Solving Underrepresentation in Children’s Literature, with Mike Vaggalis of Keepsake Tales

Mike Vaggalis founded Keepsake Tales, a company that creates entirely personalized children’s books because he saw that the majority of the world’s children were discouragingly underrepresented in the stories that they read, and he wanted to give them an opportunity to see themselves as the heroes.

To sign up for The Diversity Movement CDE or CDP trainings, visit https://thediversitymovement.com/certification/ and use coupon code “keepsake10”.

Check out Mike’s recent appearance on the Startup Stage Podcast, where he pitched Keepsake Tales to 4 investors.

Mike Vaggalis Keepsake Tales Diversity Beyond the Checkbox Podcast

Diversity Beyond the Checkbox is presented by The Diversity Movement and hosted by Jackie Ferguson. For more information including the online course, head over to TheDiversityMovement.com. Podcast production by Earfluence.

Jackie Ferguson: Hello, and welcome to the Diversity Beyond the Checkbox Podcast. I’m your host, Jackie Ferguson, Certified Diversity Executive, writer, and multicultural marketing consultant.

On this podcast, we share diverse perspectives from leaders in their industries, explore diversity, equity and inclusion concepts, and challenge our own assumptions and perspectives to take diversity beyond the check box.

Before we introduce today’s guest for more insights and resources related to diversity and inclusion, including our course also titled Diversity Beyond the Checkbox, visit TheDiversityMovement.com.

Please welcome our guest today. Mike Vaggalis. Mike is a former marketer and Fortune 500 senior manager who left his salary career for the risk of entrepreneurship.

Mike founded Keepsake Tales, a company that creates entirely personalized children’s books because he saw that the majority of the world’s children were discouragingly underrepresented in the stories that they read, and he wanted to give them an opportunity to see themselves as the heroes. Wow. Mike, thanks for being on Diversity Beyond the Checkbox Podcast.

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah. Hey Jackie, it’s good to see you. Thanks for having me.

Jackie Ferguson: Of course. Mike let’s jump right in with the obvious. As a white male you’re well-represented in the media. Why is showing diversity in storybooks important to you, and so important, in fact that you start a business dedicated to making these children feel seen?

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah. So we’re going straight into it. No, I love it. I think that that’s a really important question. It’s sorta, it gets at our why. And so I appreciate the question. You know, the short answer is because I became convinced that our world needed it. When I looked at man, the way that the world is and the way that I think most of us think that the world should be, I just saw a gap and the more that I explored it, the more convinced I became that we could build a company that would fit that void and could really make a tangible difference. When I was a kid, I was just always taught the truth that every person matters that whatever you look like or sound like, or however you think, whatever, whoever you are, you matter. And I just remember believing that truth, the same way that I believe two plus two equals four and yeah, it was crazy Jackie. I remember I was thinking back earlier this week and I just remember in elementary school and like second or third or fourth grade and learning about the civil rights movement. And it just, it rocked me to learn that, you know, like there was this little boy who was my good friend, just one of the guys ,and he was this little African American boy. And I remember having a conversation with my parents and saying, how is it that some people in the past and worse, some people today would view him as, as mattering less than me. And then later in life, I ended up becoming a Christian and my core worldview helped me to put some rationale and some words and some truth behind that beliefs that that I had always had. And I just believe like to my core, every person is made in the image of God. And because of that, we all have intrinsic worth. And when I see anybody, but particularly kids who either are told by other people, or just come to believe that they don’t matter as much because they can’t see themselves represented in the content that they consume or the books that they read ,it just breaks my heart. And when I saw that this idea for Keepsake Tales can really make a tangible difference. It wasn’t a question of like, should I do this? It was, it was like a moral imperative of, I can’t not do it again. This is just something that I feel really called to do.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s incredible. Mike, tell us about Keepsake Tales. Who’s involved in it. How did it get started?

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah. So Keepsake Tales started with a thought. I’ve always been a reader. My wife will tell you that whatever author I’m reading is the other woman. And I just looked at, you know, first had kids in my life who aren’t spending time on reading books, they’re spending time on screens. And I just thought, man, what if you could put a child in the center of the story, how cool would that be? And I started just doing a bunch of interviews and surveys and talking to as many people as I could. And I heard that yeah, for sure. Parents and grandparents and a whole bunch of people, kids like, yeah, that’s a great way to create – we just call it child driven demand away from screens toward stories. But that’s when I uncovered this new thing that for me, I was like, Oh my God, that’s tragic –  is there’s massive underrepresentation in children’s literature. The personalized children’s books that exist today don’t have the flexibility and the illustration models to really meet the severe needs that there are.

And I think most tragically nobody’s really having the conversation. And so I saw an opportunity to step in and become a thought leader there. I actually got married in August and

Jackie Ferguson: Congrats that’s great.

