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Alumna Builds Success with Construction Toys

Erica Schnebel ’13, is challenging traditional gender roles by driving a new line of construction toys aimed at girls.

From the moment Erica Schnebel started working at K’NEX, a Hatfield, Pa., toy construction set company, she asked her boss to think outside the box.  

“I told her I think we need a building line for girls,” explains Schnebel, a Business and Economics major at Ursinus. “I knew girls were a market we weren’t targeting.”

In February, Schnebel’s idea came to fruition when Mighty Makers, K’NEX’s new line of construction toys aimed at girls, made its debut at the New York Toy Fair. The line is set to reach toy stores in June.  

Schnebel, an Academic All-American gymnast at Ursinus who graduated with honors, turned down multiple other job offers to intern at KNex the summer after she graduated, and was hired fulltime eight months later.

Professor of Business and Economics Jennifer VanGilder, who was Schnebel’s internship advisor at Ursinus, isn’t a bit surprised by her success. Erica really understood that school and education weren’t just about studying,” says VanGilder. “Instead, she knew it was about thinking more deeply and understanding how her classes could apply to the real world. She wasn’t afraid at Ursinus to take risks and be wrong. And, she is seemingly doing the exact same thing now.”

When the design team began thinking about Mighty Makers, they knew right away they didn’t just want to pander to girls by simply “pinking and shrinking” the construction sets they already sold. K’NEX Toys, based in Hatfield, are building sets consisting of interlocking plastic rods, connectors, gears, and wheels.

 “During extensive focus groups, we asked girls if they play with K’NEX already,” says Schnebel, who grew up in Pittsburgh and loved building with Legos and Barbie Dolls as a kid. “Nine out of 10 of these girls answered that they did play with K’NEX, but the sets were really owned by their brother. They never thought of K’NEX as their own.”

The K’NEX research reaffirmed that girls are drawn to toys that are pink and purple and aqua blue. But they also noticed when they watched the girls play with the sets, they were interactive and engaged in a totally different way than boys. Schnebel and her team realized girls want to tell stories as they play, as opposed to boys who are driven by the process of building something. The end result: Mighty Makers are colorful, and include story-based suggestions with action figures so that girls can pretend as they build an airplane, an eco-friendly garden, or a deep sea diving set.

Schnebel, assistant brand manager, and the all-female marketing team were featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer in February.

“We know dolls have been such a strong toy for girls across generations,” says Schnebel. “We thought it was important to include figures that allow the little girl to project their own emotions on as they create.”