Gina Heitkamp, CEO and co-founder of Middle School Moguls, strives to create examples for young women interested in technology and entrepreneurship. The origins of the startup began with Gina and her sister/business partner Jenae Heitkamp. Together they developed Middle School Moguls, a multimedia brand that inspires young girls from ages 6-10 to become entrepreneurs and foster an interest in technology. In 2014, Gina and Jenae developed Middle School Moguls as their startup entry in the Business Plan Competition at the Paul Merage School of Business. They became the first all-female team to win. Additional awards and accomplishments include being featured in the “Top 10 Toys” lists from Toy Fair 2016, beating out hundreds of thousands of products in addition to winning the Geek Girls Pitch Competition.
Gina shared the following when asked about her passion for entrepreneurship, “I think I have always had that drive and hustle. I have also had the patience to wait for that one idea to hit.” Before Middle School Moguls, Gina worked in marketing for Red Bull. She then moved on to the tech sector doing marketing for tech companies through a consulting firm she started. The time Gina spent in tech sparked her interest in pursuing additional entrepreneurship opportunities. She also pursued her MBA at the UCI Paul Merage School of Business.
During her time as an MBA student at UCI, Gina noticed the gender disparity among the attendees at technology and entrepreneurship events. “If there aren’t examples in the home then girls should see it in their toys and media,” Gina shared. Gina and Jenae learned through their research that few options for entrepreneurship and STEM existed for young girls. They combined forces, leveraging Gina’s marketing and tech experience with Jenae’s background as a child therapist to create characters and short stories about young girls in tech and entrepreneurship. For each character, they developed dolls to accompany each one’s persona.
“These girls, they are all story driven product. Each doll comes with a book, and it tells a story of their adventures. Storytelling is how we aim to inspire little girls that are reading the books and playing with the dolls,” Gina shared. Each doll has personality traits of the inspiring women Gina and Jenae have met throughout the course of their lives; the characters have evolved in complexity and tandem with the two sisters’ experience over the years.
Reflecting on the impact UCI has had on their entrepreneurship path, Gina shared “UCI has been a big part of our journey. We developed this startup while I was pursuing my MBA at UCI. After we had won the Business Plan Competition we had the opportunity to become a Cove Share team.” One year after winning the Business Plan Competition, they launched their Kickstarter which was successfully funded and raised a little over $50K at its end. The Cove Fund also awarded additional funding at the conclusion of their crowdfunding campaign.
Recalling her experience with Kickstarter, Gina shared, “Kickstarter was probably the hardest thing we have done, primarily because dolls were not popular for Kickstarter’s target market which is predominantly males between 18-35.” When asked if she had any advice for those who want to start a Kickstarter campaign, Gina shared, “My advice would be to prepare for the Kickstarter as if it is your product launch. In my opinion, it is a bit harder than a traditional product launch because you are asking people to purchase something that doesn’t yet exist. For every $10,000 you want to raise, you should be putting in a month of time to prepare, market and promote.”
Sharing her experience raising money for her startup, Gina stated, “It was not easy going out there and getting investment for a doll company because it is not traditional for Orange County. There are primarily tech investors in the area.” What helped Middle School Moguls was John Kensey who is the manager of the Cove Fund and also one of the first product managers at Mattel. John heard their pitch at an event and took an interest in them. Gina shared the following about John’s impact, “He has gotten us where we are today as far as funding goes. I think finding that one investor who understands your product is crucial. If they believe in you, they are also willing to reach out to their network.”
Through resources such as the Cove Fund in addition to advice and mentorship from Experts-in-Residence (EiR), the Cove has been an integral part of Middle School Moguls’ growth. As advisors and guides for business, EiRs have also joined their team. Jim Klinger serves as CFO along with two attorneys who are EiRs actively contributing to the startup. Advisors also include organizations ranging from Disney and DreamWorks to consultants from Hasbro and Mattel. When asked about how the relationships with her advisors started, Gina responded, “Much of it was just cold calling and reaching out. Sometimes you just have to ask and try to grow those relationships.” An example of how the sisters met one of their primary advisors dates back to two years ago when they attended a presentation he was giving to an audience of 300 people. They waited until the presentation was finished and took a chance by engaging him directly at that event. Today, he is an equity shareholder in Middle School Moguls and works with them to help grow their business. Through their persistence, Middle School Moguls now has a team of people who are experts in the toy industry helping with sales and licensing development.
Middle School Moguls plan to launch in stores on October 2016 in 120 Target locations across the US and online through websites such as Walmart, Amazon, and Zulily for the holiday season. To prepare for the launch they are focusing on marketing and releasing short format CGI animations introducing the characters and the world where the dolls live. “We envision this as a mass market product. We have had interest internationally from countries ranging from New Zealand to Saudi Arabia. Our desire is for Middle School Moguls to grow into an international product over the next couple of years. Hopefully, that momentum will lead to the development of a cartoon on a programming channel such as Netflix or Nick.”