Mike Vaggalis: Thank you. Yeah. And when we’re flying back from our honeymoon, my wife is like, Mike, I don’t even know if you know how much you’re talking about this Keepsake Tales thing.

We just need to do it. And so we got back from the honeymoon and I ended up leaving my job and pursuing this thing. And it was the, you know, who else is involved? I have been so fortunate to have just the best team that’s come up. One, my co founder, Erin is just this amazing woman. She has a very complimentary skillset to me.

Some of our first customers have called her the best children’s author of our generation. And although I’m biased, I totally agree. She’s incredible. She set up publishing companies in the past. She has four kids who she adopted and she’s just an amazing lady really, really talented. We just brought on Brian, who is a startup founder.

He’s got tremendous technical background and, and just a really big hearted guy who believes in what we’re doing and, and said, man, I want to be a part of it. And we’ve got a PhD in children’s literature who’s one of our core advisors who reviews everything that we publish. So I’m like, man, you know, it’s just one of those crazy things that we jumped in and the right people just came along.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s awesome.

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah.

Jackie Ferguson: Mike, let’s talk specifically about how Keepsake Tales is different from other personalized children’s books.

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah. So our core difference is we start our illustration process with a picture of the child. So a lot of our competitors, you know, they have quality products, they just don’t have the illustration, flexibility and robust illustration model that we have.

So our illustration process starts with a picture of the child. And we turned that picture into a cartoon that matches the illustration style, the story, so that any child, regardless of what they look like can see themselves as the champion of their story. So, you know, when you look at our competitors, you’ve got a fairly limited selection of, you know, you can choose hair, color, skin, color, eye color, and that’s kind of it.

Right. It doesn’t work for kids who say they have down syndrome or are in wheelchairs or kids with a skin tone. That just isn’t one of the,

Jackie Ferguson: The four that you can pick from, right.

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah, exactly.

Jackie Ferguson: Exactly. Yeah. That’s that’s amazing. So then that books are created with that specific child as the hero. That’s really cool.

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah. Yeah. I think so too, today, we have a manual personalization process. So we have a team of digital artists that go ahead and do that translation. And we’ve identified in a technology enabler. That will let us get faster turnaround times and really put the parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle or whoever’s purchasing the book, we’ll give them the ability to approve the illustrations before we send them to print. So really excited about that technology. And that’s one of the hot items that we’re working to develop.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s great. And Mike, how long does it take once you submit a picture of the child to get the book end to end.

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah. Using today’s process, Jackie, it’s longer than I want it to be. It’s about six to eight weeks and that’s because it’s a really manual process and we make sure that we go through quality control to make sure that that the final product is really high quality. Once we implement this new technology and that customer has the ability to approve the picture and we don’t need to, you know, go through the manual process, that’ll speed up dramatically. So I’d expect a week to two weeks, depending on the shipping preference from the customer.

Jackie Ferguson: Fantastic. And my, from your research, how does a lack of representation in media affect children psychologically?

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah, it is. It’s not good.

Children everywhere are struggling with questions of value of self-worth. They’re trying to answer the question, Do I matter? And when they don’t see themselves reflected in the content that they consume, it feeds this cycle of feelings of inadequacy. I don’t want to bore you with a whole bunch of research, but that’s basically it, it reinforces this false belief that they don’t matter.

Jackie Ferguson: Yeah. I mean, it’s so important for children to feel that sense of worth and sometimes no matter how much their parents try to, to reinforce that what they’re seeing in the media and in the books that they read tells them a different story doesn’t it.

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah. That’s when I go back to, you know, I think fortunately I have to believe that there’s a large portion of our population that looks at things like racism and can say they’re wrong. And so I’m hoping that fewer kids today are told explicitly that they matter less than others, but when we look at the percentages of children’s books in particular, that message can’t be coming through because there’s not equal representation of all kinds.

Jackie Ferguson: True. That’s right. Even I remember my daughter is 18 now, but I remember in finding books for her, it was very difficult to find characters that looked like her. And so I think it’s a fabulous thing that you’re doing with giving children who are so diverse, and on our society is becoming more and more diverse an opportunity to see themselves in the stories that they read. And I think that’s really great.

Mike Vaggalis: Thanks. Just to put a number behind the Jackie, the one that I think may be the most shocking is children with disabilities only one half of 1% of traditionally published children’s books even include kids with disabilities or sicknesses. It’s I mean, it is mind boggling and again, it’s a conversation that I don’t think is happening enough and we feel that we have this really, really amazing platform where we can start to tell that story and to be an advocate for kids who, who need it.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s so true. And it’s 20% I think, is the number in the United States of people with disabilities. So one half of 1% representation books. It’s so underrepresented.

Mike, what’s been your response and some of the books that you’ve sent out, you know, how did the children react?

