Episode 109: Lisa Williams
Dr. Lisa Williams is a former professor at the University of Arkansas who went on to start her own business. Read More
More About This Episode
Dr. Lisa Williams is a former professor at the University of Arkansas who went on to start her own business. In 2003, Dr. Williams formed the World of Entertainment, Publishing and Inspiration (World of EPI) with the mission of spreading joy by providing children with multicultural dolls that inspire dreams, promote intelligence, and build self-esteem. On this episode of the Be EPIC Podcast, Dr. Williams sits down with Matt Waller to discuss her passion behind her business, the process of founding World of EPI, and her EPIC advice for students wanting to start their own company.
0:00:06.3 Matt Waller: Hi. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education and your life today.
0:00:26.5 Matt Waller: I have with me today, Dr. Lisa Williams, CEO and founder of World of EPI, LLC, and that's a company that creates inclusive dolls that show the beauty of every child. I wanna tell you just a little bit about Lisa first. She has taken a really interesting career path. She has a PhD in marketing and supply chain management, from the Ohio State University, and then she became an assistant and associate professor at Penn State University, and then came to the University of Arkansas as Professor and Oren Harris Chair in Logistics, from 1999 to 2003. And then, here's where she took an unusual turn, she started her own business. There are very few professors, endowed professors, especially full professors with an endowed chair, who give up tenure, give it all up and start their own business. She moved from Fayetteville, Arkansas; to San Diego, California, and started this doll business, which is extremely successful now, and I wanna talk to Dr. Lisa about that. So, thank you for joining me today.
0:01:48.6 Lisa Williams: It is truly my pleasure.
0:01:50.6 Matt Waller: Lisa, your path is really neat and unusual, I think it reflects the courage that you have to be able to leave a full professor position that was endowed. You gave it up and started your own business and moved to San Diego, which has a high cost of living. You went from a really steady income with a low cost of living to an uncertain income with a high cost of living, and you succeeded. But first of all, I'd like to back up a minute. What got you interested in starting this business?
0:02:27.8 Lisa Williams: Well, let me say that, one, it feels so good to be back to the University of Arkansas, even if virtually. And secondly, to say, thank you for saying that it was courageous to leave my position. Some would say it was pure insanity, [laughter] because you're right. It made absolutely no logical sense to leave a full professorship with an endowed chair, where I'm working, what? Two or three days a week, all summers off, and getting to travel the world to work on research that I had thoroughly loved, to just walk away from it. And so it does sound a little crazy, but it's one of those things that we can't plan or predict, and basically, what happened is, one afternoon, I was lying on my sofa, watching an updated doll study.
0:03:12.9 Lisa Williams: And we know the doll studies from the 50s and the 60s, where they would ask beautiful children, both white and black, which doll do they wanna play with and which one was prettiest and smartest, and they wanted to be friends with. Well, back in the 50s and 60s, no surprise, every child, regardless of ethnicity, did not wanna play with a black doll. And we get that, right? This is Jim Crow era, there was segregation, we get it. Well, Anderson Cooper on CNN updated the doll study. And now, this is about 2009, so I'm watching it again, half hardly paying any attention to it, and they said, asked this beautiful dark little girl, they said, "Which doll do you wanna play with, the black or the white doll?"
0:03:52.9 Lisa Williams: Now, I'm sitting there again, it's 2009. And at that time, we had celebrities on covers of magazines, Vanessa Williams had won Miss America. I mean, there were so many images of multicultural beauty, that I was thinking, she's gonna pick the black doll. Well, shockingly, she picked the white doll, but what really broke my heart is when she explained why she picked the white doll. And she said because the black doll's skin was nasty, and she literally touched her own hand as to indicate that her hand was nasty too. And that right there broke my heart, even today, when I think about it too long, it brings tears to my eyes, because the thought that one child, one child would not know their beauty, their brilliance, their power. That's a loss not just to that child, but it's a loss to the greater society, because there is one person in our society that doesn't know who they truly are.
0:04:50.2 Lisa Williams: And basically, from that day, the World of EPI was formed. I had been working with Walmart previously on doing a line of books for children, and they had asked me to do a doll line, and I had said no. [chuckle] I said not no once, I said not no twice. Three times, I told them no. But when I saw that study, I called them back and I said, "I will do it." Even though, I'll say, Dr. Waller, I had zero idea how to do it. I didn't even know where dolls were made from.
0:05:21.4 Matt Waller: Well, one thing that is amazing too, is that not only were you able to create this idea and create the dolls, but you have a pretty impressive list of channels, you sell through Walmart, Amazon, Macy's, Target, Walgreens. I'm sure you didn't start at that level. Talk to us a little bit about how you took your idea and then developed it.
