As she sat down to rest her mind and watch television one Saturday, Lisa Williams, Ph.D., had no idea her life would change forever.
A CNN program hosted by Anderson Cooper about an updated doll study quickly captured her attention.
In previous doll studies conducted in the 1950s and 1960s, children were given the choice of whether they wanted to play with a Black or white doll. All the children—whether they were Black or white—chose to play with the white doll.
When a young Black girl was asked during the updated study which of the dolls she wanted to play with, Williams was certain that a Black child living in 21st-century America would choose a Black doll.
“Shockingly, she didn’t want to play with the Black doll. But what broke my heart was when she explained why,” Williams recalled. “She said the Black doll’s skin tone was ‘nasty.’ Then she touched her own hand and said ‘nasty.’”
After she stopped crying, Williams thought to herself, “You cannot allow this to happen. You cannot allow a generation of girls to grow up thinking they are less than beautiful.”
From Higher Education to the Toy Industry
When Williams was shattered at the sight of a little Black girl describing the color of her skin as “nasty,” she was at the height of her career in the world of academia.
A two-time graduate of Wright State University—where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Business and an M.B.A.—Williams went on to graduate with a Ph.D. in supply chain management from The Ohio State University.
At Ohio State, she was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in her field.
“I didn’t plan to be a pioneer,” said Williams, “but I had all of the confidence that I needed to do that, because of the wonderful experience that I had at Wright State.”
Williams went on to become the first female professor to receive a multi-million-dollar endowed chair and the first African American professor to earn tenure at Penn State University. She was also the recipient of two multi-million-dollar endowments for her research in supply chain and logistics.
“I was happy as a professor,” she recalled. “I loved teaching. I loved conducting research studies with students. I had a global reputation for my research. Life was amazingly good.”
But that haunting image of the little Black girl on television also dovetailed with her own experiences as a college professor. In her classroom, Williams saw brilliant young women who would not speak up.
“They would come to my office hours, and I knew by talking to them that they knew the answer. It was a self-esteem issue,” she explained.
When she saw the young girl on Anderson Cooper’s program, Williams realized those self-esteem issues start in childhood.
“I knew I had to do something,” she said. “It was a very tough decision to leave, but I felt a deeper calling to help little girls and adult women with seeing who they really are—their beauty, their brilliance, how amazing they are.”
Transitioning from the comfort of her classroom to the unknown world of the toy and doll industry was no easy task for Williams. She had no experience, no money, no connections, and no encouragement as she founded her own doll company.
“People thought I had lost my mind,” recalled Williams, who admitted to making mistakes early on. “As I learned, I made better decisions. As I made better decisions, the company grew and thrived.”
Williams also realized that her lack of education in the toy industry was her greatest strength. She could think creatively and differently. And she could make sure her dolls were truly authentic and representative of cultures from around the globe.
Since founding the World of Entertainment, Publishing, and Inspiration (World of EPI) in 2003, Williams’ attention to detail remains unchanged. Her company has created patent-pending hair, developed custom-blended skin tones, and sculpted faces that mirror the people they represent.
“Everything is intentional and has to be authentic,” said Williams. “Everything we do centers around satisfying a need—a need to make sure that there is representation for all children.”
When she first launched her company, Williams brought two dolls to the marketplace. Twenty years later, the World of EPI now produces multiple product lines—for both girls and boys—as well as licensed products with Disney and Marvel. Their Black Panther collection won the highly coveted and competitive Toy of the Year award in the Doll Category.
While she is proud of and grateful for the accolades, Williams says the most significant and most heartwarming recognition comes when a child spots a World of EPI doll on a retailer’s shelf, runs right to it and exclaims, “Mommy, the doll looks just like me!”
“That’s what gets me up every morning,” said Williams. “I hope that when a child plays with one of our dolls, they begin to dream beyond their current circumstances. I want them to see their faraway dreams as realities.”
For Williams, there is no better job than bringing joy and happiness to the faces of children and empowering and inspiring them to be their best.
Her greatest hope is that the children playing with World of EPI dolls today will one day pass along those dolls to their own children and grandchildren, so the cycle of empowerment continues for future generations.
“It all started,” said Williams, “by seeing that little girl on television and letting nothing dissuade me from getting it done.”
This article was originally published in the fall 2023 issue of the Wright State Magazine. Read more stories at wright.edu/magazine.