:    
We are absolutely thrilled to be working with the wonderful team at the Jim Henson Company. When we first launched IAmElemental on Kickstarter, we deliberately did not give our female action figures a backstory. We felt that there weren't enough examples in the media of females saving the day, and we wanted kids to create their own stories with females at the center of the story. Having said that, from the very beginning, we understood that storytelling is powerful. And we don't need research, though plenty exists, to tell us that it is important for both girls and boys to see vibrant examples of strong, healthy female protagonists across all types of media. We took our time to find a partner that loves and understands our mission as much as we do, and we look forward to seeing both our figures and our message of empowerment come to life.

Richard:   
What's next for IAmElemental?

Julie:    
We want to be known for female action figures, of course, but the opportunities for a lifestyle brand are tremendous. Right now, we are focused on making our core products as strong as possible, but we have at least five years worth of products and content in the pipeline. Stay tuned! We’re just getting started.

Richard:    
We always like to ask this question: What toys do you have on your desk or in your office?

Julie:    
An IAmElemental Mastery figure. I love her punk/schoolboy aesthetic, the way her cloak flows about her neck, and the way her colors pop. But, mostly, I wish I had her Superpower. I could get so much more done if I just had multiples of myself! 

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