Guardian of the Barbie galaxy

issue 01 | winter 2024
Lisa McKnight

As she walked the pink carpet at the Los Angeles premiere of Barbie, Lisa Stewart McKnight ’90 knew the photographers and adoring fans hadn’t come to see her.

They were there for Greta Gerwig, the writer and director who took a concept for a movie and transformed it into a cultural phenomenon. They were there for Margot Robbie, the producer and actress who brought a plastic doll to life with radiance, whimsy, and flat-footed vulnerability.

But as McKnight and her husband, Bill ’90, soaked in the Hollywood glitz, the Mattel executive percolated with pride. It was a full-circle moment in the life of a second-generation Denisonian.

Few among the pink-clad fans assembled for the premier understood that if not for McKnight and her team’s work, Barbie never gets made.

As a child, McKnight played Barbies with her younger sister, Jessica, on the floors of their parents’ San Francisco home. Armed with Malibu Barbie and the Barbie Dream Camper, she imagined herself on the beaches of Southern California, far removed from the Bay Area fog.

As an adult, McKnight and her team at Mattel rehabilitated the image of Barbie, who was losing cultural relevance and becoming a symbol of toxic gender norms. For the past decade, they’ve championed inclusion in all shapes and sizes, turning Barbie into the world’s most diverse doll line.

Surrounded by family, McKnight was consumed with emotions as the theater darkened and the screen filled with the idyllic Barbie Land images she had pictured in her youth.

“There were tears of exhaustion and then tears of joy when we finally got the movie out, and we started to hear the reaction,” said McKnight, executive vice president and chief brand officer for Mattel.

She’s been riding the tail of a cinematic comet since work on the movie and its script began, providing insight to creators about the brand’s history and values. The payoff has been immense.

In its first three months, Barbie became one of the 15 highest-grossing motion pictures of all time.

“The validation has been incredible, but the journey has been unimaginable with all the collaboration,” McKnight said. “Then, you get this reward that beats all expectations. It’s like no other feeling in the world.”

Bright light

Amy Christensen Curby ’90 met McKnight during Rush Week of their first year on The Hill. They became Kappa Kappa Gamma sisters and lifelong friends.

At the time, Curby could not predict McKnight’s career arc, but the “bright light” of her persona was inescapable. Curby recognized the leadership qualities and organization skills that McKnight eventually would take to Mattel and breathe life back into the Barbie brand.

“People are drawn to Lisa,” Curby said. “She has a way of gathering people around her and making them listen. She’s well-spoken and mature, and she values what others have to say.”

McKnight followed the collegiate path of her father, John Kennedy Stewart ’61, a former San Francisco Superior Court judge. Dad put Denison on McKnight’s radar but allowed his daughter to make her own decision.

“You never want to do what your parents do, but I toured the campus twice,” said McKnight, who majored in history and mass media. “On my second tour, I took a friend with me. I met a bunch of kids, and it was really the people and students who excited me.”

McKnight credits Denison for making her a critical thinker and a problem solver, skills transferable to any line of work. She also became more curious about the world during her time on campus. She was exposed to students from an array of backgrounds, and this experience proved invaluable as she began to lead teams in the corporate world.

“It’s taught me to get multiple perspectives, to have discussions and debates that are respectful,” McKnight said.

She became an account executive for FCB Global, a marketing communications company, and a director of marketing for The Gap before starting her climb up the Mattel ladder in 1998.

McKnight made plenty of friends at Denison — and married one of them. While they never dated in college, Lisa and Bill ran in the same circles.

They reconnected in San Francisco at a 1994 Christmas party and wed four years later. The couple has two daughters.

“Lisa always had this ability to create friendships and network with other people,” said Bill McKnight, senior vice president of product management and technology at RealtyMogul. “She’s quick-witted and intelligent, and she’s not afraid to take risks, which has really benefited her at Mattel. I’m incredibly proud.”

Getting the message

By 2016, the woman who grew up playing Barbies with her sister had become the guardian of the brand. The promotion to senior vice president and general manager of Barbie was both exhilarating and sobering.

