When Dr. Lisa Williams started out in academia, she never thought she'd publish children's books and create a successful multicultural doll line beloved by Oprah. The former educator shares her journey and best tips for other parents investing in their dreams.

By Maressa Brown
May 20, 2021
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Growing up with parents who always provided for her and her younger sister, Dr. Lisa Williams realized in college just how fortunate she had been. "While I had a scholarship that covered all of my room and board and expenses, I remember distinctly one day walking into the grocery store, and for the first time, I had to look at the grocery aisle and say, 'I can't afford that,'" she says. "And I had to start making choices about what I wasn't going to be able to have."

That was the first time Dr. Williams recalls realizing the value of money, feeling gratitude for everything she did have, and understanding the sacrifices that one might have to make when their income is limited. It was information she would continue to hold in mind as she pursued her education. Upon earning her doctorate in a marketing logistics program at Ohio State University, Dr. Williams became an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University and the Smeal College of Business.

She also became the first African American female to graduate with a Ph.D. in marketing and logistics, to receive tenure at Penn State University's College of Business, and to become the highest ranking person in her field of logistics regardless of gender or race. "Of course it's amazing to accomplish something that represents women or represents African Americans in such a positive light, but the bitter part of it is that it took so long for a woman to achieve these things," she notes.

By the time Dr. Williams was an assistant professor in her late 20s in 1995, she also found herself starting a new chapter as a mom. "With so many things in my life, I was a planner, and I wanted to plan motherhood," says Dr. Williams. "I wanted to make sure that my husband and I were financially stable and ready to bring in this new life in the world. But as life would have it, that didn't exactly happen."

Just months after her son was born, Dr. Williams found herself in the midst of a divorce. "That gave me a great deal of uncertainty, both in my life and the role of motherhood, as well as financially, because I didn't know how it was going to support this child," she says.

Thankfully, when her son was about 2, Dr. Williams' academic career took a turn toward publishing. She wrote a book about the factors that determine true success, incorporating interviews from people like the CEO of Walmart and executives at Sears. Walmart asked to carry it, and it sold well. Soon, the retailer circled back asking if she could write a line of children's books.

At the time, she thought, "No, I don't know anything about children's books. I teach MBAs and executives and Ph.D. students." But then she realized she could hire illustrators, authors, and create a publishing company rooted in her dedication to education and literacy. And so that's what Dr. Williams did with a special goal in mind. "I wanted to make sure that all children were represented, so we had African American children, Caucasian children, Latino children," she says.

The books did so well that Walmart asked for a line of dolls modeled after the characters in the book. Dr. Williams was hesitant at first, until she caught wind of a 2010 study that aimed to recreate the 1940s "Doll Test." That research, conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, was meant to measure how segregation affected African American children and found that Black children overwhelmingly preferred white dolls over brown. While that result wasn't exactly a surprise in the mid-20th century, the update had the same result.

"I was shocked when I heard the little Black girl say she wanted to play with the white doll, but I was heartbroken when she said why," recalls Dr. Williams. "She said because the Black doll skin was nasty. And then she touched her own hand [to] indicate that her skin was nasty too."

That's when she decided to call Walmart back and say she would start creating the dolls. At the same time, she was still juggling her teaching career. "I was stretched very thin," says Dr. Williams. She recalls driving to work one day crying, knowing it was time to make a change. "I saw that there was something greater for me to do," says Dr. Williams. "It was incredibly frightening because it was like walking on a tightrope, and there was nothing underneath me to catch me."

For the first time in her life, her intuition and passion led her to make a financial decision that wasn't "fully fleshed out." Although her financial advisor recommended that Dr. Williams stick with her academic career in order to continue to be set up for retirement, she decided to leave her professorship. "While I did have some savings, it was very minimal. So things were very tough. I had to use equity in my house. I had to use credit cards. I had to borrow from family and friends. I had to do a lot of things so that I could have the finances to actually build my company. And it was very uncertain," she says.

But Dr. Williams believed that strife was well worth it. "My dream then, as it is now, is to create a company that empowers children of all ages to see their beauty and their brilliance," says the former professor. "I want them to look at a doll and imagine what they can become."

Dr. Williams is now the head of the World of EPI (Entertainment, Publishing, and Inspiration), which released its first line of dolls, Positively Perfect Dolls, in 2009. Over the past decade, the collection has grown to over 65 dolls representing Black, brown, mixed, and blended children, and the PPD Collection is being distributed in domestic mass retail stores and in international markets. And in 2020, Oprah even chose the multicultural dolls as one of her "Favorite Things."

The business has enabled Dr. Williams to provide for her family, which now includes her second husband and a bonus son. "The company is now profitable," she says. "We are able to give to so many charities that help children in terms of their education, in terms of their health. We give to organizations that want to empower children."

Here are Dr. Williams' best tips for fellow moms-turned-entrepreneurs hoping to invest in themselves and their dreams.

You Can't Plan for Everything

"In our lives, there's always things that appear to be disjointed, but there's always a thread that we use through the mosaic," says Dr. Williams. Prior to having her son, she felt like she had everything planned out—especially finances. But divorce and single motherhood taught the former professor that you can't always know what's coming.

Don't Be Afraid to Take Risks

When she became an entrepreneur, Dr. Williams realized there would be surprise costs. "In one particular example, I had unexpected expenses of production and manufacturing a doll," she recalls. "I did not have any investors. So I used the equity in my home that my son and I lived in."

Unfortunately, the project didn't turn out as well as she would have planned, and she and her son ended up moving from her home into an apartment. Thankfully, the success and distribution of the doll line to a variety of retailers ultimately allowed Dr. Williams to rebuild financially.

Embrace Challenges as an Opportunity to Learn

Dr. Williams says that facing the challenges she did as a single mom taught her to be more protective of her finances. "I grew up with my mom and dad who took care of us financially," she says. "I never really had to think about money."

All her experiences, especially parenthood, helped Dr. Williams become more "fiercely strategic" about her finances. "I'm much more wiser, and I know money can be finite whereas when I was growing up, I thought money just flows," she says.

Trust Your Path

While Dr. Williams' academic career might appear "disjointed" from her entrepreneurial chapter at first glance, she now recognizes that being a professor was the first step in learning the value of representation. "I was being visible for students who look like me," she says. "And my presence was helping to educate people who did not look like me, so that they can understand and expand their perspective of what African Americans could do and could achieve."

Dr. Williams now realizes that theme is a thread carried from her professorship to her success with the World of EPI, noting, "Everything in my life led to this opportunity [to enter the toy industry] and me being able to stand up to say yes to it."