0:05:51.3 Lisa Williams: That's a great question. So I did take the idea of wanting to do these dolls to represent beauty, again in all children. And I was a little fortunate in the fact that Walmart was already willing to help me, because they had identified that this was something that they were lacking on their shelves. Now, it was not an easy journey even having Walmart to help me, because I still was a novice and I didn't know how to do it.
0:06:15.8 Lisa Williams: Let me share one story with you, that gives a sense of how much I didn't know. So I told Walmart, "Yes, I will do it." They were very happy and thrilled and they said, "We will help you." I'm like, yay! By helping, they meant, at that time, "We will give you a list of factories." Okay. My naivete, but I am a PhD in logistics and supply chain. [chuckle] I just decided I'm gonna call these factories, and so, via email, I did. One of them met the criteria. I literally hopped on a plane, flew into China. I arrived there, I could not speak the language. I did not, could not read any signs whatsoever.
0:06:51.4 Lisa Williams: Thank goodness, I being the only African-American there at the time, it was easy for the factory to identify me. Thank God, [chuckle] 'cause I could still be wandering around the airport in Hong Kong, but then they came and they picked me up and they took me in this car, and they were driving like 90 miles per hour, weaving in and out of traffic, flying up hills, and I'm just like, "Oh my God." [chuckle] And then it hit me, I can't even tell my family where I am. I can't call and say, "Hey, I'm at 15th and 20th street," or, "I'm across the street from the McDonalds," or whatever. I was in a foreign country, I couldn't read, and I didn't even know the people I was with.
0:07:31.9 Lisa Williams: And they didn't really speak English, and I certainly could not speak Mandarin. The reality of my situation hit me, but that's how passionate I was about getting this doll done. And when I went there and I did find people who could speak English, they kept telling me, "Hey, you know what? We have a whole room full of dolls, doll faces or sculpts, which we call sculpts, 'cause they're like sculptures. Why create something unique and different? Just pick one of these. This will work fine, people will buy whatever you pick." But I was adamant that it had to be something unique, authentic, representative and beautiful. And so it took a while for me to convince these gentlemen at that tim, e that they should listen to me, a woman who had no experience, [chuckle] little to no connections in the doll industry, that they with 20 some years experience to listen to me, a total novice.
0:08:24.7 Lisa Williams: But I believe, again, it was my such strong passion about why I was doing it that influenced them to give me a try. Once we did that. I mean, Matt, when you do a doll, you have a vision of how you want it to look, you work with 3D sculpture and you tweak everything, the eyes, the nose, the lips, 'cause you want everything just right. You pick up the hair texture, I did all of that, I picked up the fashion, I was thrilled about this doll. Then they shipped it to the US, unbeknownst to me and to Walmart, who's my first customer, the doll's dreads or braids fell apart in the shipping, transportation, the rocking back and forth on the boat, and we discovered at that time that the doll was bald.
0:09:09.7 Matt Waller: What's wrong with being bald?
0:09:14.1 Lisa Williams: Oh, sorry.
0:09:16.5 Lisa Williams: For you, it's perfect. For a doll, for a little girl, oh, not so much.
0:09:23.7 Matt Waller: Oh, no, that's terrible.
0:09:25.4 Lisa Williams: It was terrible. But anyway, we managed to fix that, and then we asked about other retailers. I think I was really driven by that little girl, I keep going back to her all the time, because she propelled me to keep moving. And so once we were in Walmart and we fixed out all the kinks and the challenges and the problems, then Target was the next retailer, and so it's about going in and sharing with them why your product is unique, and why your customer and your demographic not only want but need and deserve this product. And then once you go there, then you just keep basically taking the same passion, vision and belief to all the retailers. And then at some point they become some organic movement that takes place, because once a couple of the retailers see that you're at Walmart and Target and Amazon and Macy's, then they start to call you.
0:10:13.5 Matt Waller: It's really neat that Walmart did that, and then they let you sell to other retailers, including their competitor Target. So I understand your passion for this, and Walmart somehow figured out there was an issue there. How did they figure it out?
0:10:29.6 Lisa Williams: I think they figured it out from their consumers. The Walmart shopper was complaining, and I have to say, you're right, Walmart not only did they allow me to sell to other competitors, but I have to go back previous. Because as I said, they asked me to do it three times and I said no, and I kept saying to them, "I'm a college professor. [chuckle] I teach adults, I take MBAs and executives and PhD students, I know nothing about making no dolls." But they saw something in me, so as life would have it, when three weeks later, I see the CNN updated doll study, it was like a perfect match.
