Watch I Am Elemental's startup story. (Video credit: Sue Williams)

Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling women entrepreneurs who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways. Video by Sue Williams.

The entrepreneurial journey can be full of surprises.

Julie Kerwin, a former stay-at-home mom, learned that in 2014 when she launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise money for her female-oriented action figures (named Courage, Bravery and Persistence, among others). She had designed the hot-pink-accented toys under the brand name I Am Elemental after realizing that girl superheroes on the market were really designed for adult male collectors and “hypersexualized” in a way that didn’t seem appropriate for kids. “We created a figure with a healthier breast-to-hip ratio — as we like to say, ‘less hooters, more heroine,’” she says.

Within 48 hours, Kerwin had blown though her $35,000 goal and all told, raised about $163,000. But the surprise: Most of the Kickstarter funders weren’t girls or moms of girls — rather, they were those adult men who like collectibles. And to this day, men make up the majority of her customers, including dads and grandpas who are already action-figure enthusiasts and want something kick-ass-y for the young women in the family. “They are not the target audience but they’ve allowed us to stay in business,” she says.

It’s been an unexpected development that Kerwin is pleased about, given her mission is to reinterpret the traditional tiny-waisted, big-boobed female action figure and send a positive message about girl empowerment. “We figured out how to embed these messages inside a toy that they [male customers] already wanted,” she says, with a laugh. “We look like evil geniuses but it’s been an evolutionary process.”

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How She Started

Kerwin was inspired to develop I Am Elemental about 18 months before the Kickstarter campaign. A mom of two sons, Kerwin often sent her youngest one, Bram, to her best friend’s house — and her best friend had young daughters. “When Bram would go to their house, by the end of the day, [the girls] would be in princess costumes and he would be wielding an invisible sword and saving them from monsters,” she recalls. But if the girls came over to Kerwin’s house, which was packed with boys’ toys, “they’d be fully dressed in armor and wielding wands,” she says, “and they would be all saving the day together.”

For Kerwin, a Wellesley College graduate, something was amiss in the toy landscape. “We’re not anti-doll or anti-princess,” she says, but ”if you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story.” Working with a fellow mom, Kerwin launched I Am Elemental with zero experience running a company. While she had a law degree from Fordham University, Kerwin had chosen to stay at home with her sons, in part because she lost her own mom at age 8.

In starting up, “I jumped into the deep end of the pool,” she says. “I knew nothing [but] I love research and reading. That’s my superpower.” While she says she never felt overwhelmed, “we made a lot of mistakes.” To fund the business, she used funds gleaned from the sale of a property she and her sister owned. Then she found designers to actually make the articulated figures, and the team spent months creating  “fierce, strong females worthy of an active, save-the-world storyline.” The figures, manufactured in China, sell for $24.99 each.

By the time Kerwin was ready to do the Kickstarter campaign, consumers seemed ready for a strong female character. “We were on the forefront of a cultural zeitgeist,” she says. This was before Wonder Woman (2017) and Captain Marvel (2019) — two recent groundbreaking movies with female superhero leads. “If we launched the Kickstarter today, it would not have the success,” she says. “We really lucked out — it was like lightning in a bottle.”

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What’s Ahead

Today, I Am Elemental has sold thousands of action figures, though Kerwin declines to disclose specific revenue figures. “We’ve sold to customers in all 50 states and 6 continents, and we ship worldwide,” she says. “We keep multiplying.” While she hasn’t yet taken a salary, she has three paid employees. “Growth is going in exactly the right direction.”

In terms of accolades, Time magazine dubbed the products one of its “Top 10 Toys of 2014.” The figures have also been finalists, in numerous years and categories, for the Toy Industry Association’s Toy of the Year Awards. As a result, investors have shown an interest, Kerwin says, but she has always declined. “If we had taken the investor money, we would have been forced into hypergrowth with the goal of selling the company — and that’s not what we wanted to do,” she says.

Instead, Kerwin struck a deal in 2017 with the Jim Henson Company to develop an animated television series based on the female action figures. While production is moving at a “crazy slow” speed, she is excited about seeing her figures on the screen, possibly by year’s end. “Learning a whole new industry has thrilled us,” she says.

