As high school students, Brooklyn-born twin sisters Carlissa and Laken King would often spend their days flipping through fashion magazines. As much as they enjoyed this pastime, the lack of diversity within the glossy pages irritated them — so much so that, at the young age of 25, they started their own doll company to help girls understand and celebrate diversity within themselves and others.
"We wanted kids from all backgrounds to have an equal opportunity to achieve their dreams," Elle & Cee World Girls co-founder Laken told B*Real. "We wanted them to know that they could be anything they wanted to be." As the first of seven dolls, Elle & Cee World Girls dolls Pemberly, Zari and Maud hail from the United States, Barbados and Germany, respectively, and tote worldly accessories: an ambassador sweater and a passport. Each character has also been assigned a trait that inspires imagination and aspiration, ranging from "healer" to "defender."
"Although today's world has grown leaps and bounds from intolerances of the past, and technology makes us more globally interconnected than ever before, there is still a great lack of human connection and understanding," said the sisters. "[We] are working extremely hard to create a doll line that represents girls from different backgrounds, delves deeper into issues that young girls and others face today, and unites girls to become the world's problem-solvers."
Next up for Elle & Cee World Girls? An ambitious Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign aimed at raising $150,000 to have two additional doll molds made, as well as cover the costly manufacturing and production process. "This is not an easy or a cheap process, but this is our dream, and we will take the necessary steps to achieve it," Laken said.
Check out what else Laken had to say about her and Carlissa's adventurous journey into the challenging, yet rewarding world of toys.
B*Real: One of the ways in which your company differs from other toy companies is that you’ve partnered with “real girls,” as you mentioned, to help build Elle & Cee World Girls. What specific roles and influence have these young women partners had so far?
Laken King: Our world girls motivate us every day. They have contributed their stories, voices, expertise, and optimism and can be seen in our Kickstarter video, on the Kickstarter page — everywhere! They are the magic behind ECWG. Our girls have written awesome stories that we cannot wait to unleash to the world. Their stories provide insight into their lives and experiences. They have also helped with the dolls' clothing and hair, as well as our social media. As we continue on our journey, they will be in the boardroom with us, making more decisions on the dolls, dictating the content that goes on the website, working on social media, interning with us and building the global platform for girls around the world to communicate. Too many things to name! They have helped us build a doll line and company that is not only of today, but of the future.
What unexpected challenges did you face during the production of your first ECWG doll prototype?
The biggest question was how in the world are we going to make a doll? Our prototype, Pemberly, took over a year to complete. We did not expect it to take so long and cost so much. But as someone once told us, "In business, everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much." We agonized over the facial and body details, the clothing, making the perfect ambassador's sweater for our doll. There was one painful instance, among many, when the prototype was painted and complete, but we decided we needed to change the eye color and skin tone. In order to change the eyes, our sculptor had to cut open the doll’s head, pop out the eyes, remold it, repaint it etc. That was the only way she could make those changes, which of course meant a lot more time and money. That hit us hard, but it was the right call.
We love how you incorporated your own Caribbean culture into the line, as well! Tell us what it would have meant to have a doll like Zari growing up.
Yes! We are Guyanese, and sadly, Caribbean culture is often overlooked in mainstream society — even the food, which is crazy! When most people think of the Caribbean, they think clear, blue water, sun, and probably reggae music, but there is so much more than that. We thought it would be cool to give girls a deeper look into the Caribbean, through Barbados, specifically. As young girls, to have a doll like Zari would have expanded our outlook at an earlier age. We know, for sure, we would have begged our parents to take us to Barbados, and that is exactly what we want to spark in young girls: curiosity. Maybe you might not be able to go to Barbados, but you can travel through books, the Internet, and so many other ways.
What are some of the next hurdles you foresee having to overcome?
One hurdle we foresee having to overcome is building the perfect website and space for girls to feel like they’re a part of a community — a home. Finding the right designers has been challenging because we’re fastidious visionaries. You wouldn’t think, but the toy industry is more traditional, conservative and staid, and so we’re looking to fill that creative-design void by bringing some more funk and fun to the industry through design. Building a website of the magnitude in which we’d like to build will be extremely expensive, so we hope to deliver quality products, and over time, build a quality, engaging, educational and fun website for our world girls. Another challenge we foresee having to overcome is figuring out when to expand our team. Carlissa and I will do as much as we can as a duo in regard to operations, but we know we’ll have to expand and hire. Hiring is an arduous, challenging, crucial, process, especially when hiring your founding team members.
What would you like the B*Real readers to know?
Surprisingly, the toy industry, as with many other industries, is male-dominated, and we are here to change that. We’re ready to make toys for girls and to create a space for them to make a positive impact in the world! We would like B*Real readers to know that this is not an idea we came up with overnight. It’s been almost a decade in the making, and we are so proud to represent girls around the world as Black women. Black women see the world in a way that no one else can. It’s an identity that has shaped some of the most influential women in the world. These are women who wholly embody our dolls’ traits: We are warriors, rebels, defenders, healers, explorers, scholars and innovators.
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(Laken and Carlissa King pictured with their first Elle & Cee World Girl doll prototype, Pemberly. Photo: Purple Steel Productions)
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