Playtime was over. Sales were declining, and the feedback from focus groups was withering. Millennial parents were becoming more involved in the purchase decisions of their children, McKnight said, and they no longer saw their values reflected in the iconic doll.

“They didn’t see Barbie as a role model,” McKnight recalled. “But the worst feedback we heard was when parents said they didn’t feel good about giving Barbie as a birthday present at parties for their kids’ friends. That’s a real sign and a signal that we had a huge issue to overcome.”

McKnight and her team began the Barbie rebrand by returning to the root of its success in the 1950s, a time when women still could not cash checks or open a bank account. Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler, inspired by her daughter, Barbara, created a doll McKnight labels “the original girl empowerment brand.”

“Ruth wanted her daughter to have as many choices as her son,” McKnight said. “She wanted to create a doll that inspired her daughter to dream big and to imagine that she could be anything. That’s the message we wanted to deliver to parents.”

Three major pillars drove brand resurgence: a focus on diversity and inclusivity, an emphasis on girl empowerment, and the creation of a product line that reinforced inspiring messages.

Mattel began producing dolls with a variety of skin tones, body types, eye colors, hairstyles, and hair fibers. It launched an “Inspiring Women Line” that celebrated the likes of poet Maya Angelou, astronaut Sally Ride, and tennis trailblazer Billie Jean King.

The doll is now cast in more than 250 careers, including the 2023 introduction of a sports line featuring Barbie as a general manager, coach, referee, and reporter.

“We use these dolls as ways to reinforce Barbie’s positioning around empowerment,” McKnight said, “but also to encourage girls to understand if you can see it, you can be it.”

‘Very rewarding’

There have been awards and corporate promotions over the past two years, and media requests asking McKnight about the Barbie renaissance.

Sometimes, however, the most gratifying recognition comes in less public forums.

“I’ve received so many letters and texts from college-age and young working women about how inspired they were about the movie,” McKnight said. “To feel I’m making a contribution — especially with younger women who are starting out in their lives and their careers — is very rewarding.”

The movie’s release coincided with the Beyoncé and Taylor Swift tours, turning the summer of 2023 into a celebration of women’s power.

Mattel, the world’s leading toymaker, has promoted McKnight twice in the past two years. She’s essentially been working two jobs, overseeing the company brands and assisting movie makers to ensure authenticity and accuracy.

Almost every movie review mentions Mattel’s willingness to allow Gerwig and Robbie the freedom to take a few jabs at the company for comedic effect.

“I was very vocal about the scene in the middle school where the daughter, Sasha, takes down Barbie,” McKnight recalled. “That hurt me. But after a lot of discussion, I appreciated why it needed to happen in the film. Barbie has many fans, but there’s truth in the fact that she can be polarizing.

“At the end of the day, it showed we were confident in where we are today and that we had built a strong foundation around the brand, which helped us be bold around this approach.”

In the fall of 2023, McKnight was honored with the Women In Toys Licensing and Entertainment Trailblazer Award.

Individual recognition aside, McKnight never misses an opportunity to mention the contributions of her team and fellow Mattel executives.

She’s also taken her friends along for the ride, inviting them to Los Angeles to watch the movie together on the same weekend as the premiere.

“Lisa is not a power-hungry person,” said Curby, one of her friends who received an invitation. “Success has not changed her at all.”

Barbie has grossed more than $1.4 billion in ticket sales.

McKnight is now in charge of all Mattel brands and will be involved in other movie projects.

“I’ve gone from the pink fire hose of Barbie to the red Mattel water cannon, but it’s been a thrill,” she said laughing.

As Barbie prepares to turn 65, McKnight is proud of how far Mattel and the doll have come since parents expressed their reluctance to buy it as a gift for others.

“We had to do so much work to modernize and evolve the brand to be where we are today,” McKnight said. “That was led by a lot of people. Timing is everything — and this is our time.”

Published December 2023
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