March 11, 2021 • By Christine Byrd
Growing up, Gina Heitkamp MBA ’14 and her sister Jenae, were both entrepreneurial. They washed cars, ran a lemonade stand and even decorated trees for holidays. It turns out, they weren’t just playing.
Today, they’ve parlayed those early experiences into their own company, Gengirl Media, Inc., which includes a line of dolls and other consumer products sold at big box retailers, as well as an award-winning animated series on Nickelodeon.
The number of women entrepreneurs has grown rapidly in the last decade, with 42% of U.S. businesses now owned by women, yet access to capital remains limited. In 2019, just 2.8% of all U.S. business investment went to startups run by women. Heitkamp’s success attracting $1.4 million in venture capital puts her in rarified air — and she credits UCI with making that happen.
Heitkamp enrolled in the Fully Employed MBA program at the Paul Merage School of Business in 2011, while she was running her own consulting business. Despite having hands-on experience launching new products for Red Bull, Vitamin Water and several startups, she says a sense of “incredible imposter syndrome” led her to seek an MBA.
“I loved the feeling of the Merage School,” Heitkamp says. “It has that startup energy, that you set your own path, and the school will support you.”
Heitkamp threw herself into coursework, learning about business strategy, accounting, digital marketing and organizational behavior. She says she uses the lessons and insights from her Merage School courses daily as CEO of Gengirl — whether she’s negotiating business deals or reading balance sheets.
Through the school’s mentorship program, Heitkamp met entrepreneur David Ochi ’97, MBA ’99, whose role in her life outlasted the one-year formal mentorship assignment. A decade later, he remains a trusted advisor to Heitkamp.
Like most entrepreneurs, Heitkamp didn’t succeed right out of the gate. She was eliminated in the first round of the New Venture Competition the first time she participated. Two years later, she returned with a new pitch that won the competition and $15,000 in seed funding.
The idea, developed with her sister Jenae, a child therapist, was to inspire young girls to see themselves as entrepreneurs or anything they wanted to be. The dolls in the Middle School Moguls line each have their own business interest, distinctive personality and diverse background.
“There are so many studies that show that kids gravitate toward entrepreneurship, and we wanted to put a name to that,” she says. “We wanted to show girls out there like us that they can be whatever they want, and that they can set a goal and realize that goal.”
With the initial seed funding, the sisters produced their first doll prototype and quit their jobs to move into an office space at UCI Beall Applied Innovation. After a Kickstarter campaign raised $52,000, the sisters started working closely with the Cove Fund, and advisors there got them a meeting with Target, which first put the dolls on shelves, and then Nickelodeon, which agreed to produce a TV show.
Middle School Moguls’ first season ran four episodes in 2019, each with more than 600,000 live viewers, making it the fourth most watched animated show on TV at the time. The show featured such recognizable voices as Jane Lynch playing the director of Mogul Academy and Tim Gunn as a professor, along with teen inspirations like Olympic gold medalist Laurie Hernandez and YouTube star JoJo Siwa providing student voices. With its emphasis on diversity and inclusion, and themes celebrating perseverance and hard work, the show won the Parents’ Choice Award and the Common Sense Media Family seal.
What’s next for the dolls and show remains shrouded in secrecy — for now. But Gengirl’s new line of personality quizzes and games, called Me Media, will appear in mass market stores this spring. In the next year or so, Heitkamp hopes to expand the brands to offer experiential education to kids.
“We want to see Middle School Moguls turn into an actual hands-on education in entrepreneurship, for all kids,” Heitkamp says.
While Gengirl’s brands aim to inspire young girls, Heitkamp regularly speaks to aspiring entrepreneurs, including at a recent visit to the Master of Innovation and Entrepreneurship program.
Breanna Hale, associate director of the Merage School’s Beall Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship says that Heitkamp’s ability to build a network of mentors and supporters across Southern California and abroad were key to her success.
“Gina was able to build a network of people who saw her vision and could support her through mentorship and introductions, which enabled her to continue growing her network,” says Hale.
“Moreover, she wasn’t afraid to make pivots to her business along the way, which showed great leadership and adaptability, which is something investors greatly value.”
Heitkamp says UCI played a critical role in supporting her success.
“We probably pitched 50 different times, and the only place we raised money was through UCI,” she says. “We met so many people on campus who saw how hard-working we were, who saw us through each step, and knew we were out there hustling. We finally found someone who could really champion our cause, thanks to UCI.”
For Heitkamp, that champion was investor John Kensey, who had worked at Mattel and understood the potential upsides of a popular doll brand like Barbie. She recommends that everyone try to network and find a true champion.
“Reach out to other women in your field,” she advises. “You’ll be surprised how much they’ll help. Sometimes women have a harder time asking for help, but that’s so important in entrepreneurship, to put yourself out there and not to be afraid to take risks.”