Meet the Inventor: Laurel Wider of Wonder Crew
“As a mother to a son and as a psychotherapist, I felt it was time to move beyond gender stereotypes and address the developmental needs of the whole child.”
We continue our celebration of National Inventors Month at Raising Nerd with a profile of Laurel Wider: mom, psychotherapist, and superhero inventor! I met this mild-mannered, toy innovator and founder of Wonder Crew at Toy Fair back in February.
After seeing so many other Toy Fair displays of action figures, battlebots, Minions, drones, and other toys appealing to the rowdier, aggressive side of boys, chatting with Laurel and meeting her Wonder Crew Buddies line of dolls was a breath of fresh air. I knew right away, I had to find out more about this unique inventor and the origin story of her compassionate team of “superhero” Buddies.
Raising Nerd is glad Laurel had time to answer a few Nerd-inspiring question for us, and what better month to reconnect with this mom-turned-inventor than this!
RN: You took an unusual route to becoming a toy inventor and founder of a doll company. Can you tell us about your background and how it formed the foundation for Wonder Crew?
Laurel Wider: I graduated from NYU in 2003 and have been a psychotherapist in private practice for 12 years, with specialties in gender, relationships, and identity formation. As a mother to a son and as a psychotherapist, I felt it was time to move beyond gender stereotypes and address the developmental needs of the whole child.
I launched Wonder Crew through a successful Kickstarter campaign in March 2015 with an aim to empower all kids to see themselves as connected, creative, strong individuals with the ability to go anywhere and be anything. Wonder Crew Buddies combine the adventure of an action figure with the emotional connection of a favorite stuffed animal.
Since the launch, Wonder Crew Buddies have made their way across the country and gained national recognition at the White House and with features in Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Upworthy, The Atlantic, Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, and Parent’s Magazine.
RN: Though you’re not a “typical toy inventor,” you could say Wonder Buddies have helped invent a new way for boys to play. At Raising Nerd we emphasize the importance of a STEM/STEAM education and creative problem-solving, but haven’t focused on the idea of developing emotional intelligence. Why does that aspect matter when considering a well-rounded education, and how do Wonder Buddies help nurture it (among other traits), particularly in boys?
LW: I wouldn’t say that I’ve invented a new way for boys to play, instead I’d say that Wonder Crew makes doll play, which is rich in building social and emotional skills, more accessible to boys. It’s doll play without the stigma. We have added a new spin to it by combining action and adventure with opportunities to nurture. Also, all of our Buddies come with matching child-sized accessories (cape and mask). This adds to the imaginative play, and it’s been a huge hit!
Wonder Crew Buddies were made to feel like peers or equals to kids. Although some kids see their Wonder Crew Buddies as their little brother or baby, and that’s great too! The idea is to encourage nurturing, kindness and emotional connection – something that has been missing in toys marketed to boys.
RN: What other ways do you recommend parents help build their children’s emotional intelligence and spark their creativity?
LW: Emotional intelligence and creativity is learned through experience. Parents can help kids learn about feelings in a variety of ways: play, modeling empathy and kindness, talking about child-appropriate current events, volunteer work, and more.
RN: How have you designed the Buddies to appeal to boys and compete with the usual action figures on the market?
LW: Wonder Crew was inspired by boys, and so a lot of the research that went into Wonder Crew was “boy focused.” Boys typically look up to action figures, which creates an admiration-based relationship. Wonder Crew is more about team and friendship. We’re not action figures, we’re action friends. Also, with Wonder Crew, kids become the leaders, teachers, caretakers, and problem solvers of their own adventures.
RN: What would you say is the most important skill for an aspiring toy designer to develop?
LW: The ability to listen. Get feedback and really listen!
RN: As a therapist, what other kinds of toys would you recommend parents consider for their preschoolers and why?
LW: I tend to lean toward toys that are more open ended, toys that encourage creativity and imagination.
RN: Who were your early and/or current mentors and influencers? How have they inspired and encouraged you to pursue your passion?
LW: Julie Kerwin from I Am Elemental, Bettina Chen from Roominate, and Jodi Bond from Go Go Sports Girls. When I first started Wonder Crew, I reached out to these three toy companies because they too were start-ups that entered the toy industry to break down gender stereotypes – they were each so helpful and generous with their time.
Also, I was involved in a business accelerator program called Valley Venture Mentors, which was instrumental in Wonder Crew’s initial success.
RN: What were your favorite toys growing up? Did any of those memories come into play as you developed your Wonder Crew line?
RN: What has been the biggest challenge for you as founder of Wonder Crew?
LW: I had no business background aside from running a private practice.
While working full-time as a therapist and parent, I entered into a business accelerator program through Valley Venture Mentors in efforts to launch Wonder Crew with the most knowledge possible — this was the first of many challenges! Ultimately, I walked away with a solid business model and an understanding of how to move forward, an amazing community that I’ve called on countless times for help, and large business grant that I won through the program.
Kickstarter was another huge challenge! I had no idea how hard it would be. Thankfully, the Wonder Crew story caught on, and [the Kickstarter fundraiser] was a huge success.
Then there was manufacturing, distribution, reacting quickly to high demand – but, it all worked out! Probably the biggest challenge has been learning/juggling all aspects of Wonder Crew. I’m grateful to now have a team with PlayMonster.
RN: What aspect of your work building a successful toy line fulfills you the most?
LW: The feedback has been phenomenal and so gratifying. I remember soon after the first big shipment, I received so many emails from parents thanking me for creating this new play experience for their sons. Parents have expressed how excited they are to see their sons connecting, taking care of, and bonding with their Wonder Crew Buddies. It’s been awesome!
RN: What advice do you have for Nerds out there that dream of pursuing a career like yours? What activities, experiences, hobbies, or other educational activities should they pursue?
LW: Go for it! Be flexible, be a listener, and don’t forget to ask for help!
RN: At Raising Nerd, we believe failure is just an important part of the learning process. Tell us about a time where you had such a learning moment. How did you use that event as a way to help motivate you for or propel you to future success?
LW: Love this question. My first thought is throughout my experience in the Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator Program, I found myself constantly struggling to keep up. There was so much to learn, and it seemed that the majority of those around me had a stronger business background. This was a humbling experience, one that I learned so much from. Probably the best lesson learned here was to ask for help, and I did this over and over again.
RN: What learning resources and hands-on experiences (online media/content, apps, books, museum exhibits, camps, events, etc) would you recommend for parents looking to inspire creativity and challenge their young kids?
RN: Do you have any new additions planned for the Wonder Crew lineup? Any other projects, events, or collaborations coming up you can tell us about?
LW: Wonder Crew’s motto is Go anywhere. Be anything – this means we have lots of ground to cover! More soon!