Spotlight: Ilana Ben-Ari

The SheEO Spotlight Series showcases the talent and radical generosity of the SheEO Community, one entrepreneur at a time.

Meet Ilana Ben-Ari!

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Ilana Ben-Ari is a designer on a mission to positively transform how we learn. She is a multiple-award winning product designer, TEDx speaker, and Ariane de Rothschild Fellow, and has been working at the intersection of design and social innovation for over seven years. As the founder of Twenty One Toys, she and her team are using toys to foster creativity, empathy, and inclusive communication in classrooms and offices worldwide. Here we chat about how she transformed her undergraduate thesis project into a ground-breaking organization and movement for social change.

How did you first enter the entrepreneurial sphere?

I am a product designer with a background in industrial design. I completed my bachelor’s degree in industrial design at the Carleton University School of Industrial Design, where I did my thesis project on the empathy toy that became a driving force for Twenty One Toys. After I created the toy in school and it had won a number of awards, I wondered if there existed a business that produced something like what I had made. I soon realized that there was no such a company, and decided that I should create that business so that the toy and its opportunities could exist and flourish. I didn’t actually call myself an “entrepreneur” until I began to understand how much the business world has in common with that of design: both involve the human creation process, as well as how humans interact with and value things. Now I call myself an entrepreneur, and I take pride in the term.

How did your background in design eventually lead to toy design?

The empathy toy was actually my thesis project in my last year as a student at Carleton. For the project, I partnered with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), which works with the visually-impaired community. When I first began the project, I listened to the stories of people with visual impairments, and those of their friends and family. I particularly learned about what it’s like to live with a visual impairment as a child in primary school. Those students spend thirty percent of their school day in the classroom, and the rest of it going through ‘Orientation and Mobility Training’ (O&M). I was fascinated by O&M and its foundational questions of “where am I, where am I going, and how to I get there?” I decided that I wanted to make a game based on that foundation, but that the visually impaired could play with their sighted classmates, and that allowed players to use their communication skills to develop empathy for each other.

Out of all of the games that you could have designed for your thesis project, what inspired you to design a toy?

Toys are exactly where I want to be when it comes to design, because they are three-dimensional physical products that you can hold in your hands. I love the value of something that you can touch, smell, and feel, and the interactions that it allows for. There is so much that we can’t learn from textbooks, and so much that we need to start learning about each other, and toys enable that. I was motivated to create the empathy toy for my thesis project and to later start Twenty One Toys because I believed that toys could be the new textbooks. Toys can teach the twenty-first century skills of creativity, innovation, and collaboration in a way that textbooks cannot.

How did you first learn about the importance of "creativity, innovation, and collaboration" and come to incorporate them into your life?

My education in design introduced me to collaboration, creativity, and collaboration. As a designer, you have to excel in science and math, and be equally strong in art. I joke that my design degree combined the workload of an engineering degree, and the arbitrary marks of an arts program. A designer also has to have high levels of social and emotional intelligence because the design process is all about making connections. I think that design has so much to offer, and I learned so much from completing my intensive design program.

On a slightly different note, how has your mission at Twenty One Toys evolved?

The mission that “toys are the new textbooks” has remained consistent. However what we are actually doing has evolved, and we are now creating a global community of toy educators. Twenty One Toys is now in forty-three countries, thirty colleges and universities, three MBA programs, and over one-hundred offices. We are helping anybody, especially business owners and teachers, cultivate the power to be more creative in the way that they work. Although we didn’t explicitly begin with this questioning, asking “How do we inspire creative confidence in teachers?” is now a driving force of our mission.

People are now using the empathy toy as a catalyst for creative education. They are embracing the toy with open arms by bringing their own lessons to it, and designing their own versions of the game.

What is the Twenty One Toys team up to these days?

Now we are not just selling toys, but we are also conducting workshops to essentially highlight the importance of empathy through toys. This training with the empathy toy helps people to feel more and more empowered in the way that they are teaching and leading their work. I did not initially expect Twenty One Toys to work in this way, and it’s been exciting.

Our team has been conducting the workshops for about the past year, and we are being flown around the world as a result. We recently visited Switzerland, where we trained sixty teachers on the empathy toy at the International School of Geneva. We also traveled to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where we trained teachers on the empathy toy. There we met the mayor, who congratulated us on the influence we’ve had on the city’s schools: our empathy toy training at an ambassador school there inspired them to create a leadership program called ‘Twenty One Leaders’ that’s actually transformed the school. We are also traveling to the Chinese University of Hong Kong in August! Our schedule is extra crazy right now, and our connection with SheEO and Radical Generosity came at the perfect time.

How did you first connect with SheEO?

Everybody was sending me a link to SheEO, and telling me to apply to the 2015 Radical Generosity Initiative! Twenty One Toys is very loud, and our community at our home base in Toronto is incredibly supportive and passionate. Becoming one of the five recipients of the 2015 Radical Generosity Initiative has allowed Twenty One Toys to keep up with our exponential growth.

With all of this incredible growth of Twenty One Toys, what are you excited about next?

I am firstly excited to see how far we can continue to go with the empathy toy. We are developing an online resource to help foster connections between users of the toy. Our new site (beta launching soon) EmpathyToy.com will allow us to put up more online resources and supports, and eventually connect the thousands of educators and facilitators in our global community to each other!

These are all steps that are paving the road for our next toy, the Failure Toy. I am excited to talk about failure, because so much of what the empathy toy does is bring up rich conversation that leads to the topic of failure. I have been blocking off time every week for what I call “Failure Friday”, where I ‘unplug’ and explore what failure is, and how we as humans feel about it and deal with it. I am very excited to release the failure toy, which essentially says that failure is a part of our learning and development. Failure doesn’t have to be a negative force at all if we explore it creatively and with openness.



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Anna Wolle is an intern with SheEO, and a rising junior studying philosophy and French at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota and abroad in Paris, France. You can email her at [email protected].