IOWA CITY — For nearly 30 years, American Girl dolls and their stories have charmed America's girls.
The doll collection started with historic characters — Samantha and Molly, Kirsten — in 1986. Along with their era-appropriate accessories and attire, the narrative surrounding the characters drew girls into their worlds.
To create the story surrounding the 2015 “Girl of the Year” character — Grace Thomas, a 9-year-old who decides to open a French pastry shop after a visit to Paris — American Girl turned to the University of Iowa's Jacobson Institute for Youth Entrepreneurship.
Institute director Dawn Bowlus researched what it would take for a child to successfully start her own business and worked with book series author Mary Casanova.
“I just love the fact that they chose to have one of their dolls be an entrepreneur. It's such a good way to inspire young people,” Bowlus said.
In her adventure, Grace works with her two best friends after learning the art of French pastry making while visiting relatives in France. The three girls have to develop a business plan, figuring how many treats they need to sell to pay back loans from relatives, and decide how to make their business run.
This story is told in three books. The first two are available now, with the third set for release in May. It is also chronicled on a blog and in a movie.
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Bowlus researched included what Department of Health rules they'd have to follow to open an in-home bakery. For example, the girls learn they won't be allowed to keep their pet dog in the kitchen. She also explored how a starting a business as a child would differ from as an adult and even the specific permits they would need in the town the book is set in.
“The unique thing that's really important from my perspective is the girls were really empowered to run the business rather than their parents running the business,” Bowlus said. “The parents serve as advisers, but the girls really had to make the decisions.”
“I really want kids to see themselves in Grace and her friends and to be inspired to think about, 'What is it that I love to do and that I'm really good at it, and how could I turn that into my own business,” Bowlus said. “I want kids to see themselves and dream and imagine.”
Part of the UI's John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, the Jacobson Institute strives to provide resources for educators to prepare students for the worlds of business and entrepreneurship.
“It's really about the ways you think and less about starting a business. It's about being creative, being innovative, looking at the world and seeing what you wish was different and then figuring out how you would solve that. That's a skill set,” Bowlus said.
“I think kids taught to think that way — that's really who we want out in the economy when they grow up.”