How A Former Educator Landed a Disney Doll Deal

Lisa WIlliams Ph.D.

Lisa Williams, Ph.D., wanted World of EPI (Entertainment, Publishing, and Inspiration) to exceed her expectations. The venture, a global multicultural, multi-million-dollar toy manufacturing and design firm she established in 2003 and manages as its CEO, has done just that.

In February this year, Williams inked a collaboration deal with Disney Consumer Products, Games and Publishing and Marvel properties to produce dolls and toys based on much-beloved characters. World of EPI will create fashion dolls and collectible figurines based on the ethnically diverse characters featured in the new Disney+ series “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder” and Marvel’s upcoming “Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur” series on Disney Channel.

Williams who holds a doctorate in logistics from The Ohio State University, was not always an entrepreneur. An award-winning author and columnist, she left her tenured professorship at Penn State University, choosing instead to create toys that authentically represent and reinforce the beauty and brilliance of children of various ethnicities. including African-American, LatinX, and Asian.

She developed popular brands under the World of EPI umbrella, including The Fresh Dolls and Positively Perfect, all of which are available online and in retailers worldwide, such as Amazon, Walmart, Target, Macy’s, and Walgreens.

Williams recently spoke with The Network Journal about her collaboration with Disney and Marvel and why she left her successful career in academia.

TNJ: Why Disney and Marvel properties?

Williams: Disney has a long history of inclusion through the magic of their storytelling. They continue to include diverse perspectives, cultures, and ethnicities. Their stories have an amazing way of making everyone feel a part of the magic of Disney.

EPI authentically represents and consciously designs toys, role-play, and dolls that celebrate diversity. We dedicate ourselves to creating merchandise based on the authenticity of Disney’s storylines and characters.

Disney’s choice to work with The World of EPI – a woman-owned, diverse company – is another demonstration of its commitment to diversity and inclusion.

TNJ: What exactly will the company produce for Disney?

Williams: We are so excited to create an exclusive series of 10 fashion dolls with rooted hair, collectible figurines, poseable plush, role-play accessories, and more based on the ethnically diverse characters featured in “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder.”

Each doll and figurine will exemplify the distinct appearances of each character, making it easy for children to infuse their playtime with elements of this beloved show.

“The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder” dolls and figures are available right now. They are exclusive in select Target stores and will become available to all major retailers and on The Fresh Doll’s website in Fall 2022.

TNJ: There seems to be greater demand for ethnically diverse dolls than 10 years ago. Why do you think this is?

Williams: We are entering a period of time where it is finally becoming more commonplace to celebrate diversity, self-love, and empowerment. This emerging trend within the toy aisle truly began years ago, initiated by parents. Parents have taken the opportunity to voice their needs for more inclusive toys.

Experts also agree that it is crucial for children to see themselves in the toys and objects they interact with. Having not seen the level of diversity needed to truly reflect their children, and at the same time embracing and asserting their buying power, parents have led the charge and acted as the catalysts to effect true and impactful change for their kids. Companies began to develop and integrate more toys that portray the self-image of their youngest consumers. While there has been great progress, there is still a lot of work left to do.

From new shades, shapes and unique features, distinctions, and more, I think we can expect companies to continue to produce new products that resemble today’s society.

TNJ: Tell us more about the new Disney+ series “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder” and Marvel’s “Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur” series on Disney Channel?

Williams: “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder,” the highly-anticipated revival of the groundbreaking Disney Channel series, The Proud Family, debuted on February 23 on Disney+.

The series picked up the story of its central character, Penny Proud, and included her madcap family: parents Oscar and Trudy, twin siblings BeBe and CeCe, and grandmother Suga Mama (and Puff!).

Cast members who reprised their roles are Kyla Pratt as Penny Proud, Tommy Davidson as Oscar Proud, Paula Jai Parker as Trudy Proud, JoMarie Payton as Suga Mama, and Cedric the Entertainer as Uncle Bobby. From Disney Television Animation, the series is executive-produced by Bruce W. Smith and Ralph Farquhar, who led the original series.

Marvel’s “Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur,” based on Marvel’s hit comic books, follows the adventures of 13-year-old super-genius Lunella Lafayette (voiced by Diamond White) and her 10-ton T-Rex, Devil Dinosaur (voiced by Fred Tatasciore). After Lunella accidentally brings Devil Dinosaur into present-day New York City via a time vortex, the duo works together to protect the city’s Lower East Side from danger.

TNJ: How did you get into the toy business after a career in academia?

Williams: When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a teacher. It was no surprise that I gravitated toward a career in academia. While I was satisfied with my career trajectory, I happened to see a television segment focused on the perceptions of skin color among young girls. It was this segment that ultimately changed my path.

I was shocked, disturbed, and saddened by the sentiments expressed during the segment. Specifically, the piece delved into the long-standing negative views young African-American girls had of themselves and their perceptions of dark skin tones. I knew then, I had another purpose: to be an advocate of change, self-love, and empowerment.

After having earned accolades in academia that include being the first female professor to receive two multi-million-dollar endowed chairs by the University of Arkansas, being the first African-American professor to earn tenure at Penn State University, and the first African-American to receive a doctorate in Logistics from the Ohio State University, in 2003, I left my successful career in academia to become an entrepreneur.

I wanted to create dolls that would reflect the beautiful features of all multicultural children.

Experts say it is critical for children to play with toys that do not perpetuate stereotypes about what is considered beautiful. They say the toys children play with have lasting impressions on their confidence and life choices.

I committed myself to developing a business centered on encouraging inclusion and acceptance among children of all ages and providing children with access to positive representation within the toy aisle.

I launched World of EPI as an avenue to create diverse, inclusive, and reflective dolls to reinforce positive self-perceptions as children grow.

TNJ: What has been your biggest challenge in growing your brand, and how did you overcome it

Williams: Some of the biggest challenges I faced while growing World of EPI was my lack of knowledge of the industry I was stepping into. In addition, I had no mentors within the field, financial backing, or guidance to leverage and inform my business strategy.

As a woman of color, I experienced the lack of diversity in the toy aisle from childhood to motherhood. We know that over 50 percent of all children are multicultural. However, that’s not currently represented in the toy aisles. I knew there was a gap which needed to be filled, but I had no idea how to get the ball rolling.

I leaned on my desire to positively shift the self-perceptions of multicultural children, give parents tools that help drive important conversations, and ultimately play a role in the industry’s evolution.

I worked from the ground up, stepping outside of my comfort zone in academia to establish The World of EPI. I was receptive to advise from toy industry experts and entrepreneurs – applying relevant lessons learned to map short and long-term business objectives. I leaned on loved ones for encouragement and support. Moreover, most importantly, I listened to my customers, the parents, to develop doll collections that can help to fill a void- increasing diversity and inclusion in the toy aisle.

TNJ: What do you like most about what you do?

Williams: The impact… Those of us who know how it feels to have our identities rarely positively reflected in mainstream society are awe-inspiring when we [positively reflect our identities]. Now, more than ever, it is essential that we show our children the beauty and diversity of people around the world. The lessons we teach them as children will shape the perceptions of those around them for the rest of their lives.

I am committed to empowering children of all ages and ethnicities to feel uplifted, important, and beautiful as they are. To know that The Fresh Dolls™ and Positively Perfect™ doll collections are helping to teach these lessons, resonate with children across the globe, and are helping children establish a healthy and positive view of themselves and others, is incredible.