A San Francisco mother-of-two has launched a company that sells Asian American dolls after being disappointed in the lack of diversity in the U.S. toy industry.
Elenor Mak, 43, first thought of starting her own company last year when she wanted to give her daughter, Jillian, a doll “that looked like her.” However, Mak, a first-generationChinese American from New York who now lives in San Francisco with her husband, Richard, and their children, Jillian and James, soon learned about the lack of Asian American representation in American dolls.
“The options available in 2022 amounted to nothing more than clichés, stereotypes and dolls painted tan over an existing Caucasian doll mold,” Mak told NextShark in an email, adding that the search for a doll for Jillian brought back “painful childhood memories of feeling not represented.”
“Dolls are our children’s first friend. … They also help a child make sense of the world around them. It makes a huge difference when the toys they interact with showcase real-life imagery and customs that are familiar.”
“I believe we can do better,” Mak told NextShark. “The toy industry needs a refresh, as do media companies that are creating content for children. It feels as though they are checking off boxes. … They are just doing the bare minimum. Our children deserve a better story, and I set out to do so by creating Jilly Bing.”
The company is named after Mak’s daughter, whose nickname is Jilly. As for “Bing,” Mak explained that it is the “Mandarin word for cookie and one of my daughter’s first words.” She added that she also wanted her company’s name to be “catchy, fun and memorable for little kids.”
Mak admitted that at the beginning of her entrepreneurial journey, she did not know anything about how to design and make a doll. Despite having had a long career in retail, she realized that the toy industry “was an industry in which I did not have any contacts.”
Mak also said that she had difficulty finding “the perfect balance of experienced toy designers who also really understood the nuances and details of Asian features” and those who could “work within my startup budget.”
While she did find experienced, traditional doll designers, Mak shared that their ideas broke her heart, saying, “Their sketches ended up looking like every other doll you currently see in the toy aisles, but with poorly crafted Asian eyes.”
Mak eventually found the right people for her project: a Japanese American family in Los Angeles with a “tremendous history in the toy industry.”
According to Mak, her Jilly Bing team, which consists of Asian American parents who are “passionate about the meaningful representation of Asian features and heritage,” analyzed every detail of the first Jilly Bing doll, including her eyes, button nose, smile and posture. They also examined the doll’s egg tart pattern on her dress, as well as her packaging.
“We invested a lot of time and resources to create a doll mold tooling uniquely for Jilly Bing, because we wanted to create an Asian doll from scratch,” Mak shared.
As for their creative process, Mak explained to NextShark that her team leaned on her children, her friends and family and their extended network to “validate the vision for Jilly Bing.” Her team also spoke to other Asian parents about their thoughts on representation for their children.
“Many parents expressed frustration that Asian children, especially girls, are commonly depicted as one characteristic or another, demure, dainty, math nerd. … We want to flip the script of how Asian American girls have traditionally been portrayed. Jilly doll’s persona is strong, confident and loveable. She is not a stereotype. She represents who we want to teach our Asian American children to be.”
Mak held a launch party on July 23, which was co-hosted by local celebrity chefKathy Fang, known for her Food Network show “Chef Dynasty: House of Fang.”
Mak realized that they were on the right path after they saw the reactions of the children who received their first Jilly Bing doll.
“So many of them gasped in delight and said the doll ‘looks like me’ and ‘has soft black hair like mine,’” she shared.
The road ahead
Mak teased that she and her team are just getting started.
“Our vision is for a line of authentic Asian American characters that reflect the diversity of Asian American children and shows our cultures in fun and meaningful ways,” she told NextShark. “I am incredibly optimistic that my team and I can help shape the standards of what is beautiful and representative of different Asian cultures for our children.”
The Jilly Bing doll, which was released on Aug. 1, is available for purchase online for $68.
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