Julie Kerwin ’92 on Developing the First Female Action-Figure Company

Julie Kerwin ’92 and a grouping of IAmElemental figurines.
Author  Diana King
Published on 

In October 2012, Julie Kerwin ’92 was running an independent music label between school pickups and play dates in New York City. One afternoon, she heard brain expert JoAnn Deak declare at her son’s all-boys school, “Boys and girls are as different from the neck up as they are from the neck down.”

The statement stuck like a burr in Kerwin’s mind. She knew biology isn’t destiny, that a person is formed by both nature and nurture. But how do we nurture traits such as grit, courage, and kindness—qualities that transcend gender? Can toys make a difference?

Anecdotally, she had noticed a curious occurrence at her younger son’s play dates with the daughters of her friend Dawn Nadeau ’95: When they played at Nadeau’s home, he often saved the day as a sword-wielding knight while Nadeau’s girls dressed as princesses. When the girls came to Kerwin’s house, all the kids picked up swords and shields and wands and saved the day together, and they used action figures in their pretend play.

The night after Deak’s talk, Kerwin fell asleep wondering what would it take to make a superhero appeal to the “female brain.”

She awoke with a beautifully simple answer. “It’s not superheroes. It’s superpowers,” Kerwin says. “It was like Athena being born out of my head.”

That morning, Kerwin filled in a blank periodic table of elements with traits like bravery, creativity, wisdom, and empathy, and named it “The Elements of Power.” Armed with a reconfigured periodic table, 30 domain names, and a fully formed company mission, Kerwin and Nadeau launched IAmElemental. Their goal was to create female action figures that empower girls to access their inner strengths, and see themselves as heroes.

The speed of their success surprised them. Their Kickstarter campaign was fully funded in two days, and they raised nearly $163,000 over 30 days with backers from all 50 states and five continents, landing them in the crowdfunding platform’s top 1% for 2014. (Nadeau soon left to pursue other projects, while Kerwin focused on IAmElemental.)

That year, the action figures made Time magazine’s lists of the 25 best inventions and the top 10 toys, and in 2016 the company was a finalist in two categories of the Toy Association’s Toy of the Year awards, the Oscars of the toy industry. Today, Kerwin is developing an animated television series, which she pitched to her first network in August.

To hear Kerwin tell it, this remarkable reception—consider that 90% of all startups fail, and she was an outsider with no industry connections or toy-making knowledge at the outset—was the result of a blend of conviction, willingness to learn, and great timing. But to understand IAmElemental’s appeal, one has to go back in time.

Girl power, embodied

Today, female superheroes seem ubiquitous, from Mattel’s DC Super Hero Girls (launched a year after IAmElemental) to the new Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel films, to the recent She Hulk television show. But a decade ago, no one had created a female action hero specifically for children. Designed for adult male collectors, female action figures were hypersexualized, with oversized breasts and butts, impossibly small waists, and legs that splayed out wide.

The first thing the company set out to do was design a healthier hip-to-bust ratio—“less Hooters, more heroine,” in company parlance. Next, they reinvented the superhero myth. Rather than feature demigods or mutants with special powers, IAmElemental’s heroes are named for powers anyone can attain, such as courage and wisdom. Each power contains core elements. The “Elements of Courage” group, for example, consists of seven unique female figures named Bravery, Energy, Honesty, Industry, Enthusiasm, Persistence, and Fear. Combined, they form the superpower Courage.

The elements are described in an accompanying pamphlet, as well as a separate hardcover book. “When presented in this way, children quickly come to understand that they have powers inside of them, and they can use these powers to create good in the world,” says Kerwin.

IAmElemental personifies “girl power,” a message Kerwin internalized early, and at Wellesley.

Kerwin grew up in the early days of Ms. magazine and Marlo Thomas’ iconic album Free to Be … You and Me. “My friends and I fervently believed that we were equal to boys, and could accomplish any goal we set for ourselves,” she says. For Kerwin, Wellesley “was more than a college—it was the living and breathing embodiment” of a certain ideal.

Already an avid reader, she learned storytelling tools at Wellesley from poet Frank Bidart, visiting novelist Stephen McCauley, education professor Barbara Beatty, and the late Robert Garis, who taught English and film.

After graduating with a B.A. in English literature and a secondary teaching certificate, Kerwin went to Fordham University School of Law. During her first week, a female classmate marveled at her confidence and willingness to speak up in class.

“Why wouldn’t I speak up?” thought Kerwin. “Speaking up with confidence is a way of life at Wellesley.”

Here she comes to save the day

In true Wellesley spirit, IAmElemental’s early mentors were all women. Shortly after the Kickstarter campaign, Kerwin joined the association Women in Toys. After a first year surrounded by “hundreds of smart, savvy women” at WiT events, she says, the IAmElemental team assumed the industry was majority female. It came as a shock when they found themselves “in a sea of men” at their first Toy Association event.

Then, their second year at the New York Toy Fair, one of the most powerful executives in the industry told Kerwin to “dumb it down” because “girls aren’t going to be able to understand these concepts.” He suggested she watch how girls play.

But “just because a girl loves playing with dolls … doesn’t mean that she also wouldn’t love playing with action figures,” says Kerwin. At industry events, she brings full-sized shields with superpowers imprinted on them and asks everyone to pick a power. Contrary to common marketing assumptions, she says, women largely choose “active, strong” powers such as bravery and energy, while men often pick “softer” powers such as honesty and persistence.

According to Kerwin, one of the strangest twists in the company’s plot is that adult male collectors are among its biggest fans. In messages to the company, they say they are drawn as much to the innovative design and engineering as to the empowerment message. To promote gender equality, Kerwin realized, it is just as important for boys and men to see images of powerful women as it is for girls.

After Kerwin gave Courage figures to two brothers, their mother overheard them say for the first time, “She’s coming to save you,” and “Here she comes to save the day.” It’s a subtle but important distinction. “Play is powerful,” says Kerwin. “The toys that kids play with impact the stories they tell.”

Kerwin, whose motto is “always learning,” has learned to transcend either/or in favor of inclusivity: princesses and superheroes; girl-targeted and boy-inclusive.

At its core, IAmElemental seeks to build a more inclusive world. To that end, toys are Kerwin’s medium for a powerful message: “Superheroes” don’t need to look or be a certain way; each of us contains the powers within to be the hero in stories of our own making.