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Gender-Neutral Backpacks Aim To Give Kids New Heroes

A stylish way to learn about Frida Kahlo and Ada Lovelace

Ask any American child to draw a scientist, and they’ll probably give you a white dude wearing glasses. That’s not a generalization, that’s published scientific fact.

"If you look at the statistics, little girls show huge interest in science and mathematics courses when they're really young, but that drops off once they're exposed to the gender stereotypes and roles they see in the media," says entrepreneur Alissa Lentz. She just launched a Kickstarter campaign for Hero New York, a line of kid-focused gender-neutral backpacks and pencil cases.

The concept is double-barrelled: Each bag is designed to be worn by both girls and boys (full disclosure: I just ordered one for my son in a pink-heavy pattern called “flamingo”) and will come with one of three cards featuring a historical hero. For the campaign launch, Lentz announced the first three: abolitionist Frederick Douglass, artist Frida Khalo and mathematician Ada Lovelace.

Lentz says the trading cards—although it’s hard to imagine a world where they’re actually traded—will come with a quote from or historical fact about the hero on the back. "I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others,” says Frederick Douglass on his. Lentz wanted to include a female scientist, which is why she included Lovelace, calling her “essentially the first computer engineer.”

The logic behind the company comes from a personal story, says Lentz. After moving to the U.S. with her family from Russia, Lentz was bullied as a child for not speaking English. At one point, she stopped talking at school entirely. "Some of my earliest childhood memories are of wanting to speak, but literally not having the words to do so," she says. "I had internalized this constant state of self-doubt.”

Before she switched schools, a friend doodled a cartoon in her backpack as an encouragement, which she says acted as a kind of security blanket. While taking a social entrepreneurship course in college, the memory came back to her, and she wrote a business plan inspired by the concept.

Part of each sale will go to High School of the Fashion Industries, a Manhattan school where 76% of students live below the poverty line but 91% graduate and 82% continue to college, says Lentz. She plans to volunteer her time this year teaching a business and design course at the school.

While surveying parents and babysitters for what they were looking for in a school backpack, Lentz says she heard the same thing again and again: gender neutrality. “It was something really important to them but difficult to do. If you walk into [a store], it's always pink for girls and blue for boys. Or you go online, and you have to sort products by 'girl colors' and 'boy colors'."

If she can help kids to act like themselves, less tethered by gender or societal expectations of what they want to be, Lentz says she’ll be pleased. “It's very freeing, when kids act and behave like they want to, not how they're supposed to,” she says. “If you see it, you can be it.”

If you need me, I’ll be over here fighting the patriarchy, one pink backpack at a time.

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