0:11:08.5 Matt Waller: So when you're an entrepreneur, life's full of ups and downs, but being an entrepreneur, you really feel it, probably like you felt when the dolls came to the United States bald. But if you're gonna do something like this, it should definitely be something you're passionate about, because of all of the challenges. So clearly one of the challenges you had was the production and distribution of the dolls per se, did you switch manufacturers at that point?
0:11:41.9 Lisa Williams: Absolutely, switched manufacturers. But I will tell you, I had also learned to be a tough business woman, and I didn't have to learn how to do that as the professor. Professor, it was intellectual certainly, but it was also passionate, I had a passion for my students and I really had a passion for the research that I was doing, so you don't have to manage anyone per se except yourself. Well, in that example, one of the other situations with the factory, they had shipped the dolls to the US, and at that time I was taking possession of them then shipping them on to Walmart. And the factory called me and said, "Well, the dolls are at the port, but it's gonna be more than what we told you," and they were increasing the price by 25 to 30%.
0:12:22.0 Lisa Williams: And it was clear to me that they were trying to take advantage of my naiveté and newness in the business. And you gotta realize, I'm a one-woman shop, I'm not like my largest competitor, which has hundreds of thousands of employees. So they were saying, "You need to pay this extra money or we're not gonna release your dolls." And I said to them very quickly, it was very interesting, because I realized I was being manipulated, and I said, "I tell you what, you will either release these dolls at the price that we have prepared or you will be selling them at the dock, because I'm not paying a penny more for them." It was very interesting, because very quickly they changed their tune, and like, "Oh, oh, oh... " [chuckle] Okay, okay, okay. But it was their attempt to take advantage of someone, again, who didn't have connections, I didn't have a big company behind me, and so they thought they could. But there's something also internal that tells you, "No, you say no here." And there were other times that I make decisions where I say, "No, okay, well, it's not what you're expected, but you pay more, and you say yes." So having that internal guidance and that strength and courage and persistence is very important.
0:13:21.4 Matt Waller: So calling on huge key accounts, obviously Walmart helped you get started, but then you had to call on Target. That's a huge account. So you were having to do everything at that point, you're in key accounts sales. How did you prepare for that? And how did you go about doing that? I'm sure you learned a lot in that process as well.
0:13:43.6 Lisa Williams: This is where being a professor did come in, I am used to speaking in front of large crowds, and talking to students and making sure the students understand what I'm trying to communicate. It was the same as I go into all the retailers, even to this day, when I'm talking to them, I'm thinking very much that they are my students, meaning it is my job and my responsibility for them to understand why this product is so important to their consumer base. It is my job to explain to them why this is gonna reach a revenue stream that they don't currently have, and it's my job to explain to them why this is good for society overall.
0:14:18.3 Lisa Williams: So that is where being a professor is good, and also you have to have a passion for what you're doing. It's exactly what you were just saying a few moments ago, if you are starting a business because you think it's gonna make you millions of dollars, that's the wrong reason. And unless something miraculous happens, you're gonna give up, because money will not drive you to the finish point. Being an entrepreneur is one of the hardest things I've ever done, and I was the first African-American that graduated with a PhD from the Ohio State University. That was not easy. I was also the first to get tenure at Penn State University, that was not easy. And then coming and being a professor at University of Arkansas, with an endowment and the responsibilities of that was also not easy. Being a mom [chuckle] is not easy, all of those things are very challenging and hard. But the company that I've created by far is the most difficult for me, and if I had been doing it because I wanted to make X millions of dollars, I would have stopped and come back and enjoy the joys of teaching, because it's very hard being an entrepreneur.
0:15:25.8 Matt Waller: So over your... What? 18 years since you've started this business? You've introduced lots of new dolls, new products. How do you come up with new products and how do you bring them to market?
0:15:42.9 Lisa Williams: Again, it goes back to the why. Why am I doing it? And so for me, it's realizing that I'm creating products for that little girl and a little boy, 'cause we have a line of dolls for boys, a little girl and a little boy on the floor, so that when they're visualizing and imagine what they can become, I want them to be limitless thinkers. I want them to think the sky and beyond is the limit. So that guides what I do, and there's such a huge white space, there are very few products that are created solely for the multicultural child to recognize their true potential. So we have a big white board in which to start, and I'm always starting by imagine, again, that little boy and a little girl on the floor playing with their dolls.
