WELLESLEY, MASSACHUSETTS - When Jennifer Pierre visits the toy store, she sees shelves of dolls that are mostly girls and mostly white. She wants to change that.
Pierre, who's finishing a master's degree in entrepreneurship at Babson College, is launching a new line of dolls designed for boys of color. One is meant to look like an African American boy, with curly natural hair. One is Indian American. Another is biracial.
The goal is to give boys of all races a doll that looks like them, and that they can be proud of. Her new company is called Melanites, a reference to melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color.
"We're a toy company, but we're trying to become a whole brand that celebrates brown boyhood,'' said Pierre, 23, of Pompano Beach, Florida. " I want it to be normal for a kid to go into the aisle and see themselves on the shelf.''
For now, Pierre is taking orders while she tries to raise $35,000 to manufacture the first dolls. She hopes to have the first batch delivered by Christmas and sell them online and in specialty stores afterward.
The first prototype is an 18-inch doll named Jaylen, designed to look like a young black boy. It's made of plastic, with limbs that can bend and twist like a big action figure. To boost appeal for boys, Pierre plans to advertise them as "action pals,'' not dolls.
But part of her goal is to erode the idea that dolls are for girls. She wants to blur gender lines in the toy industry, and to move away from action figures that depict men with guns and big muscles.
"Parents are tired of the pink aisle and the blue aisle,'' Pierre said. " They want something they can give to their sons to teach them empathy, or to inspire them.''
Each doll is meant to have its own personality. Jaylen is an inventor. Aiden, who's biracial, likes to tinker. Marquis, of Caribbean American heritage, is a performer. Pierre plans to sell story books that take the characters on missions as astronauts, for example, or archaeologists.
The idea struck Pierre while she was working at a community center in Florida before moving to Massachusetts. Time after time, she heard boys say they wanted to become rappers or basketball stars, not doctors, lawyers or engineers.
"It's not because that doesn't happen, but because they don't see it in their community,'' she said. "I wanted to change that and give them different options, because you can't be what you can't see.''
Her idea reflects broader shifts in the toy industry, experts say. More companies are blending science lessons into their toys, and adding diversity of all types. Hasbro now makes toy guns for girls. Another brand, Guy Gear, sells crafting kits for boys.
"This is where our world is going and we want to make sure we're addressing those needs,'' said Ken Seiter, vice president of marketing communications for the Toy Industry Association in New York.
In a focus group, 4-year-old Zion Dawson tested the Jaylen prototype while his mom, Bernette, watched. He was fascinated by the idea of a toy that looked like him, his mother said.
"It's a positive influence,'' said Dawson, of Boston's Mattapan neighborhood. "There's a lot of girl empowerment with different girl dolls; why can't my son have that same experience?''
Despite old stereotypes, some research suggests that it's normal for boys to play with dolls. A 2013 study at Australia's Western Sydney University found that baby boys preferred playing with dolls over toy cars or other machines.
Soon after Zion tested the Jaylen doll, his mom submitted an early order to buy one. But Dawson admits that even she used to think dolls were strictly for girls.
" At one point in my life, I was against young boys playing with dolls,'' Dawson said. "But I think as society has evolved and I have evolved as a parent, I'm more open to it.''