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Startup Spotlight: Little Rebels

Empowering children to learn about women in history through plush dolls.

Jun 20, 2024 · 7 Minute Read

Mother, chef, student, entrepreneur, and now founder and CEO of Little Rebels. Marjorie Spitalnik was born in Brazil and has lived in Uruguay for over 30 years. Her entrepreneurial journey began when her young daughter asked her to turn a drawing into something real, which Marjorie transformed into a plush doll. This led to the creation of ‘Tedybujo’ (‘I’ll Draw You’). She posted the plush doll online, and it went viral, inadvertently starting her first business. In 2016, she was selected by President Obama to join the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, spending a month and a half in the U.S. being trained by high-level CEOs.

This experience was pivotal for Marjorie, solidifying her commitment to entrepreneurship. She pursued a master’s degree in entrepreneurship for youth and children and received a scholarship to study at Columbia University in 2018. Midway through her studies, she conceived the idea for Little Rebels. Continue reading to discover her story creating and growing Little Rebels. 

Q: What was the initial spark or idea that led to the creation of Little Rebels? What did that process look like?

A: During ‘Tedybujo’, I realized the ‘one-drawing, one-plush’ model wasn’t scalable. I wanted to make a bigger impact… One day, while studying with my daughter, I noticed her books featured only men, no women. I searched online for ways to teach her about women in history but found limited resources. Knowing we learn best through play, I had an ‘aha’ moment: why not turn my plush dolls into famous women from history? This sparked the idea for Little Rebels.

The dolls were designed to look like relatable, cute Disney princesses, such as Elsa from ‘Frozen.’ The first sample I made was Frida Kahlo. Right before traveling to New York for my master’s at Columbia, a local Uruguayan newspaper featured me. I shared a picture of the Frida doll and, upon landing, found my phone exploded with messages, including one from the U.S. State Department asking if I had enough inventory for them to Tweet about it.

I was initially confused because ‘Tedybujo’ did not have inventory, it was one drawing, one plush. However, the article that originally was about a failed attempt as an entrepreneur, turned out to be a story about how I was launching a new toy line inspired by women in history, media inquiries and order requests flooded in. I proposed shifting my Columbia dissertation focus to Little Rebels, and within three months, developed a business plan and partnered with the Malala Foundation. Despite my mentor dismissing the plan as unviable, I secretly advanced Little Rebels while presenting a decoy plan for ‘Tedybujo’.

In January 2019, I presented both plans but even then I didn’t receive my diploma, leading to a deep depression that drove me to set the project aside. Then, in August 2019, I saw an ad from Women in Toys calling for ideas to pitch to big toy companies. I applied, was selected, and traveled to Dallas to meet with companies like Walmart and Hasbro. The feedback was amazing, but they wanted more educational content. So, we developed an app for the dolls in three months and won an award for best toy. This recognition led to our kickstarter campaign in March 2020, during the pandemic. Despite challenges, I successfully launched Little Rebels around September 2020.

Q: Could you describe some of the biggest challenges you faced as the founder of Little Rebels?

A: Starting Little Rebels has been a constant challenge, especially as a woman from Latin America entering the North American toy market, where I’m up against giants like Mattel. Plus, being a single mom and having to manage a business without a team, means I’ve had to wear all the hats.

However, the biggest challenge I would say, is funding. Everything I did since the beginning was 100 percent bootstrap. Every time I pitch, the fact that I’m a solo founder becomes a huge con for everybody. This bothered me because Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are solo founders and nobody ever questioned them. Why? Because they’re men. It bothers people to see that I am a woman launching a business by myself and I am crushing it. 

Q: What sets Little Rebels apart from others in the toy market? What unique value proposition do you offer?

A: We educate and empower the next generation of leaders—both girls and boys—by promoting equity. Unlike competitors like Barbie, who only dress as historical figures, our dolls resemble children, making them more relatable. They don’t have a specific body shape, ensuring that all children can connect with them. 

Our dolls come with a comprehensive educational suite—videos, an app, eBooks, augmented reality, and trivia—allowing children the tools to learn and feel inspired. You can even scan the dolls’ faces to access an interactive menu, a feature no other toy offers. 

Marjorie Spitlanik surrounded by Little Rebels productsMarjorie Spitlanik surrounded by Little Rebels

Q: What has been the most rewarding moment for you since starting Little Rebels?

A: Winning the Tagie Award, the Emmys of the toy industry, was a big one. We also received a nomination alongside Baby Yoda for the industry’s ‘Oscars,’ a true wow moment. Being recognized as one of the 100 most influential people in the toy industry was also a significant honor.

However, the most rewarding moments are personal. Parents have told me their children can’t sleep without my dolls or take them everywhere. One mother showed me a video of her daughter eagerly awaiting new doll releases to learn more. Another moment was when a friend’s daughter asked for another Marie Curie doll to give her friend so she could learn her story. These moments show that children are genuinely interested in the women represented by Little Rebels and are excited to share their stories. 

Q: What role do you see Little Rebels playing in the broader tech ecosystem in the next five years? 

A: The main goal with Little Rebels is to have at least one doll from every country and from each professional background. The idea is to demonstrate that it doesn’t matter where you come from, how old you are and what your background is, you can do whatever you set your mind to.

That said, in five years, I envision Little Rebels in every country, capturing the diversity of women worldwide. Additionally, we’re launching a TV show. Hopefully, by then, you’ll be decorating your entire room with Little Rebels, celebrating your love for their adventures.

Lastly, we plan to launch the Little Rebels Foundation to develop educational programs specifically for girls in various countries who lack access to education.

Q: Tell us about your journey with Mana Tech. What was your experience in the accelerator program? 

A: Mana Tech was an unexpected surprise. Initially, I wasn’t sure if it was for me since I’m already in the U.S. and have been part of many accelerators. Since I’m always eager to learn, I decided to join. The experience exceeded my expectations—the learning, sharing, networking, and support were exceptional, not just during the week in Miami but throughout the entire program.

Through Mana Tech, I secured a deal to distribute Little Rebels worldwide and will be traveling to Brazil to speak about my journey. Additionally, another founder, Caetano Altafin from Woof, chose to invest, providing both financial backing and invaluable knowledge. His support for my story and Little Rebels’ mission means the world to me. I’m extremely grateful for the mentors and the incredible opportunities I have experienced thanks to Mana Tech.

Q: As a Latina founder, what do you think about Miami becoming the next tech hub? How do you feel about being part of this ever growing tech community?

A: I never viewed Miami as a tech hub, but more for tourism. However, when I was there, I was surprised by its collaborative entrepreneur scene, not limited to tech. The atmosphere is very Latin, unlike my earlier U.S. experiences where people often charged for introductions. In Miami, founders freely share advice and connections, creating a supporting community.

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