0:16:23.5 Lisa Williams: And when I'm talking about product development, I'm making sure that the product is authentic and that it is representative, and as I call it, that it's sacred. And what I mean by sacred is wherever they look and whatever aspect of that product they're looking at, it's a sacred reverence back to showing them the power, the beauty of who they are. And I understand that there are different price points and budgets for parents, so we have different lines and categories, we have our value line, and we didn't have our other line, but the idea that every child will have access to products. And then of course, we have a large charity and donation, where we're constantly giving dolls away as well.
0:17:01.9 Matt Waller: Wow, that's amazing. So clearly, you do a lot with channels of distribution, how about brand development? I've seen you on television, you're featured all over the place, do you outsource your marketing to a firm? How do you manage marketing? 'Cause I know you know a lot about marketing.
0:17:20.8 Lisa Williams: I know a lot about marketing, I'm laughing because I am still very much doing a great deal. We have a very, very small team. There's under 10 of us, I think there's five or six of us. That's how small our team is. Believe it or not, my sister just joined me, she used to work for Five Fifty, fortune Five Fifty Company, and she recently just left and came on board, and that has meant a tremendous shift. Her specialty is in marketing, and so she has been working with some people, her friends, etcetera, and have done a great deal of getting us tremendous exposure in media.
0:17:53.0 Matt Waller: Well Lisa, what do you want to do beyond this? How would you like to see world of EPI evolve in the future?
0:18:01.2 Lisa Williams: Well, I'm starting to see some of it now. For example, this Christmas 2021, our dolls will be featured in a film that's gonna be in Soul Santa, it's a movie coming to movie theaters near you, in November of this coming year. So I'd like to continue to see that. I want to see it to become a lifestyle brand, where everywhere a child look, they see their image and their beauty and their power reflected back to them. So that when they get up in the morning, their comforter, their backpack when they're going to school, their notebook, their shower curtain, just everywhere they look, they have a loving reminder of who they are and what they can do and what they can create.
0:18:38.1 Matt Waller: So Lisa, a number of students listen to this podcast, do you have any advice for them based on your experience?
0:18:46.9 Lisa Williams: I do. What I would suggest is do what you love, that's gonna drive you. If you don't love it, you're gonna eventually leave it. I picked the majors that I love, and mine are kinda similar, they're all in the business area, but I started out doing statistics, 'cause I was always curious. And to me, statistics was what value or what person or what thing contributes to an effect on another variable? I love to teach, and so I loved communicating information to students. And then I wanted to get my PhD because being a member, or being someone who loves mysteries, to me, doing research is all about a mystery, it's all about solving a mystery, it's like, "Okay, what is the impact on X? What these five variables could impact X, which one of them do and which one doesn't?" It's kind of like "Whodunit" in the mystery movie. So I love that.
0:19:37.3 Lisa Williams: So number one, follow your passion and your vision. Number two, appreciate and love those who surround you and encourage you, and also recognize that those who love you and encourage you might also want to protect you, and in their ability to protect you, they may tell you, "You shouldn't do this. Don't do this, stay where you are." Because when, again, as you pointed out, I was a successful professor, I had a guaranteed salary, I worked a few days a week. And so people who love me wanted to protect me and they said, "Are you kidding me? [chuckle] You gotta walk away from this and go and do something that is completely unknown." And when you're an entrepreneur, you do not know where your next check is coming from, at least initially, I didn't. So I walked away from colleagues, I walked away from the life that I'd known, which is being a professor, and walked into a totally unknown industry, but I had passion. So that's what led me.
0:20:37.1 Lisa Williams: And then after that, when you still have the passion, always remember your why, because if you don't remember why you're doing what you do, you'll get distracted and you'll get confused, and then you'll start listening to the other voices that will come in, which will tell you for example, "Why are you making a new sculpt, a new piece of sculpture? Why are you doing that? That's the most expensive part of a doll. Just take one of the ones we already have in existence." Well, see, my why was to create something authentic and representive, so because of that, I could say no when they said, "Pick anything that we have on the shelf." So knowing your why is important, and then just sheer perseverance and continually educate yourself. It may be something that you think is totally irrelevant to what you're doing, but knowledge expands, and so whatever you're reading, I have found play some role in my life, whether it's a philosophical book or a business book, or could even be a spiritual book. Whatever I'm reading, I find that somewhere in my life, it has an application, so constant learning and education is important too.
0:21:42.3 Matt Waller: Well, Dr. Lisa Williams, thank you so much for joining us today. This is so impressive, what you've accomplished. Congratulations.
0:21:53.5 Lisa Williams: Thank you, Matt. And it means a great deal coming from you, my former colleague. So thank you so much.
0:22:01.6 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be Epic Podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching BeEpic Podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C Podcast. And now be epic!