Meanwhile, she remains grateful to her male customers, who she describes as “great fans” and supporters. “If you want to change the conversation and create gender equality in our generation, we can’t only speak to half of the population,” she says. “These are the positive, unintended consequences of what happens when you take a message and you put it in a toy.”

[Related: Check out our coverage of women social entrepreneurs]

Read Full Transcript

Julie: I always joke that we're not really a toy company. We're actually a mission-based company, and we've embedded a message of empowerment inside of a toy.

TEXT: Julie Kerwin – Founder + CEO, IAmElemental – New York, NY

SOT: All the superpowers we could ever want or need are already inside each one of us.

Julie: IAmElemental female action figures are girl-targeted, boy-inclusive. We celebrate strong, powerful women but the powers that they embody are universal.

TEXT: Julie grew up in Philadelphia.

TEXT: Her father Maury is a doctor. Her mother Susan was a stay at home mom.

TEXT: She died when Julie was 8.

Julie: My mother played a huge role in who I was, who I became, who I am to this day. My mother was bound and determined to raise a girl who felt empowered and felt confidence.

TEXT: Julie majored in English at Wellesley College.

Julie: I got my certification to teach high school English, so I spent my last semester at Wellesley traveling every day to Boston Latin High School where I taught 7th, 10th, and 11th grade English. But I decided that I was going to go to law school and specialize in educational public policy.

TEXT: After graduating in 1992, Julie went on to Fordham University to study law.

TEXT: She married Paul Kerwin, her high school boyfriend.

TEXT: They had two sons, Liam and Bran.

Julie: Despite my degrees I became a stay-at-home mother, just like my mother, because I was acutely aware of the idea that this is something that might not last quite as long as we all hope that it will.

Julie: I went to a lecture at my son's school with a brain expert, and she said, “Girls and boys are as different from the neck up as they are from the neck down.” And it made me ask a question: “Why does Spider-Man appeal to a boy of four and a man of forty, but there's no female equivalent?”

Julie: That night my husband and I were talking about, what would I have to do to a female action figure to make it appeal to this girl brain? I woke up the next morning and I said, “It's not superheroes. It's superpowers.”

TEXT: Julie began to develop the first series of action figures.

Julie: In the IAmElemental universe, the child is the superhero, and the figures are the personification of their powers. What we set out to do was create a figure that was really forward-thinking in its design and engineering, because we recognized that if it wasn't super cool-looking and fun to play with, then there would be no point, because no one would want them.

SOT: Obviously, the preference would be made in the USA. No, it’s not possible. There’s nowhere to make them here. So--
-There’s actually nowhere?
-There’s nowhere to make them here.

TEXT: The figures are manufactured in China.

TEXT: In 2014 Julie launched a Kickstarter campaign with a $35,000 ask.

TEXT: In 48 hours they raised $163,000.

TEXT: The campaign offered a Christmas delivery deadline.

Julie: We thought we had figured every possible issue out before we picked a deadline for when we could deliver product. Everything went perfectly, except that we did not anticipate that there would be a major Dockworkers Union strike, just before the holidays.

Julie: I had to individually email every single preorder customer, which represented a quarter of $1 million dollars worth of sales, to refund them.

TEXT: Julie lost only lost 12 orders.

SOT: These are series two. So every series...

Julie: It was the best/worst thing that ever happened to us, because that created relationships that I wouldn't have otherwise had. It was a real lesson in transparency, honesty, but also in giving yourself more time and not assuming that everything is going to go as planned.

TEXT: IAmElemental now two product lines.

TEXT: The figures are sold online and in specialty toy stores.

TEXT: They have four employees.

TEXT: It has a development deal with the Jim Henson Company to create an animated series.

Julie: For me, the fun is in the design and in the articulation of our messaging.

SOT: This is Series One, our Courage series. So these are the seven building blocks of Courage.

Julie: When you tell a child, “You're a superhero, and all the superpowers you could ever want or need are already inside of you,” you are creating a child who really can,through play, change the way they think about the world and themselves.