Sahad Rivera Sonda: On Design, Journeys, and Alligators – tBR Person of the Week



Think about when you are happiest or when you feel your “youest” you. What are you doing? For me, creating things with my hands, designing, measuring, and building, is where I’ve always felt at home, full of joy and the magic of possibilities.

I can still remember being four years old and constructing cardboard mansions for my Barbies (complete with specially designed props and furniture that I sculpted out of clay). The ability to create absolutely anything that I could imagine felt like a superpower. Like many defining moments, I didn’t realize that through this simple play, I was already taking what would be the first steps in my journey toward becoming a toy designer. Twenty years later, I’m still using these same materials (along with some pretty intense computer software) to create mockups and models of real toys that kids play with around the world! Looking back now, it’s hard to believe how much has changed since those early days.

I grew up in a small town in the south of Mexico. When I say small, I mean it was the kind of town where everyone worked at the same place, or owned their own business providing contract work to. . .that same place. The entire town was a little island of industry surrounded by rainforest. The river flooded in the rainy season and it was a common sight to see alligators walking down the street. It was so humid and fertile, you could pick a piece of fruit off a tree, and a new one would start growing wherever you tossed the core. It was a beautiful and special place to live, but needless to say, it was not the type of town where people frequently dreamed big dreams and then pursued those dreams across international borders.

Toys were always a very big part of my life. My parents grew up in modest circumstances, so it was important to them that my sister and I didn’t go without; there was plenty to play with in our household. While I was always fascinated with the tiny details of toys, and busily crafting everything from my own Polly Pockets to uniforms for my dolls, it wasn’t until around 14 that I realized Toy Design was an actual job. I had stumbled upon a blog describing unique and interesting college majors, and Toy Design was one of them. It was like a lightning strike and suddenly everything, my whole world, seemed to fall into place in a way it never had before.

Of course, realizing my dream wasn’t quite that easy; it never is. For me, studying toy design meant leaving my family, moving to a different country, speaking a different language, and immersing myself into a very different culture—it was beyond overwhelming at the time. In fact, I copped out. I pushed my dream down inside and majored in Industrial Design at a local university. This was a far less risky proposition. It only took about a year before my teachers grew annoyed and pointed out that no matter how my projects started, they somehow always ended as toys. And so, I knew, it was finally time to face my fears and follow my heart. So, I took a step forward.

There was a flurry of paperwork, questionnaires, language tests, and visa applications, and then came the most nerve-racking part, submitting a portfolio. But this time, when the fear creeped in, I thought to myself, what’s the worst that could happen? If I don’t get accepted, then I’d most likely get some useful feedback, and I could improve my portfolio and try again. So, I took a chance and clicked submit on the application portal for one of the most prestigious design schools in the world.

One thing that I have learned in life, is to try and find the positive (or at least the less intimidating) side of every situation. It might sound overly optimistic, but I’ve found that looking at things this way helps me to feel more encouraged and confident when trying new things.

A couple of months later, I was accepted into the Toy Design program at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, California. One more step. During my time there I tried to absorb as much as I could from my talented peers and teachers. I threw myself into every project I worked on, diving into research, paying meticulous attention to detail, and designing with my whole heart.

All the anxiety and fear that I’d felt when I first set foot on a new campus, in a new country, I turned into energy and determination. Several more steps. In time, this diligence started to get noticed and I was awarded the Otis Presidential Scholarship, a scholarship from the Mexican Consulate, and the Women in Toys Scholarship. I also received one of the most incredible honors in 2018, when I was asked to present at the Toy of the Year Awards. Looking back at those moments now, I wonder what my 17-year-old self would have thought, when I made that first choice not to click submit, and to follow the safer, easier path that kept me at home.

Many more steps. I spent the rest of my college career in a whirlwind of classes and internships. I was privileged to intern at Mattel and at Educational Insights, where I now work as a Toy Designer. I feel extremely fortunate every day, to work at a job that I love, and with a company whose values I share. At Educational Insights, we believe in the power of igniting a spark, the power of curiosity, and the power of building confidence in children so that one day, they too can pursue their dreams. When I look back on that little girl, in a small town in Mexico, cutting out tiny notebooks for her Barbies, I want to say, Don’t be afraid. Follow your heart and take one step at a time; one day you’ll look back and realize just how far you’ve come.

The journey is never over, there is still so much more to learn, grow, and share. At the end of the day, I hope I can inspire kids and help them realize that we all have a superpower to make the world (and ourselves) whatever we want it to be. Be bold, be kind, and be brave, and you can bring the magic of your imagination to life.

Sahad Rivera Sonda is a Toy Designer at Educational Insights and is nominated for Innovative Art and Visuals of the Year at the 2020 Toy and Game International Excellence Awards for her work on Design & Drill® Bolt Buddies™ by Educational Insights.

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