WIT and Walmart team up to host the annual mentoring event
by NANCY ZWIERS, co-chair, WIT Empowerment Day
Many women spend a lot of time with children, as mothers, educators, or community leaders. Not surprisingly, that “together time” often inspires promising new product ideas. Who better to see what children would like than those who spend so much time with them? Yet, many of these inventive women don’t necessarily have the avenues available to them to penetrate the black box we call the toy industry. As industry insiders, WIT has the infrastructure, the connections, and the know-how to launch a new toy — and welcome ideas from diverse sources.
WIT Empowerment Day brings together aspiring female entrepreneurs and volunteer industry veterans to help give these product ideas the chance to become a reality. Industry veterans just happen to include Walmart’s Vice President of Toys Anne Marie Kehoe, and the bulk of her buying team.
It all started nearly seven years ago. Patti Becker, founder and CEO of Becker Associates LLC and a leader in WIT, had the idea of arranging a Walmart pitch session at Toy Fair New York (TFNY) open to women in the industry. She knew that Walmart had launched its Women’s Global Economic Empowerment Initiative in 2011 and that they set a goal to increase its sourcing from women-owned businesses. Her timing was perfect: The Walmart WIT pitch event launched at TFNY in February 2013 and was a resounding success. Based on that success, WIT and Walmart moved it to Dallas Fall Toy Preview, where the event has been ever since.
Since 2014, Deb de Sherbinin and I — the WIT Empowerment Day co-chairs — have worked with Walmart, WIT staff, and volunteers to further expand the scope of the event. We have partnered with The Toy Association and secured a large space at the Dallas Market Center. We will host the full-day event and evening cocktail reception on the eve of Dallas Toy Preview’s opening.
Participants can pitch to Walmart and toy inventor relations representatives from companies, such as Spin Master, Hasbro, PlayMonster, Wicked Cool Toys, and Basic Fun.
Participants can also attend multiple educational webinars leading up to the event and learn from more than 30 expert mentors across many disciplines at speed mentoring and informational sessions during the conference. These mentors are industry veterans who volunteer their time and generously offer their expertise.
The educational program includes panel discussions with Walmart buyers, inventor relations representatives, financing and e-commerce marketing experts, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), and the Small Business Administration (SBA).
Inspiration and Connectedness
Keynote speakers have included Mark Cuban of Shark Tank, Melissa Bernstein — co-founder of toy company Melissa and Doug — and, most recently, Natalie Rebot, the inventor of the storybook projector Moonlite. To close out the conference, participants will share the value they have created in the toy industry and attend an evening cocktail reception to network with toy industry insiders.
The Results Are Happening
The event keeps getting better, and the partnership between WIT, Walmart, and The Toy Association is stronger than ever. For the many volunteers who help make WIT Empowerment Day possible, participant feedback is the best part.
Consider Angie Cella, who came to last year’s WIT Empowerment Day with her invention of the Hair Blinger. A simple but powerful idea, the Hair Blinger is a cartridge-based system that lets you easily add sparkling crystals to your hair. Pitches to both Walmart and Wicked Cool Toys co-founder Michael Rinzler went well, they quickly signed a deal with Cella, and now the product is sold at Walmart. In fact, Kehoe has expressed excitement about the toy’s possibilities. Cella couldn’t have been happier with her participation in Empowerment Day. “Things have gone great,” she says. “We signed the deal with Wicked Cool this past Monday night. It’s just been incredible these last three weeks. I feel like the last four years are finally coming to a head, and it’s all so surreal — and it’s all because of WIT.”
“[Even] if nothing comes of [WIT Empowerment Day], I could return next year more professionally prepared.” – Maxine Rose Schur, award-winning children’s book author
Not every registrant will achieve distribution at Walmart as Cella did. However, we’ve learned that many perceive WIT Empowerment Day as a process, rather than an event. Walmart buyers give valuable constructive feedback to each person they meet and encourage women to act on the feedback and return the following year with a stronger proposition. Several women have participated in WIT Empowerment Day over multiple years, gradually honing their offerings based on pitch feedback and mentoring.
For example, Karen Kilpatrick pitched her product at our first WIT Empowerment Day in Dallas. She returned the following year as a volunteer, which ultimately led to her meeting the folks at Jazwares. They offered her a job as a manager and creator at JazWings and have since promoted her to vice president of marketing at Jazwares.
The toy industry’s generosity is the rising tide that lifts all boats. Please visit WIT Empowerment Day’s website at womenintoys.com/empowerment-day for more information on this year’s event.