Azhelle Wade: “Never say you can’t”

The very first piece of advice I remember getting in life was from my mother. She said, “Never say you can’t.” and I didn’t realize how much those words impacted me at the time. Like anyone, I have moments where I feel defeated, and I might say I can’t do something. But I can honestly […]

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The very first piece of advice I remember getting in life was from my mother. She said, “Never say you can’t.” and I didn’t realize how much those words impacted me at the time. Like anyone, I have moments where I feel defeated, and I might say I can’t do something. But I can honestly say that I’ve never really believed it. I think my mom said that mantra so many times, it made me believe that I can do anything without even realizing it.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Azhelle Wade of The Toy Coach.

Azhelle’s been having way too much fun working in the toy industry for over 10 years with companies like Toys R Us, Party City, and Madame Alexander! She has 3 patented toy products, multiple design awards, and is the host of the well-known toy industry podcast, Making It In The Toy Industry. Before she became The Toy Coach, Azhelle was the VP of Brand and Product Development at a toy company where she built and managed a creative team leading multi-million-dollar lines. Her passion is to empower aspiring toy people with the knowledge they need to become toypreneurs and toy inventors. Her online program, Toy Creators Academy, clarifies the toy development and launch process with step-by-step guidance and toyspirational advice. Her personal mantra is, “Make it toyetic!”.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve always wanted to work with kids, I knew that bit was my destiny. But I moved between wanting to become a teacher, a child psychologist, to eventually a children’s exhibition designer. So, I majored in Exhibition Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and I was really happy with that path. I envisioned myself one day working for a children’s museum, and my portfolio reflected that. But then one day a professor of mine told me that there was a Toy Design program at the college. To this day I remember that conversation so clearly. It changed my life. I marched over to the Toy Design program office and asked for a meeting with the chair. I finished up my Associates degree in Exhibition Design and then started the Toy Design program right away. After finishing my Toy degree, I got my first job in toys a few months after graduation and never looked back.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Well the toy industry has notoriously been closed off. It’s actually also known to be predominately filled with, and led by white, male men. And there’s nothing wrong with white, male, men of course! But it does limit the types of toys that are produced and promoted to one very similar perspective. So, what I’m doing in the industry is disruptive on two ends. First, my podcast is sharing valuable insights into the toy industry that have never before been compiled and served up in the step-by-step manner that I have. And second, my work and insights are tailored to meet the needs of a typically forgotten market, of aspiring toy inventors and entrepreneurs. This market doesn’t have the biggest dollar value because it’s filled with dreamers. They’re hard to find and harder to convert. But I find connecting with them and even sharing free content with this market extremely rewarding because I can make a huge impact with quick toy tips and actionable advice.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I remember one time I had to create a finished craft sample for a pitch meeting that looked like something a kid would make for a science fair. I made a volcano which was a lot of fun to build, but I named it “Volcanic Eruptions” which for some reason came off as inappropriate and made my boss laugh hysterically but I was totally embarrassed.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I have multiple mentors. One of my current mentors is Janice Ross, the President of Women In Toys. I’m not sure she knows she’s my mentor, but she is! She’s given me advice and encouragement to step out and take on new challenges without fear. It may be too soon to tell, but I believe she completely changed my toy destiny.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disrupting is good when the industry you’re disrupting is just about ready for the change. I did a podcast episode called The Ripple Effect of Racial Bias in the Toy Industry, and it could’ve easily been seen as a negative disruption in the industry. But at the time I released it, the Black Lives Matter movement had just begun to pick up steam. People were paying attention and listening. They were ready for the conversation. So, it was taken in a positive light. But 20 years ago, that same podcast episode could’ve caused a negative stir and reduced my authority in the toy space. I think it’s all about timing.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

The very first piece of advice I remember getting in life was from my mother. She said, “Never say you can’t.” and I didn’t realize how much those words impacted me at the time. Like anyone, I have moments where I feel defeated, and I might say I can’t do something. But I can honestly say that I’ve never really believed it. I think my mom said that mantra so many times, it made me believe that I can do anything without even realizing it.

