Growing up in Charlestown, Janna Eaves aspired to be an actress, or perhaps a biologist. It wasn’t until her senior year at Chariho High School, in the midst of filling out college applications, that she decided on a different career path: engineering.
“I wanted to be directly involved with changing the world, instead of just studying it, or recreating it,” said Eaves, who is about to begin her senior year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she is majoring in materials science and engineering.
In the four years since she had this epiphany, Eaves has turned her aspirations into a reality, co-founding Miss Possible, a toy company aimed at empowering young girls and helping them find their own paths to making a difference in the world.
Miss Possible, founded by Eaves and 2014 University of Illinois grad Supriya Hobbs, has created a series of dolls based on historic women role models, each with a corresponding online app that provides hands-on activities and games relating to the doll’s field.
The idea began as a brainstorming session between Hobbs and Eaves during their time living on-campus at the University of Illinois, in a section of housing specifically for students interested in innovation and entrepreneurship. “We began to notice and ask ourselves, ‘why aren’t there more girls in engineering?’” Eaves said.
“What we found was that there aren’t a lot of role models for girls. Boys grow up seeing scientists, presidents and successful businessmen as role models. But for girls, it might be princesses and fairies.”
Eaves noted that female role models remain noticeably absent from the mainstream media, but her own childhood was filled with strong leaders, including her great-aunt Elsie, the first woman member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Her mother, Holly Eaves, is a mathematics teacher and her father, Stephen Eaves, is the CEO of a start-up electrical technology company.
“At Christmas time, along with hanging ornaments on the trees, we would use my dad’s old circuit boards,” Eaves said, recalling her dad’s frequent use of their home basement for his innovations.
To her own credit, her father said, Janna has always had something of an entrepreneurial spirit.
“It’s been very exciting, very impressive,” he said. “And she’s done it at such a young age. I didn’t start down that path until I was much older.”
As a student in the Chariho school district, Janna Eaves also encountered inspiring teachers and faculty, most notably her high school Advanced Placement Chemistry teacher, Lori Kilmartin.
“She was the first one that made me realize that this could be a career for me, not just a class,” Eaves said of Kilmartin.
Providing strong female role models became the goal of Miss Possible, which launched a crowd-funding campaign on July 14 to raise $75,000 for the first round of manufacturing for dolls depicting Marie Curie, who in the early 1900s became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. Since then, the company has raised about $27,000 from over 400 funders, including more than 250 pre-orders for the dolls, according to Eaves.
The process from a fledgling idea to a company with a website and manufacturing campaign was not without challenges. After coming up with the idea, Eaves explained that she and Hobbs “sat on it” for a while before taking action.
The two tested out their idea by participating in the Cozad New Venture Competition at their school. The feedback they received from competition judges, combined with a trip to Silicon Valley in January, provided the final push for the two to start their own company.
After returning from the trip, they expanded their team to include several other members, for a total of nine employees.
“Recognizing that Janna and I alone didn’t have all the skills we needed to start a company was huge,” Hobbs said. “It was such an overwhelming amount of information that we need to gain. There’s so much to learn.”
The two also reached out to parents, educators, children and toy stores for additional feedback. One major change resulting from their conversations with parents, Eaves said, was to make the educational games based on hands-on activities, instead of on an online device.
“Parents didn’t want their kids spending any more time in front of screens,” Eaves said. “And the types of girls that we’re targeting with this, they’re do-ers, they want to be actively engaged.”
While each dolls still has an online application, its purpose is merely to serve as a guide for girls to perform physical activities and learning experiments, all of which can be done with basic household items.
With Marie Curie, for example, activities include making a compass out of a magnet, paper clip and bowl of water, or showing a chemical reaction by creating “slime” with laundry detergent.
Each of the dolls was chosen by Eaves and Hobbs based on their fields of expertise and their personal stories.
“Marie Curie has a really great story,” Hobbs said, noting that the Polish native was not allowed to attend school due to gender and culture norms at the time, and was largely self-taught.
“To go from that to being one of the most renowned female chemists is just incredible.”
The next two dolls scheduled for production are Bessie Coleman, the first female African-American pilot, and Ada Lovelace, a 19th century mathematician and writer with influential programming contributions to early computer models.
Though the company has only developed dolls based on these three women, Eaves and Hobbs hope to create prototypes for additional characters as their business grows, including those in other fields such as business, politics and writing.
“We want girls to see that they can do whatever they want to do, as long as they’re passionate about it,” Eaves said.
To pre-order a doll, or learn more about the company, visit bemisspossible.com.
Each doll costs $45, and the first shipment is expected to be ready by January 2015.