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Ruth Handler and the Mompreneur Movement

Mother and child smiling at each other
Image courtesy of Robert Whitehead 2005

Historically, motherhood and career have not necessarily gone well together. Women have had to make an either/or choice: career or child. In no other way is this more represented than in what social scientists have termed the “motherhood penalty,” the pay gap between working moms and child-free women (after controlling for every other variable besides parental status). And it’s not just about money: it’s also about perception. Many women who have chosen to go the motherhood route complain of being perceived as less committed to their work after having children. So, what is a mother to do?

In recent years, the mompreneur movement has turned all of that upside down. What is most interesting about the mompreneur movement is the way successful mompreneurs have embraced their motherhood, using their unique perspective as a mother to their advantage. In no other case is this more true than with the lady who was arguably America’s original mompreneur: Ruth Handler, inventor of Barbie.

The Mompreneur movement

In its simplest definition, the term Mompreneur refers to a female business owner who is actively balancing the role of mom and the role of entrepreneur.

The movement has received tons of attention. Entrepreneurial-focused websites regularly have entire sections focused on mompreneurs. Canada even has an entire magazine devoted to the topic. Any way you look at it, the rise of the mompreneur is a super hot trend in the small business sector.

Pundits argue it is a movement based in the internet age, with the internet allowing entrepreneurs to sell products out of the home rather than relying on foot traffic to brick-and-mortar business. However, long before the neologism was coined and the internet invented, mompreneurs existed. Just ask Barbie: her mom was one.

Ruth Handler: The Original Mompreneur

Perhaps America’s original mompreneur, Ruth Handler was born in 1916 in Colorado to Jewish-Polish immigrants. Operating out of a garage workshop in 1945, Handler, along with co-founders Harold Matson and Elliot Handler, created and coined “Mattel” by combining letters of their last and first names. The first Mattel product was picture frames, but Elliot, who had developed a side business in doll house furniture made from picture frame scraps, led the way into an emphasis on toys.

Handler’s claim to fame, however, was the iconic Barbie doll. Barbie was a particularly pioneering creation at a time when cherub-like baby dolls dominated the toy market. Since its debut in 1959, Barbie has become an American icon that functions dually as a steady outlet for girls’ dreams and as a reflection of an ever-changing American society.

Dreaming Barbie: A Mother’s Observations

Handler’s story provides several pertinent lessons to all entrepreneurs: she was creative, inventive, and determined. But perhaps the greatest lesson potential future mompreneurs can draw from Ruth Handler is the way she capitalized on her unique perspective as a mother. Barbie was, after all, the brainchild of an astute mother of a pre-teen.

It was through her observations of her young daughter’s play that Handler came up with the idea of creating a doll with adult features. Handler noticed that her daughter, Barbara, and her friends enjoyed playing with adult-like dolls as much or more than with baby dolls. Handler suggested that it was just as important for girls to imagine what they themselves might grow up to become as it was for them to focus on what caring for children might be like.

“They were using the dolls to project their dreams of their own futures as adult women,” Handler explained. “Through their play, [the girls] imagined their lives as adults. They used the dolls to reflect the adult world around them. They would sit and carry on conversations, making the dolls real people.”

In a 1977 interview, Handler added:

“Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future…If she was going to do role playing of what she would be like when she was 16 or 17, it was a little stupid to play with a doll that had a flat chest. So I gave it beautiful breasts.”

Mompreneurs and the “Mom Perspective”

Like Handler who came before them, today’s most successful mompreneurs don’t see being mothers as a penalty or something that needs to be worked around. They see their “Mom perspective” as a strength and use it to come up with successful businesses:

  • Julie Aigner-Clark was frustrated because she couldn’t find appropriate videos for babies. She turned her frustration into a business and founded Baby Einstein.
  • Lucinda Cross tapped into her own experience as a career-balancing mother to start Corporate Mom Dropouts, a book, blog and coaching service designed to help working moms achieve balance between managing a career and family.
  • Cinnamon Bowser was home on maternity leave with her first child, lamenting the fact that she couldn’t get to the nail salon. She realized there was a need for a mobile salon that brings professional nail care directly to clients. Today, her brilliant business idea, Nail Taxi, operates nationwide.
  • Betty Haddock wanted to give her middle-school-aged daughter, Maggie, a hands-on lesson about friendship. Together they came up with the idea for FriendZip Bracelets: the bracelets feature friendship advice and unzip, allowing friends to exchange halves.
  • MaryEllen Tribby is well-known in the Publishing World as “The Money Honey.” Today, she is Founder and CEO of WorkingMomsOnly.com, supplying tools giving working moms the ability to lead healthy, wealthy and more balanced lifestyles.

With mompreneurs rising in the business world, motherhood has become a different type of business to capitalize upon. Using their unique perspective of the world, moms blend career and children into a new trend that is taking the entrepreneur world by storm. Now all that’s left to do is wait and watch for the new and innovative ideas that are sure to impact the market further.

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