Photo Credit: Nickelodeon

By Mary Ellen Holden

Going back-to-school is exciting when you are empowered to take charge and design your future. To inspire kids, Nickelodeon is premiering Middle School Moguls, a new four-part CG-animated series of half-hour specials to kick off the school year with lessons in entrepreneurship. This limited series, which yields maximum impact, will debut at 11 a.m. ET/PT on Sunday, September 8th.

The weekly series follows four girls with diverse abilities, aspirations, and origins as they attend the Mogul Academy and test their business acumen, imagination and perseverance to build their own companies. They face real-world challenges that require them to think out of the box to make their entrepreneurial dreams a reality. The premise of the series is as unique as its creators who pull from their own experiences to encourage the next generation to follow their dreams. I had the pleasure of interviewing Gina and Jenae Heitkamp, Founders of Gengirl Media, Inc. and Co-Creators and Executive Producers of Middle School Moguls to get an inside look at the vision behind the series and why representation in children’s programming matters.

Mary Ellen Holden: Why did you create Gengirl Media, Inc. together?

Gina & Jenae Heitkamp
Photo credit: Lisa Rose

Gina Heitkamp: As sisters, Jenae and I grew up with big dreams in a working-class neighborhood. We weren’t exposed to many women who ran businesses. It wasn’t until graduate school, that we started to see this kind of entrepreneurial mindset. It was then that the idea of starting Gengirl Media, and creating Middle School Moguls came to fruition. We wanted to show kids all over the country that no matter your background, being your own boss is attainable.

Jenae Heitkamp: Once we created Gengirl Media, we realized that there weren’t a lot of female-led companies creating toys and content for girls. The first time it clicked for us that we were unique as a female-led company, was when we entered a business plan competition in 2014. We won and discovered that we were the first female team to ever win the competition. That set us apart.

Mary Ellen: Middle School Moguls supports the notion that entrepreneurial businesses can change the world for the better. Why is that message so important?

Jenae: We want kids to know that businesses can be a force for good and can advocate for people around the globe. Kids are seeing entrepreneurs invent products that can increase one’s quality of life and some businesses are giving back to environmental causes or under-served communities. We want that message reflected in the show as it resonates with our target market, with Nickelodeon and with us. We are confident it will connect with audiences.

Mary Ellen: What prompted you to work with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media as a consultant?

Gina: We have been members and huge fans of the Institute for a long time. When we developed the concept of Middle School Moguls (five years ago) the first thing we did was look for research and found the Institute’s website. We followed its newsletters and updates. We reached out to Madeline (Di Nonno) before we launched our doll line and she was super helpful.

Our first in-person interaction with Madeline was at one of the Institute’s Global Symposiums which we attended with our Nickelodeon executive. Nickelodeon then reached out to the Institute and brought them on as consultants.

Jenae: Our goal was to create characters that were aspirational and unstereotyped. As a child therapist, I knew that kids assign gender identity to careers around the ages of 5-7 and with the Institute’s guidance we avoided bringing harmful stereotypes into the marketplace.

Gina: Throughout our relationship, the Institute provided a treasure trove of research; exactly what we needed. We went to them for everything from female representation in media and careers to insights on cultural and ethnic authenticity.

Mary Ellen: Can you share an example of how its research-informed your work?

Jenae: They consulted on cultural backgrounds as our characters have diverse multi-cultural origins. Based on a recommendation from the Institute, we changed the name of one of the main characters to Valeria as it was more authentic to Venezuela, the country of her origin. We also modified the Haitian accent of another character to be more accurate. Our contacts provided great discernment between cultural inclusion versus stereotypes. We worked together from scripting and storyboards through production. It was great to have that second set of eyes to preserve the integrity of diverse onscreen representation.

