Never heard of a "toy coach"? Many haven't, but that's what Azhelle Wade is.
Wade is a three-time patented inventor and who has worked in the toy industry for more than a decade, having worked for Toys R Us, Party City, Madame Alexander, and Creative Kids. After working her way up the ladder from toy designer to VP, Wade broke out on her out. She positioned herself as The Toy Coach.
In this role, she helps educate inventors and entrepreneurs about the toy industry. She also created a 12-week program called the Toy Creators Academy to empower newcomers in the toy industry with step-by-step guidance, downloadable worksheets, and group coaching.
NewsBreak: How does someone become a toy coach?
Azhelle Wade: When I was a little kid, and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always excitedly answered, “a teacher!”
As I got older, my love for visual design grew and it led me to the Exhibition Design program at the Fashion Institute of Technology. There, I focused on becoming a children’s exhibition designer, but since that program only offered an associates degree, I needed a bachelor's degree to finish out my four years of college. A teacher who’d been watching me create kid-inspired exhibitions for years, encouraged me to check out the Toy Design program that FIT had to offer. It just so happens that I ended up at one of just two schools in the entire country that had a program in Toy Design!
The reason I went into toys is because I have a love for kids. After over a decade of working and playing in the toy industry I felt inspired to become a toy coach because I’ve always had a love for teaching. I realized that my knowledge of designing toys, working with factories, and networking with toy companies was extremely valuable to aspiring inventors and entrepreneurs who want to break into the toy industry.
There was a huge unwelcoming gap in this industry, and it didn’t feel like a welcoming place for newbies. Since I vividly remember that feeling when I first started, I set out to change that. I started educating newbie creators through my podcast, "Making It In The Toy Industry," and dubbed myself with the title, The Toy Coach, because that’s what I set out to do. And today I’m lucky to coach inspired parents, educators, and even kids who have incredibly playful product ideas.
NewsBreak: When did you realize you can make a career out of your passion for toys?
Azhelle Wade: During the Exhibition Design program at FIT, a teacher of mine noticed that a lot of my exhibition design work was kid focused. That teacher suggested that I check out the Toy Design Program at FIT. I remember feeling unsure and asking him, “can you really make a living doing that?” and he smiled and assured me that a career in the toy industry was a REAL thing and that you could make a good living doing it.
The Toy Design program at FIT only accepts about 30 students a year, so I wasn’t even sure I’d get in. And once I got accepted, it wasn’t all fun and games. I struggled for months to execute the quality of toy design and illustration that the program required. About halfway through the program I landed an internship with Madame Alexander. Boy, did I LOVE that job. I remember sitting in design meetings where we’d be tasked to come up with innovative ideas for dolls based on nursery rhymes. Then, I’d spend the day sketching, and prototyping to create the perfect doll for the upcoming season. When I saw the other designers working there, who were all able to live in Manhattan while working the coolest job on the planet…that’s when I knew it was REALLY possible to make a career out of toys, and I was doing it!
NewsBreak: Can you tell us a "day in the life" of a toy coach?
Azhelle Wade: Everyday is so different! I’ll give you an example of what it’s like when I’m attending a toy trade show…since that’s what I’m in the middle of at the moment!
So a day in the life of a toy coach when I’m attending a trade show, is to wake up early, head over to the conference center where I’ll grab breakfast before joining a panel discussion answering questions from new inventors in the toy industry. After that, I’ll stick around the conference room to review toy or game concepts from the new inventors and Toy Creators Academy alumni who are attending the event. Then I’ll check my calendar. I may have a pitch meeting scheduled with a toy company where I’m pitching an idea for an inventor that I represent, or I may be pitching my own Toy Coach services to them…sometimes both! Toward the end of the day I’ll have a group coaching call with my current class of Toy Creators Academy students where I answer questions they have as they go through the program, share contacts with them, and check in on their progress through the course materials. After that call I’m checking emails, taking notes on everything that happened that day so I can report back to members of my Toy Creators Club, and then I’ll head over to a toy industry networking dinner or event. After networking it’s time to relax.
My husband is also in the toy industry so sometimes I’m lucky enough to travel with him. If we are traveling together we’ll grab a drink or dinner together to close out the evening. Before bed I always look over my calendar for tomorrow, make sure there aren’t any urgent emails that need responding to before the end of the day, go to bed and wake up to do it all over again!
NewsBreak: Holiday season is coming up and many families are being affected by inflation. What are your tips on saving money on toys?
Azhelle Wade: My advice to parents is to actually don’t cheap out on toys! If you find an expensive toy for half the price on amazon or wish.com…don’t buy it! It’s likely a knockoff that hasn't been properly safety tested. The best way to save money on toys is to shop on black Friday or cyber Monday deals. Toy companies often create specific bundles or specific products to put on sale for these holidays, so look out for those offers. For stocking stuffers, check last season's toys which are likely to be on clearance.
NewsBreak: There seems to be more diversity in the industry. Is that so?
Azhelle Wade: Absolutely. I believe the Black Lives Matter movement had A LOT to do with getting black owned toy brands the visibility they deserve. These toy brands always existed but were a bit under the radar. During the BLM movement, I released a podcast episode about the Ripple Effect of Racial Bias in the Toy Industry and while I received a lot of support from non-Black colleagues, there were also a few trolls who came out to comment on posts saying that “black dolls just don’t sell” and they couldn’t be further from the truth. Brands like The Fresh Dolls, Healthy Roots Dolls, Like U Cards, Harper Iman Dolls, and Brown Toy Box are proving that diverse toys and game products can and will sell when they’re given the same support as other mainstream products. Target has truly been the retail leader of supporting black owned businesses, they’re amazing!
NewsBreak: How does the Toy Creators Academy work?
Azhelle Wade: Toy Creators Academy is a 12-week group coaching program that includes a nine-module course, weekly group coaching sessions, 1-on-1 coaching sessions with me, and a virtual pitch event that introduces emerging creators to toy retailers like Learning Express stores and manufacturers like Hasbro and Mattel.
I find that Toy Creators Academy is a safe space for creators of color who want to bring their products to the market. Not only are you building community but you’re increasing your knowledge of how the toy industry works and how you can make it work for you.
Creators of color, and creators who focus on overall creating inclusive toys have always been interested in bringing products to market but there wasn’t a clear path for them to get into the general toy industry. This program creates that pathway into the world of toys, and once in, this program gives these creators the tools AND connections they need to actually forge their own path while understanding the history of the companies and brands that came before them.
NewsBreak:What do you like the most about what you do?
Azhelle Wade: When designing and developing toys with factories overseas, my favorite part of the development process is receiving production samples of products. Production samples are the final samples that are shipped from a factory, heading to the warehouse and eventually the stores so they can be purchased by consumers.
As The Toy Coach, my favorite part is when I get a text, or message that one of my students just landed placement in another retail store. Or when I bump into an alumni of my program at a toy industry event, and they tell me they just licensed an idea.
Another great moment as The Toy Coach is when aspiring creators come up to me and tell me how much my podcast has helped them, especially those who can’t afford to join my program or to join any toy design program at all. It’s my dream to acquire sponsorships from toy companies to be able to support these creators through the full Toy Creators Academy experience.