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Entrepreneurial Imagination: Ruth Handler and the Barbie Doll

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The case

Who – the protagonist

Ruth Handler, creator of Barbie.

What?

Ruth co-founded Mattel in the early 1940s with Harold Mattson, Elliott Handler’s former co-worker. Elliott, married to Ruth, soon joined the company himself.

By the mid 1950s, Ruth and Elliott had bought out Harold, and the company had grown to USD 6.5 million revenue.

But it was the creation of the Barbie doll that sent Mattel into another stratosphere. Mattel was listed on the New York Stock Exchange and quickly entered the Fortune 500 List.

Why?

The company didn’t manage to successfully scale and in the 1970s a quick descent into chaos brought it to its knees.  

The SEC also started an investigation, which evidenced multiple accounting irregularities and defective returns. As a result, the Handlers were forced out of Mattel and left the board in 1975.

Personally, too, the 1970s represented a dark period for Ruth. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo a mastectomy. The crisis and scandal at Mattel severely deteriorated her reputation as a hard-working and well-regarded businesswoman.

Where?

Barbie was and still is a phenomenon across the world.

When?

Ruth went on to create Ruthton Corporation, which produced silicone prosthesis, as well as bras and swimsuits to go with them, under the brand Nearly Me. She eventually sold the company in 1991 to Spenco Medical Corp.

Thanks to Nearly Me, her activities in support of women and the continuous success that Barbie obtained through the 1990s, Ruth was able to restore her tarnished reputation. She spent her last years touring America as a guest speaker at Barbie fan club and female entrepreneurship events.

Ruth passed away, aged 85, in 2002.

Key quote

“You imagine that you are going to be what you want to be and you will be it. That’s what she wanted kids to be able to do, and she wasn’t going to take no for an answer.” Cheryl Segal remembering her grandmother Ruth Handler.

What next?

Despite her 80 years, Ruth felt bursting with energy and full of optimism, as she sat on her patio facing the ocean from her beach house in Malibu in 1996.

Ruth thought back to the earlier days of envisioning the Barbie doll and how Mattel’s engineers had rejected her plans for a grown-up doll for girls. Clearly not everybody shared her vision. Indeed, at times it felt as if nobody did. But looking back at her entrepreneurial journey, Ruth was proud of her accomplishment. Barbie had not just conquered children’s rooms by storm, it had become a pop culture icon second-to-none.

 

 
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Entrepreneurial Imagination: Ruth Handler and the Barbie Doll
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Teaching note
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The authors

author

Valeria Giacomin and Christina Lubinski

Valeria and Christina discuss the emotional pull of Barbie and why shorter cases engage students.

Childhood memories

Valeria and Christina said: “Who doesn’t have fond memories of their childhood? Barbie is an iconic product, which students easily relate to. They often contribute personal stories about their childhood and are fascinated to learn about the beginnings of Barbie and the entrepreneurial journey of Ruth Handler. The focus of the case is “entrepreneurial imagination” and Barbie is a wonderful case to explore the process of turning ideas into business opportunities.

“At the same time, the case triggers self-reflection in the students: How do I engage with creativity and imagination? Where do my ideas come from? These are profound questions, which at the same time remain very accessible to students.”

Setting an example

Valeria and Christina continued: “Ruth certainly is a role model for entrepreneurs, thanks to her business success, tenacity and ability to visualise and imagine new futures for the toy industry. This is particularly impressive because her entrepreneurial journey is based in an era, in which female entrepreneurship was much less pervasive. Ruth often compromised to ‘fit in with the boys’. But gender also played a role in product development. As the inventor of Barbie, Ruth was criticised for Barbie’s appearance and for promoting an unhealthy body image to girls – an accusation she struggled with all her life.

“Students often feel empowered by discussing a successful female entrepreneur. At the same time, the case explores some of the tensions around gender in business, which stretch from the identity of the entrepreneur to the public perception of the product and company.”

The appeal of entrepreneurship

Valeria and Christina added: “Entrepreneurship is attractive to students because it combines the promises of future-oriented work with personal autonomy and monetary rewards. Students from many different disciplines gravitate towards entrepreneurship as one possible career path.

“But there are many different ways to teach entrepreneurship. This case is part of the ‘Historical Entrepreneurship Case Series’. We leverage the humanities for more engaging, heavily contextualised cases. These cases give students an opportunity to picture themselves as the entrepreneur in a specific and often unfamiliar context. They live the situation and make decisions based on the case facts. We try to foster this immersive experience with our teaching plans and exercises in the accompanying teaching notes.”

Rich contentRich content

Valeria and Christina commented: “Ruth’s story is very rich and there are many more angles that would be worth exploring. We made a choice for this case to focus on the process of entrepreneurial imagination in the context of new ventures. We emphasise Ruth and Elliot Handler’s engagement with the toy industry and ask how they envisioned innovative products, in particular Barbie and HotWheels.

“We had a clear goal from the beginning: help students understand and engage with the process of entrepreneurial imagination.”

Engaging the student

Valeria and Christina concluded: “We want students to actively engage with the case before coming to class. In our experience, cases that are significantly longer, are often read only superficially and the discussion is less focused. At the current length (six pages), instructors can be sure that students know the case facts, which is a great starting point for debate.

“The teaching plan is longer because we found that we can have rich and profound discussion based on this case, despite its brevity.

“We also give teachers a few options for how to make the class engaging, for example our integration of Instagram in the class (based on our technical note Instagram for Educators).”

About the authors

Valeria Giacomin is Founder Fellow at Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies – USC Marshall.
e vgiacomi@marshall.usc.edu
tw @valgiacomin

Christina Lubinski is Professor of Entrepreneurship at Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies – USC Marshall.
e clubinsk@usc.edu

 

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