Meet Kristel Bell, the creator of STEM-focused Surprise Powerz Dolls

CHICAGO — Old Town resident Kristel Bell believes in supporting Black girls in science, technology, engineering and math so much that she used her 401(k) to make a collection of STEM dolls a reality.

As the founder of Black Girls Movement, a nonprofit that helps Black girls gain equal access to STEM education and resources, she took her passion to the next level by creating Surprise Powerz Dolls. The diverse dolls for ages 2-5 are:

— Codie The Coder: A Black doll who discovered that code is all around us (in her tablet, the video games she plays and her mom’s cellphone). She likes to understand how these little “robots” work together to make things happen. Doing mazes and puzzles helps her learn new skills to tell those robots what to do. She would love a new friend to code with her! Codie arrives in a tutu with soft headphones, book bag and sneakers.

— Astro The Astronaut: A Black doll in an orange space suit who likes space and likes to engineer cool things. Full of knowledge about planets, moons and stars, she wants to share her knowledge with others. Astro has purple braids and a cool jetpack.

— Vera The Vet: A white doll in a lab coat, pink and silver stethoscope and tiara. She spends her days caring for all types of animals and knows that questioning, discovering, observing and comparing are key traits of scientists.

— Maria The Mathemagician: A Latinx, bilingual doll (English and Spanish) who loves math and magic. Not a day goes by when Maria isn’t on a fun math adventure, counting how many blue things are around the house or the number of trees in her neighborhood. Maria dons a cape lined with removable numbers one through nine, and girls can hide things inside her hat for fun math magic tricks.

Each doll has sound effects and 10-second jingles, and speaks 75 phrases about science, technology, engineering and math, with voices from real girls from diverse cultural backgrounds.

“It isn’t just one plus one equals two; it’s telling a story,” said Bell, 31. “When you’re listening to the doll, she’s taking you on a journey through her life of being a veterinarian or being an astronaut, with cool factoids you can learn. There are things which I don’t even think some adults know.”

Squeeze the doll’s hand and hear things like: “Peacocks are male birds. And peacocks like to snack on lettuce, grapes and white bread.”

“Planet Uranus likes to sit sideways. Venus has hot, hot, hot volcanoes. There’s planet Jupiter. Jupiter is also very gassy.”

“Earth weighs 13 octillion, 170 septillion pounds!”

Bell launched Surprise Powerz Dolls on May 26 after two years of planning, with the goal of inspiring and encouraging young girls to navigate the world with confidence and excitement around learning new skills. When the pandemic hit, Bell left the private sector in marketing to focus on making the dolls, working with an illustrator to get the designs just right and teaming up with a preschool teacher, a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, to build out the phrases.

Bell hopes people reach out to Surprise Powerz for its Sponsor a Classroom initiative, which gives four-doll sets to teachers for their early learning classrooms. (There is currently a waitlist.) Bell said sponsors will be recognized on social media sites and will help provide discounts for the dolls to parents in the schools.

“I just wanted to make a difference, and the way that I built out my toys, I really wanted to make a connection in a way that is unique to different types of girls,” Bell said. “If you pair these girls who are dealing with some of the worst situations with some of the most powerful fields, it’s inevitable that we’re going to break these cycles of poverty that much faster.

“Girls were being taught to become moms starting at an early age, handing them traditional baby dolls,” she said. “But you weren’t necessarily handing boys baby dolls to teach them how to be fathers. We need to start equipping girls and inspiring them so that they can have what they need in order to be confident in life and to achieve what they need to achieve and not have these ceilings that stop them.”