JENAE + GINA HEITKAMP // Co-Creators of Middle School Moguls and new Nickelodeon show
Jenae -&- Gina Heitkamp
We recently had Jenae and Gina on the FemCity podcast and we are now obsessed with their founding story and the launch of their show. We hope you find inspiration in their share.
Tell us about your founding story?
Gina Speaking - Jenae and I are sisters and have spent our lives sharing ideas with each other, but the idea for Middle School Moguls came when Jenae was working as a school counselor in inner-city Los Angeles and interacting with a lot of young girls. It was eye-opening to see what toys and media the girls were passionate about. When they liked something, they really liked something and they’d wear it on their clothes, backpacks, lunchboxes, etc. She saw that girls had this big connection to these characters.
Jenae decided that she wanted to make stories and toys with fun characters for young girls that we also inspirational. She pitched the idea to me while I was getting my MBA at University of California Irvine and was heavily involved in the world of entrepreneurship. We kind of had this lightbulb moment. We had always loved making businesses together as kids. We had every childhood business from lemonade stands to decorating people’s homes for the holidays. This gave us the idea to make fun, empowering characters that inspired girls to become bosses.
We entered the idea into the UCI business plan competition and were the first female team in university history to win the grand prize. With that money we created the first Middle School Mogul doll. By 2016 the idea had blossomed into a book and doll line being sold in Target. With the success of the dolls, came an offer we couldn’t refuse from Nickelodeon. We now pinch ourselves every day, seeing our vision turned into a cartoon that we hope will be able to inspire kids on a global level.
What was your aha moment that you lead you into what you do today?
Jenae speaking - The very first aha moment was when I was working as a school therapist and I had an 8 year old girl who wasn’t very interested in school so we made a reward chart and she wanted coloring pages of Monster High (or “a certain doll brand”) as her reward. Then weeks later the same girl asked for a Monster High book as a reward and it was the first time I saw her interested in reading. I started asking her a lot of questions, what she liked about the characters, and what she related to. I started to think, “what if I could make characters that had the same appeal, but also had a positive message about school and learning and perseverance?” That was the first aha moment for me, and really set the first goal—to come up with these characters and really flesh them out.
Gina speaking- I would say that one of our biggest aha moments was when we pitched the idea to Target. We didn’t have much to show—just one prototype with a broken arm. Luckily, we had found a broker who really believed in the idea and he got us an appointment with Target’s toy buyer. We flew out to Minnesota to make the pitch and when it was over, even though the buyer had feedback on ways in which we could make the product better, he loved the overall idea and thought it was exciting, and new and something that girls would love and be inspired by. It was then that I really felt like we were on to something big and that we needed to keep pushing forward.
Did you have any doubt or fears?
Jenae speaking - Yes, lots! We really touch on that in the show too. One of the courses all the Moguls have to take during their first year at Mogul Academy is “Failure 101”. We want to normalize failures and fears and how to keep going.
Gina speaking - In our journey, thinking about going from an idea to a doll line to a Nickelodeon show seemed nearly impossible, so we broke it down into one step at a time. Even a big pitch meeting seemed less intimidating if it was just thought of as 30 minutes of talking. We always say we put our heads down and took a million tiny steps, some forward and some backward, to end up where we are today.
What was the biggest challenge and how did you move past them?
Gina speaking - We had so many challenges along the way from having to change manufacturers because the first one couldn’t get the quality right, to having to raise funding in order to purchase enough dolls to ship to Target. Each of these challenges were terrifying at the time and having each other to lean on for support really helped us get through. The other key to moving past the challenges was also finding the right people to put in key roles and the right partners. We’ve had such an amazing and passionate team along our journey, and that has helped tremendously. We still have challenges in our business but each time we overcome one, we get a little stronger as a team.
Jenae speaking - Our most obvious challenge was lack of experience. We had never worked in the toy industry, written books, designed packing, manufactured overseas, raised investment, done a Kickstarter or worked in animation. Everything was new, and every day was a huge learning curve. At first it was very humbling coming out of a profession I was good at and into a career where I knew very little. We moved past it by committing to learn what we needed to. We used LinkedIn to find experts and we took a lot of people out to lunch and took notes when they spoke. We admittedly googled a lot of answers. We split responsibilities. I learned how to self-publish books and Gina learned how dolls are designed. I oversaw packaging and she oversaw shipments, she learned how to raise investment and I learned how to copyright and trademark, and now we’ve both, of course, learned how animated shows are made. We still have a lot to learn, but we are much more confident than when we started.
What would you say to a woman who is listening and doubting her journey?
