With her career in product design, Ilana looks for ways to make a positive change in the world through toys.
Ilana Ben-Ari, Founder, CEO and Lead Designer at Twenty One Toys, envisions a world where toys can be used for social change. Her impressive list of accomplishments includes being a multi-award winning product designer, TEDx speaker, Ariane de Rothschild Fellow, and winner of the SheEO Radical Generosity initiative. The vision for Twenty One Toys started when Ilana developed a toy centered around empathy for her university thesis project—it was originally intended to be a navigational tool for the blind. In 2012, that dream came to life in Twenty One Toys, her design company that lives at the intersection of design and social innovation. Today, The Empathy Toy is used is used all over the world by adults and children of all ages and is helping to change the way we collaborate and communicate. Simply said, it’s a toy revolution.
Ilana draws inspiration from the father of this revolution, Friedrich Froebel, the 19th-century inventor of kindergarten. He invented 20 toys (or ‘gifts’ as he called them) to explore the role that ‘play’ could have in learning. Picking up where Froebel left off, Twenty One Toys is already making a huge impact in schools and offices in 45 countries (and counting)!
Ready to join the toy revolution? Meet Ilana Ben-Ari of Twenty One Toys.
What was life like before Twenty One Toys and what motivated you to quit your day job and start your own business?
After university, I worked for 3 years as an industrial designer, designing lighting. The Empathy Toy had been in the back of my mind the whole time. I really wanted to start understanding the role of design in social innovation and make a positive change in the world.
I had no idea what was involved in starting a company so I started taking some night classes, researching and meeting with other entrepreneurs. I discovered a socially responsive design company in the UK called Design Against Crime and was lucky to get a job with them in 2011. I had been invited to do a TEDx Talk on The Empathy Toy and the day after I moved to the UK. Working for Design Against Crime gave me an idea of how you could run a design company that had social innovation at the forefront.
Twenty One Toys officially launched in 2012. Deciding to start the company was one thing, but realizing that it was working was another. Giving the TEDx Talk made me realize people were interested in hearing the story—and moving to the UK and being part of an incubator in Helsinki also solidified the idea. In Helsinki, I won a grant (that I didn’t end up taking) so I realized people wanted to put money behind the idea.
The final affirmation came after I made a sale to a school that came off Twitter. At the time, I had just moved to Toronto and was sleeping on my best friend’s couch. All I had was one prototype, a website and a TEDx Talk. The school found my TEDx Talk on Twitter and put in their first order. I originally hadn’t thought schools would be interested, but they were our first customers.
Ilana’s 3 pearls of wisdom for future entrepreneurs:
- Don’t underestimate your power. Avoid underestimating your value.
- Community is essential. Starting a business is incredibly difficult and all-consuming. It’s important to have a strong community of support both personally and professionally.
- Give yourself permission to succeed. Anyone can find the resources to follow their passion. You don’t have to wait for anyone else to tell you that you can start!
Describe the biggest challenge you’ve experienced as a Small Business Owner and how you dealt with it.
The biggest challenge that we are still dealing with is focus. There are so many ways we can go with this. Understanding when to say ‘no’ and ‘yes’ is the biggest challenge. We do training in Toronto once a month for a variety of people—from teachers to program coordinators to HR directors in banks. We are trying to be as smart as possible about prioritizing the communities we are supporting and reaching out to. We would love to be available to reach everyone but, obviously, we can’t do it all at once. That’s what keeps me up at night.
On a personal level, the challenge is ‘when do I sleep’? You never know when you’re done because design is never done. How I address these challenges is by developing a strong community of advisors and mentors. The role of advisors and mentors is so important. I’m working with an executive coach through SheEO to learn how to focus our efforts and step back to visualize our 3, 5, 10-year plans. I want a workplace where we all have independence and accountability and everyone has a say in where we grow.
Share a story where you went above and beyond to solve a problem.
In our first year of production, the toys were about 3 times the price. We had a teacher that was working at an alternative school for at-risk youth who had put in a pre-order based on a specific date the toys would show up. It got lost in translation and the order almost wasn’t fulfilled.
There were only two of us on the team at the time and we were both in Montreal when we received an email from the teacher wanting to confirm the delivery date. She had a workshop she wanted to do with the kids the next day.
We freaked out. We were on our way out of Montreal to an even more remote place and were too new to have any inventory in stock.
What we ended up doing was having my teammate come back to Toronto a day earlier and, instead of shipping it, he drove the toy all the way to the customer. The teacher was able to use it in her workshop and said it brought up so many important conversations for the kids—she was a very happy customer.
When something bad happens, it’s actually an opportunity for us to make an amazing impact and go out of our way to fix it. Those are the moments when you can really create an amazing connection.
It’s a typical work day. Where can we find you in action?
We work at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), an incredible coworking space in Toronto. A big part of my decision to start the company in Toronto was actually because of CSI and the startup community here.
Inspiration or perspiration?
Both. It’s important to draw inspiration personally and as a company. I think that perspiration and working really hard is a given, but it’s not just about working hard it’s about working smart—stepping into a room and having the confidence to be okay without knowing everything and also having efficient processes in place. Humor, humility, curiosity and being a good person are all really important ingredients as well.
Who is your business role model?
Tina Roth Eisenberg (Swiss Miss), creator of multiple organizations including Creative Mornings and Tattly. What I admire about what Tina has done is that she is not only an amazing designer that makes clever, beautiful designs—but she also really understands the role of community in the creative world. Designers get excited when other designers are entrepreneurs and create really exciting things.
Do you have a motivational mantra or inspirational quote that helps get you out of bed in the morning?
“You can either be a good example, or a horrible warning.”
Work-Life balance is *tough* for a small business owner. How do you stay balanced?
For my own mental sanity, I need 3 things on a regular basis: Brunch, yoga, shvitzing (sauna).
Making more time for my friends is something I’m always trying to do. I keep my friends close. They keep me in check. I had a forced vacation recently. My friends will just tell me ‘we’re going away for 10 days’ having already booked everything.
What’s next for Twenty One Toys?
We have an exciting new toy set to launch very soon and we plan to continue to innovating and growing. Another big thing we want to focus on is to create the world’s first global community of toy educators and facilitators, so we’ve just launched online training and resources for our Empathy Toy at EmpathyToy.com. We are in 45 countries, 1,000 schools and 100 offices right now. We want to empower the people who have these toys to start incorporating play into how they work day-to-day.
Twenty One Toys is on the verge of launching it’s brand new toy: The Failure Toy. It’s widely known that we learn more from our failures than our successes, so why are people (kids and adults alike) so afraid to fail? Twenty One Toys hopes to break through the taboo of failure using this exciting, new toy. It will challenge players to view failure as a ‘skill’ that can be practiced and honed rather something to be feared.
Learn more about Ilana and Twenty One Toys:
about the author
Amanda is a content editor at FreshBooks, writing and producing blog content to help small business owners achieve their goals and enjoy (yes, actually enjoy!) running their business. Amanda’s background in education and customer support makes her a natural communicator who loves empowering others to succeed. When she’s not writing and editing content, Amanda takes her dog, Jonny, on adventures searching for the best coleslaw in Toronto.