Canadian Creatives | Ilana Ben-Ari of Twenty One Toys: Design Meets Empathy

This episode of Canadian Creatives features Ilana Ben-Ari, the Founder and Lead Designer at Twenty One Toys.

What is your background?

I was born in Israel, raised in Winnipeg. I studied in Ottawa and I know work in Toronto, Ontario. I studied industrial design at Carleton University in Ottawa. I studied bachelor’s there and then I worked as a industrial designer for a number of years before starting my own design company.

How did you end up in the toy business?

I studied industrial design which isn’t exactly toys, but my thesis in school was to navigate for the visually impaired, which is now known as the empathy toy. That project went really well, the toy won a number of awards and now I am considered a toy designer, although I have worked as a furniture designer as well as a lighting designer.

How has Canadian design influenced you?

My first design internship was in Winnipeg with a company called Plastic Buddha, and they made crazy, out there designs. That was my first experience with a design studio that was only on emotional design, so everything was a bit cheeky and had a social commentary to it. In terms of design in Canada, after graduating, I worked in lighting design, and then I struggled to find meaning again, because design has so much to offer in the social realm, so I ended up going overseas and working in the UK, and then in Finland, and came back to Canada. I found this incredible community of designers as well as social entrepreneurs in Toronto. My gateway into that community was the centre of social innovation of Toronto, and it’s just this vibrate community of people from non-profit charities to for-profit social businesses. There is a amazing design company, where they know that design isn’t just a product, it’s about the way of thinking, the way of looking at the world.

Ilana Ben-Ari on Canadian Creatives

Tell us about Twenty One Toys, and your products.

Twenty One Toys is a small Toronto startup. We design and manufacture toys that challenge the skills that we are teaching in the schools and skills we are looking for now in work forces. The toys are looking at the 21st century skills like creativity, collaboration and innovation, but we boil them down to specific skills. Our first toy is an empathy toy, and we are also working on a failure toy, toys that are looking at the softer skills that are involved in our education and learning.

The Empathy Toy

What is your biggest struggle as a social entrepreneur?

We just wrapped up a Kickstarter campaign. We were asking for $45,000 so we could put in our first order for a thousand toy sets. We finished the campaign with almost $53,000, which was great. Obviously, we were hoping for this insane amount of pledges, but I think what we were trying to do is really strange. Kickstarter tends to be for high-tech products, it’s not normally for expensive, high quality products. We were trying to sell something that was both higher, in terms of retail, price wise, and we also have a niche market, which is parents and educators, and it wasn’t a high-tech product. We had a lot of challenges ahead of us. We did get some collestation beforehand. Most people we talked to said that’s crazy, don’t do it, it’s going to be too hard, even finding that community, explaining Kickstarter to that community is going to be a challenge, and they were right, except for the part we had went ahead with it, and I’m really happy that it succeeded.

I think it succeeded because of the combination of things. Obviously, we worked tirelessly. Our team at that time is incredibly dedicated, we put in very long hours. Normally, we told told to prepare four months in advance, we had two weeks.To come up with th messaging, we can up with a storyboard, worked with a videograpgher to make the video, ad then just the copy, the messaging, getting out to press. I know it’s an incredibly huge project, it was all we worked on for that month. I think that contributed to the success of it , and also it was the first time we asked our communities for anything.

For more about Ilana and her startup, visit

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