20 July 2023 |

Barbie’s Revival: Unboxed Lessons For Fintech Leaders


At first glance, the upcoming Barbie movie may seem disconnected from the world of fintech. But, upon further inspection, I discovered valuable lessons that fintech innovators could learn from the revival of the iconic and sometimes controversial doll.

For over 60 years, Barbie has been a symbol of independent womanhood – she even had her own Dreamhouse since 1962 when women were routinely denied mortgages and credit cards.

But Barbie has also represented the societal perspective of male dominance imposed on numerous young girls as a role model to emulate. Barbie comes in a box designed to help young girls think far outside of the box that society has placed them in—a constant contradiction. 

Working in the fintech industry can feel like we’re stuck in a box, too. We can feel torn between the drive to use fintech for good and the capitalist, profit-centric business models we’re forced to innovate. I’d argue, the two goals of fintech for people and profits are interconnected.

But from a cultural relevancy standpoint, we’re either viewed as the innovative disruptors of traditional finance, here to make financial services accessible to all, or a perpetrator of toxic capitalism and systemic inequity that has been foundational in building our financial services system. 

And just like Barbie’s perfect world shatters when confronted with human realities like death and physical imperfections in the movie, the conventional financial system has failed the 99%, forcing us to acknowledge the inequity that has resulted in the oft-repeated fact that “the average American lacks $500 for emergencies.

So, what if Barbie’s revival reflects how hard — but worth it — it is to build on top of the traditional financial system? What can we, as builders, innovators, and investors, learn from a product that is both empowering and disempowering simultaneously?

Let’s dive in.

The Woman Behind Barbie

Ruth Handler was eavesdropping on her daughter, Barbara, playing with paper dolls when she came up with the idea of Barbie. Handler realized there was an unfilled niche for toys that let girls explore and imagine the future instead of dolls that make them practice motherhood.

Handler and her husband, Elliot, were already running their toy company Mattel, founded in their California garage in 1945. 

At the American International Toy Fair in New York City on March 9, 1959, Mattel unveiled Barbie – standing at 11.5 inches tall, Barbie sported a sleek ponytail, stylish swimsuit, and accessories. 

In its first year, Mattel sold 300,000 Barbie dolls. The first Barbie doll sold for $3.00, but a mint condition #1 doll can fetch more than $25,000 today.

Barbie quickly became a household name and captured young girls’ hearts worldwide. However, it wasn’t long before criticism started to surface, with many physicians raising concerns about the effects of Barbie on body dysmorphia. 

People began to see Barbie as shallow, materialistic, and too perfect to reflect the real world, and it wasn’t long before sales started to decline.

A psychological study even found that girls had lower confidence in their abilities to pursue various careers after playing with Barbies. Barbie’s success story may have started strong, but it didn’t take long for her to lose relevancy.

Handler and Mattel pushed forward, recognizing the transformative power of play. They introduced new careers and expanded Barbie’s product portfolio, emphasizing that playing with Barbie allows girls to imagine and become anything they desire

Barbie has had over 250 careers in her nearly 65-year lifetime. She went to the moon in 1965, four years before Neil Armstrong. Since then, she has been everything from a doctor to a paleontologist to a rock star to a computer engineer. Barbie first ran for president in 1992 and has hit the campaign trail at least seven times since. 

To push further for cultural relevancy, Mattel started incorporating diversity and inclusivity. 

While there had been other African American dolls in the Barbie collection before—including Barbie’s friend Christie, first introduced in 1968—an official African American Barbie wasn’t created until 1980, alongside a Latina Barbie. That same year saw the first of more than 40 different international Barbies released to date.

To address longtime criticism that Barbie dolls did not accurately reflect the diversity of the modern woman, Mattel in 2016 introduced Barbie Fashionistas. They came in four body types, seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles. 

In 2018, Mattel released a new “Inspiring Women” collection that features three ground-breaking, history-making women—Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo and Katherine Johnson.

As Mattel evolved, it was clear that the world had changed along with it. The age of corporate feminism, girl bosses and girl power had softened the critique of Barbie’s second-wave image; now, feminists could look however they wanted, and some even chose to look like the iconic blonde doll. 

Barbie still sells by the hundreds, but now her image is inclusive and aspirational. She has even been featured in animated shorts to encourage young girls to be more confident and to stop overapologizing. 

Barbie has made it clear that being high-femme is something to be embraced.

The Women Behind Barbie’s Return

When Mattel announced plans for a Barbie movie, I was admittedly skeptical. However, when I discovered the female-led team behind the project, which included Greta Gerwig as the director and writer, Sarah Greenwood in charge of production design, and Jacqueline Durran handling costumes, my anticipation for the movie began to build. 

Rumblings of the film began in 2009, but when Margot Robbie and her production company, Lucky Chap, stepped in to produce the movie, it started to take shape. 

Following this, Greta Gerwig was announced as the film’s director in July 2021. With her acclaimed indie credentials, feminist principles, and multiple Oscar nominations, Greta is seemingly the perfect fit to take on the challenge of revitalizing the iconic Barbie. 

Despite being a pink-tinted summer blockbuster, Greta also acknowledges the associated baggage of Barbie while unapologetically selling it. She shows us that modern womanhood is the perpetual experience of not meeting someone’s standards, including your own — and chose to flip the narrative

She said, “If Barbie has been a symbol of all the ways we’re not enough, the only thing that made sense to me to tackle in the movie was: How could we turn it to be enough?” 

With the movie projected to earn over $100 million in its opening weekend, Greta is well poised to score the biggest domestic opening for a solo female director in history. 

She took the risk and followed her creative intuition – and it’s paying off

What Can We Learn? 

Just as Barbie transcended societal expectations, her journey inspires us to challenge norms, embrace change, and pursue ambitions fearlessly. 

Her legacy is a testament to the transformative power of innovation, empowerment, and the indomitable spirit of female entrepreneurs like Ruth, Margot, Issa Rae, and Greta in shaping industries and inspiring future generations. 

If there are a few takeaways to jot down, it’s this: 

1. Embrace Disruption, Push Boundaries: As Barbie’s upcoming movie cements her relevance, fintech innovators should draw inspiration from Ruth Handler and Greta Gerwig’s disruptive spirits. Challenge traditional finance norms, break barriers, and dare to explore new frontiers. Innovation thrives when we step outside our comfort zone.

2. Know Your Customers, Balance Profitability and Purpose: Like Barbie reflected the dreams of young girls, fintech founders must deeply understand their target market. Develop solutions that meet customer needs and goals while balancing profitability and purpose. Remember, a successful business caters to actual demands!

3. Be Resilient, Forge Alliances: Like Barbie’s creation, the entrepreneurial journey comes with setbacks. But resilience and persistence are the keys to success. Learn from failures, strengthen, and forge strategic alliances within the fintech ecosystem. Networking opens doors to unforeseen opportunities and meaningful connections that fuel growth.

4. Embrace Diversity and Inclusion: Just as Barbie promoted diverse roles, foster a team and solutions that embrace diversity and inclusion. Different perspectives lead to innovative ideas and solutions that resonate with a broad customer base. Create an environment where everyone feels valued and heard – it’s the pathway to inclusive success!

By following these lessons from the history of Barbie, we fintech leaders can revolutionize the industry and create products that reshape financial well-being for the better. 

So don’t be afraid to think outside the box – as the women that brought Barbie back to cultural relevancy certainly did.