Jenae speaking - I had two small business attempts before this, but neither had passion behind it. Both were in the therapy field and seemed like nice ways to make income, but they failed quickly because the energy and drive weren’t there. So first ask yourself if it’s really a passion. If it is then keep going. Think about other angles you can take or people you can reach out to, there have been so many times we thought our journey was over and then something wonderful would happen.
Gina speaking - Also, I think that a lot of women deal with imposter syndrome this on their journeys and sometimes it’s enough to make them question moving forward. This feeling of not being qualified enough or feeling like a failure or fraud even though there are signs of success is something that I personally dealt with throughout our journey thus far. I didn’t feel like we should be having success and reaching these great goals because we had no experience or training in the industry. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop and to be exposed as unqualified.
At some point in the journey I heard the quote, “Why not me? Why not now?” and it really resonated with me. When we flew out to New York to pitch to Nickelodeon it was a huge moment for us. Sitting in the room with all the executives instead of thinking, “Why me? Why am I here?” I focused on thinking, “Why not me? Why not now?” and it really helped. I would give this advice to any woman out there dealing with not feeling qualified enough or experienced enough on their journey.
Jenae speaking - I have so many, but there was one in particular when I was trying to decide if I should leave my job/career to pursue making Middle School Moguls. It was a hard decision because I had a child already and it meant upheaval, moving, less money etc. Around that time I saw a quote that said “Jump and the net will appear,” and that spoke to me. Other favorites are, I believe Kris Jenner said this, “If somebody says no, you’re asking the wrong person” that’s very Gina and me. If we hear “no” from someone we’re on to plan B or C the next day. Another one I’ve been using lately is “I didn’t come this far to only come this far.”
Gina speaking - Instead of a personal mantra I focus on a more of a philosophy, and that is always expressing my gratitude. Every morning when I wake up, I write down one thing I’m thankful for, and at the end of the day I write down three things I am grateful for that day. Finding gratitude on even the hardest of days is really powerful and can change the narrative in one’s mind from negative to positive. I use the Coach.me app on my phone for this so I get push notifications and don’t forget, but anyone could do it with just pen and paper. I also think there’s a huge need for more gratitude in the workplace as it can motivate and build trust with teams and help to create a thriving culture.
How can FEMS find you?
GINA HEITKAMP & JENAE HEITKAMP
Gina Heitkamp, Chief Executive Officer and Jenae Heitkamp, Chief Innovation Officer of GenGirl Media, Inc., an entertainment company that creates engaging television programming and captivating "Me Media" toys that focus on the fun and whimsy of childhood while keeping in mind today’s tech and media savvy kids.
The Heitkamp entrepreneurs and sisters are Co-Creators and Executive Producers of "Middle School Moguls," a new CG-animated series of television specials premiering on Nickelodeon Sunday, Sept. 8, at 11 a.m. (ET/PT).
The TV specials chronicle the ambitions of four new friends attending Mogul Academy, an entrepreneurial school where kid-business dreams come true. They follow students Valeria, voiced by Olympic gold medal gymnast Laurie Hernandez); Winnie, voiced by Daniella Perkins ("Knight Squad"); Celeste voiced by Jade Pettyjohn ("School of Rock") and Yuna voiced by Haley Tju, ("Bella & the Bulldogs), who are empowered by Mogul Academy to test their business creativity, innovation and grit. Actress Jane Lynch ("Glee") plays Victoria Steele, the Headmaster of Mogul Academy. Tim Gunn (Project Runway) as Wren, a non-binary teacher in the Mogul Academy Fashion Branch.
"Middle School Moguls" was conceived a when Jenae was working as a school counselor in Los Angeles inner-city schools. Jenae decided that she wanted to make stories and toys with fun characters for young girls that also were inspirational. She pitched the idea to Gina, who was working on her master’s degree in business at the University of California, Irvine.
The sisters entered the idea into the University of Irvine's business plan competition and were the first female team in the University's history to be awarded the grand prize. With the awarded seed money, they created their first product – Middle School Mogul dolls (formally called iBesties). By 2016 the idea had blossomed into a book and doll line for Target. With the success of the dolls came an offer in 2018 from Nickelodeon, to expand the brand into animation programming.
Prior to co-founding Gengirl Media, Inc., Gina built her own go-to-market consulting company, Creative Kick-Off. She consulted on product and technology launches for a wide range of businesses. During her undergraduate education she worked on the U.S. product launches of Red Bull and Vitaminwater.
Jenae Heitkamp, Chief Innovation Officer, has a background as a marriage and family therapist. She received her bachelor’s degree from California State University, Fullerton and went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Southern California, in addition to a certificate in play therapy.