The second came from my sister and it’s actually a biblical reference. She told me a story that carried a message in it that really resonated with me. The message was that we as humans have the gift of free will, and that’s the reason that negative forces; like spirits, demons, or negative energy, whatever you believe in — that’s the reason they cannot control what choices we make. Because we have free will. That lesson really hit close to home for me many times. Whenever I’m struggling emotionally and feeling overwhelmed, that story reminds me that I have complete control over my thoughts and actions. There’s power in that.

The third came from my first mentor ever. He told me to watch out for the 3 second decisions. He said those 3 second decisions are the ones that haunt you, not the ones that you take time worrying about and weight options for. But the 3 second ones. And even to this day when I call him, unsure of a career move, he tells me, look Azhelle, you’ve thought about this. It’s not a 3 second decision. It’s going to be okay.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Well I just launched my course Toy Creators Academy and I am so ready to help these aspiring toy people break into the toy biz with their new ideas. My goal is for this course to be the catalyst for 50 new diverse toy startups. Once I hit that number, I don’t know how long that will take, but once I hit that number I will feel as though I made a difference. And when I say diverse, I don’t just mean black as some might assume. But I mean all races, abilities, genders, and orientations. I believe these niche markets are valuable enough to deserve special attention from the toy industry. I hope to help create that spotlight.

But you’re right, I’m not done. I’m already working on a program for students that are interested in toys but aren’t majoring in toys for whatever reason. So if that sounds like you, then reach out to The Toy Coach on Instagram! I’m working on a special program for you.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I think women have a tendency to be more undervalued and underestimated than their male counterparts. And that experience messes with our minds and self-worth. The women that break through that first level of resistance and make a name for themselves are then met with excessive scrutiny that men aren’t. All of that rejection can be psychologically damaging and make it harder to show up as our highest selves each and every day.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

The Blue Eyes Brown Eyes experiment by Jane Elliot deeply impacted my thinking. It made me more compassionate with people that have racist or stereotypical views, because this experiment showed how easily school children can be manipulated to feel superior to one another based on something as simple as the color of their eyes. I want to be clear that I don’t excuse racism, not at all. Jane Elliot’s experiment just helped me understand it as a social problem more than an individual problem. It helped me see how much bigger the change needed to be than just one person. Jane, as the teacher convinced brown eyed kids and blue-eyed kids to go against one another. Even if some of them were friends! Now you might say, oh but they’re kids…they’re just easily influenced. But then, Oprah performed this same experiment on her show with grown adults and it STILL worked. Grown adults turned on each other based ono the color of their eyes. It was crazy to see. Since watching that, I see the issue as a social one. Messaging that we as a community see every day in media needs to change and be more directly equal. That experiment sticks in my mind to this day.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to inspire anyone with a toy idea that they are passionate about to seriously consider making it a reality. That means you should be researching if it exists, asking your friends and family if they would purchase a toy like the one you’re imagining, and the listening to the Making It In The Toy Industry podcast to get an idea of what it would be like to join the toy industry. If you’re are still interested in developing your idea after all of that research, then you should do it. Because if you’ve gone through all of that and you’re still considering building your toy idea? It means that your idea is unique and more important than that, you’ve got the passion and focus to see it through.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You either win or you learn.” This is my all-time favorite quote to live by. As an entrepreneur if you don’t believe this quote, you’ll drive yourself insane trying to do everything the right way. Just trust that there is no one true right way. Take risks and forge your own path. The worst thing that can happen is that you’ll learn, and education is an invaluable asset. You can’t earn if you don’t learn.

How can our readers follow you online?

If you’re at all curious about the toy industry, listen to my podcast, Making It In The Toy Industry. You can even join my email list to get toy tips and advice straight to your inbox.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Thank you so much for having me, it was a pleasure!

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