Yla Eason '71 speaks at Undergraduate Commencement

Asking Questions and Breaking Barriers

May 22, 2024
Yla Eason '71 inspires the Class of 2024 to embrace "possibility thinking."
Yla Eason '71 speaks at Undergraduate Commencement
Portrait of Yla Eason Commencement Speaker May 2024
Yla Eason

Yla Eason ‘71 found her voice at Fitchburg State, and returned to campus this Spring to share her story as the featured speaker at the university’s undergraduate commencement ceremony on May 18. She shared life lessons and the value of “possibility thinking” - that is, imagining something that does not exist, but could.

Growing up in racially segregated Oklahoma, Eason was eager to see the world beyond.

Eason was intrigued by a transplanted family friend’s stories of life in New York City. “I couldn’t even envision what an apartment building was,” she recalled. One of her own friends, the daughter of a minister from the East Coast who had been transferred to Oklahoma, was studying at Fitchburg State. Eason decided to see it for herself. 

Her initial plan was to major in biology and chemistry with an eye toward becoming a physician, but the hard reality of organic chemistry made her recalibrate her focus.

Fitchburg State would take her as an English major, she recalled, but only if she could demonstrate her commitment by reading a long list of assigned texts before arriving. “I read a book a day that summer,” she said. “I didn’t know I could read that fast, but by the time I got into the classroom I had read all those books.”

She found herself responding well to the range of liberal arts courses available to her, including art and architecture. “I was exposed to a lot,” she said. She also navigated the cultural and linguistic challenges of her new surroundings. “I had a much bigger accent than I have now. I remember always being asked, ‘Where are you from? What are you doing here?’ It was like I had to learn a new dialect.”

Eason found the community at Fitchburg State welcoming. “I didn’t encounter any forms of racism,” she said. But she was disturbed by the casual recitation of the “n-word” during a class discussion of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which she was the only Black student. “I said to the professor, ‘This is disturbing to me.’ And they stopped reading it. I was able to find my voice.”

Eason returned to Oklahoma after graduating, wanting to be with her mother after her father’s unexpected death during her senior year. “I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but my sister said I should try to get a job at the newspaper. None of the papers in Oklahoma had ever hired a Black woman.”

She was hired at the Tulsa Tribune, and then moved on to the Chicago Tribune. While writing for the paper’s “women’s pages,” she was scouted by Harvard’s MBA program. Following the completion of her degree, she worked in financial journalism. 

It was on a family vacation to Jamaica with her then-husband and their son that Eason’s life took another turn.

“When my son was three years old, he said he could not be a superhero because he was not white,” Eason recalled in her commencement address. “He said this casually while playing with the Mattel superhero toy, He-Man. Startled, I said to him, yes you can be a superhero. Your color is great and it means you can be anything you want. We told him we would buy him a Black superhero toy once we got back to New York. To my surprise, there were no superhero toys that looked like him on the market.”

She spoke with other mothers who also wondered why there weren’t toys that looked like their children. 

“I asked Dr. Kenneth Clark who with his wife, Mamie, created the Black doll study that led to the 1954 Brown v. The Board of Education decision to end school desegregation if he thought toys that represented different skin tones were important,” Eason said. “He explained to me that when kids play with toys, they imagine themselves in their role-play as powerful and fun. Play is vital to supporting their self-esteem. That’s when I knew that I had to create a Black superhero toy.”

She knew nothing about the toy industry, so, illustrating the advice she offered to graduates, she asked questions.

“I asked and found a toy manufacturer who told me what I needed to do to get started and how toys are made,” she said. “I asked lots of questions that led me to create Sun-Man, the first Black superhero toy. Later I made Asian, Latino, Native American, and white action figures and expanded into dolls and games. It is why I was able to create a $5 million business and am credited with pioneering the multicultural toy market back in 1985. The irony is that the toy company I was competing against because they had no black action figures, Mattel, reached out to me in 2020 to license my toys. Now almost 40 years later you can find my toy, Sun-Man, at Amazon, Walmart, and other retailers. A selection of my toys is on display at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester where Sun-Man is in the Toy Hall of Fame.”

Eason said there was a lesson the graduates should take with them.

“The toy business taught me one thing: You don’t have to know everything, you just have to know what you don’t know and then learn it, get someone to do it, and or get someone to teach it to you,” Eason said.

Ask yourself what ways you can continue to challenge yourself to be happier, have more independence, be successful, stay healthier, and contribute to humanity.

Yla Eason '71

Beyond her success in the toy business, Eason is an accomplished marketing professional based in the Greater New York City area and currently serves as an assistant professor of professional practice at the Rutgers University Business School in New Jersey, where her focus is business communications and marketing.

In her commencement remarks, Eason extolled the virtues of “possibility thinking.” “It is simply imagining something that does not exist but could,” she said. “It is thinking differently about what something is now and asking what else it could look like later. It is seeing rainbows and flowers in bright colors instead of dogs in basic black, white, and brown. 

“I ask you today to go forward asking questions about how something could be different and better using possibility thinking,” she continued. “Ask yourself what ways you can continue to challenge yourself to be happier, have more independence, be successful, stay healthier, and contribute to humanity.”

She closed her remarks with a quote from Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s address to Eason’s graduation at Harvard in 1977: “You’ve just lost your last excuse for failure.”