Gina: There were other times where they advised on relationships. One example where the Institute helped was that there was a character who was acting sassy towards her parents. In the writer’s room, this can seem funny but when observed from a different perspective, the dynamics of the relationship completely changed. As another example, while we wanted the series to be about the girls and their journey, the Institute gave us affirmation that we handled a school “crush” dynamic authentically. Positive reinforcement is equally important to critical advice. It’s a lot easier to send the series out into the world when you have that confidence!

Mary Ellen: Why do you think diversity and inclusion are so important in children’s programming?

Gina: Numerous studies show how media plays an important role in children’s identity, development and confidence. Beyond the studies, we always wanted to create positive characters that show diverse representation – we want our viewers to find a character that they can relate to and be inspired by.

Jenae: On a personal level our own family, marriages, and children are all so culturally and religiously diverse. It would feel disingenuous not to put that into our show. Nickelodeon gave us the freedom to have characters that were amazing – and, different. They believed in the vision and gave us the green light.

Mary Ellen: What do you see as the future of children’s storytelling?

Jenae: It’s becoming more child-led. Creators and companies are following their trends and interests, so they have a stronger voice in the stories they want to hear. That goes back to representation as they want to see themselves and their families in the media and I believe this is driving the needed change.

Gina: I see a future for showing inspirational characters in the real world. I think we’ll see that trend increase because kids want to see people in and out of their daily lives doing exciting things, like what we show in Middle School Moguls. We have an amazing creative team at Nickelodeon and we’re all striving for realistic, imaginative and relatable programming.

Mary Ellen: What advice do you have for female creators entering this industry?

Gina: Never give up. We heard so many “no’s” throughout the years; but, when someone tells us no, we just tell ourselves that we weren’t talking to the right person and we keep going. We know there are lots of creators out there with important, relevant stories to tell and we just hope the perseverance is there to get the stories into the world.

Jenae: Belief in your project. It’s about getting the message and story out there and being open to the paths that are available to you. For example, Middle School Moguls was a book, then it was a doll and now it’s an animated series.

Mary Ellen: Is there anything you’d like our audience to know about your Company?

Gina: Middle School Moguls was our first baby and it will always be our number one priority. But, we have a variety of projects in the works and hope to continue this journey by getting other inspirational media out in the world.

Jenae: We’re excited and we’re proud of the way Middle School Moguls turned out. An inspiration behind our company is my three daughters. Now they can watch the show, be empowered and be excited about the final product.

Note: The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media extends a very special thank you to its expert multicultural consulting team: Chris Choi, Ph.D., Katy Fernández-Pardal and Madison Berdard.

Photo Credit: Nickelodeon

Close-Up with Kelley Gardner – Vice President, Current Series Animation, Nickelodeon

Mary Ellen Holden: What was it about the Middle School Moguls doll line and book for Target (formally known as iBesties) and its creators that made the property attractive to the Nickelodeon brand?

Kelley Gardner: The brand and creators align with core Nickelodeon values. Middle School Moguls has a diverse set of characters, it has a kid POV, and it’s all about kid empowerment. The story of how Gina and Jenae started the brand also resonated with us as a company. We love the idea that these two sisters are so entrepreneurial themselves and you can see that they’ve imbued the property with that same spirit.

Mary Ellen: Nickelodeon has a legacy of diversity and inclusion. How does Middle School Moguls embody that spirit?

Kelley: We know that kids want to see themselves reflected on screen. To that end, we worked with consultants of diverse backgrounds to collaborate with our creative team to make sure that the world we were building felt authentically diverse. In the series, the main characters all come from different types of families and cultural backgrounds, and we also celebrate body positivity.

Mary Ellen: What do you see as the future of onscreen children’s storytelling? Why?

Kelley: It’s wide open! There are so many new networks and streaming platforms that there’s an opportunity to tell many different types of stories in the kids and family space. I think we’ll see more shows like Middle School Moguls that feature girl empowerment, as well as more authentic representation in stories about kids from diverse cultures and backgrounds, and more genre storytelling for kids and serialized content.