IOWA Alumni Magazine | June 2015

Dawn Bowlus

Dawn Bowlus
PHOTO: Michael Noble Jr./Cedar Rapids Gazette

When American Girl needed expert advice to create a story for its next Girl of the Year, the popular toy manufacturer turned to Iowa alumna Dawn Bowlus.

As director of the UI's Jacobson Institute for Youth Entrepreneurship, Bowlus helped American Girl develop a young entrepreneur character for its signature doll. Says Bowlus, 09MBA, of the high-profile opportunity, "Our number one goal is to engage young people in thinking like an entrepreneur and what better way to do that than through play?"

The American Girl company specializes in creating 18-inch dolls of diverse ethnicities and experiences, whose uplifting stories are told through accompanying books. Bowlus made headlines in the Wall Street Journal this February as a consultant for the three-book series and curriculum surrounding Grace Thomas—a nine-year-old starting her own French pastry business.

Though the Grace Thomas doll debuted this year, Bowlus began working with American Girl one-and-a-half years ago to create a story that would be educational, realistic, and inspirational. Bowlus researched all of the requirements Thomas would face in launching her bakery business, from managing finances to working in a team. Adapting a curriculum that the Jacobson Institute uses with elementary and middle school students, Bowlus also designed a free learning guide available on the American Girl website (, where children can use Thomas's story to explore their own entrepreneurial interests.

Why did American Girl contact Bowlus?

Bowlus has built the Jacobson Institute ( into a nationally recognized leader for helping K-12 teachers cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset in their students. The center offers innovative classroom curricula and teacher education, and also hosts outreach programs that encourage creativity, innovation, critical thinking, and problem-solving.

American Girl market research already reveals that 8-12 year-old girls have an interest in stories about baking and starting a business, while parents want to teach valuable leadership skills. Susan Jevens, a senior public relations associate for American Girl, says, "Once we determined that Grace was going to be an entrepreneur, we were eager to work with someone who had extensive knowledge for kids."

What has been the response?

Since her debut earlier this year, Grace Thomas has inspired more than 4,000 children to host bake sales in their communities that have raised nearly $33,500 for the No Kid Hungry campaign, which provides school breakfasts to students from low-income families.

Though Bowlus has heard from many children, parents, and teachers who enjoy the doll and her empowering message, her daughter may be the biggest fan. Six-year-old Alice knows about her mother's involvement with American Girl, reads the books, and is a budding entrepreneur anxious to start her first business—in this case, a fresh produce stand. "This doll means so much to her," says Bowlus. "She loves that Grace is selling a product, getting customers, and making a profit. Most of all, though, Alice asks me, 'Can I play with your doll, Mom?'"

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