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah, this has been the coolest thing since starting it. So, you know, it was an idea a year ago, we were just starting our interview process and trying to understand it. This was an idea worth pursuing.

And we sold our first book in November. We sold it for just three weeks. It was a Christmas book. So, so we wanted to make sure that we could get it to customers before the holidays. And so maybe the coolest moment that I’d had since starting this business is watching a video that one of our first customers sent me and she came into our living room  and there was her daughter sitting on the floor, flipping through the pages of her book.

And she was pointing at pictures of herself in the story. And you know, this little toddler who, it was just the cutest thing. And I was like, Oh my God, she just chose voluntarily a Keepsake Tale over her iPad. It was so cool. So that was the validation. That was one. And we’ve heard great things from other customers and kids and yeah, that gave us the validation to say, okay, this is more than just an idea. This is something that, it’s got legs.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s so great. And I also like too, that you bring up the iPad piece because nowadays it’s harder and harder to get children to read books in general, with all of the phones that, you know, you’re handing them and the iPads and the TV and the video games.

I think it’s fantastic that that’s something that not only is a keepsake, but it’s something to get children interested in reading in general.

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah. I certainly think so. So I’ve got a huge bias because I’m a lifelong book nerd, but yeah, I certainly think so.

Jackie Ferguson: So Mike, let’s pivot to that really quickly and in a question, so you’re a lifelong book nerd you said, I love that.

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah. Yeah. It’s kind of embarrassing. I’ve always been a big dork and loved reading.

Jackie Ferguson: Tell me about some of the books that have impacted you over the years.

Mike Vaggalis: There’s so many, I grew up with parents who read to me every night. And then I got to one where I could read and then I read every night.

So, you know, going way, way back there’s, you know, childhood books that I loved, like the Hank the Cow Dog series, we loved his kids, the Hardy Boys. My dad read to me the Hobbit when I was in kindergarten. And then kind of the Lord of the Rings. I think one of my first loves though, was actually the story of Les Mis, Les Miserables.

And I started off listening to the music. My mom tells, I told you I was, I was dorky. So, you know, it’s just highlights that but I remember when I was a kid and I just got so engrossed by the story. And when I’d have friends over, you know, we’d sit down in front of like, we have these old school, big speakers in my parents’ house and sit down and be like, Oh, listen to this song.

How cool is this part of the story? And they’re like, okay, nerd, like you want to go outside and play, but that one’s amazing. I read a biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which I found fascinating. And he’s just this guy who stood up for what he believed in just unbelievably fascinating person. And then recently, actually, when I was going through the decision process of, do I do the crazy thing of leaving my job that is paying me well to go start this company. I was reading a book called No Barriers and it was written by a guy named Erik Weihenmayer, who’s an incredible person. I’ve now met him a couple of times. He was the first blind person to summit Mount Everest, and he later whitewater kayaked the Grand Canyon. And it was this incredible story.

It’s just his life story. He’s such a pioneer in the outdoors communities and really use his disability as sort of a strength. He was able to push past that and find other people that he could really encourage. And they set up this amazing organization that we’re actually working with to produce our next book.

So when I was at that point in my life where I’m like, man, do I take the step and go try to do something that’s much bigger than me, reading Eric’s book was a galvanizing experience to say, yes, I’m going to, I’m going to do that.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s awesome. In our online course, Diversity Beyond the Checkbox, we talk about how marketing used to be targeted for people that look like you basically.

But as a marketing leader, how have you seen a shift in marketing within the societal change and demographics?

Mike Vaggalis: Well really tactically, you know, marketing methods have improved where you can target your messaging to very specific demographics. So there’s certainly that aspect of it. I think that the cooler thing now that I’m seeing is broad level awareness, sort of national campaigns, the emergence of diversity and celebrating diversity as a trend has been such a cool shift. It’s reflective of a shift that’s happening, you know, in our culture. A previous company I worked for, I was actually the, on the innovation team for a cosmetics brand and which is a totally interesting experience as a non category user.

I came home and had a lot more knowledge about cosmetic trends than Brittany did, which is sort of hilarious. But I think you see this trend toward consumers that are demanding products. They’re demanding content that they can see themselves reflected in and the cosmetics industry. I think an awesome example is a Rihanna cosmetics brand Fenty, and, and they’re built on this premise that.

Many women, particularly women with different skin tones. They don’t have cosmetic products to meet the needs of their skin tones and blowing up the cosmetics industry. And it’s really been difficult for entrenched players to manage their product development in a way where they can keep up with that sort of a revolutionary.

Innovation. And that tends like, how was that revolutionary? I think that we’ve got the opportunity, the same thing in children’s books.

Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. I think that’s exactly right. I remember growing up myself when I started using makeup now that I’m, you know, over 30 or over 40 whichever. It’s amazing to see all of the colors in the spectrum when there were, you know, 10 colors that I could choose from none of which matched my particular skin tone.

And it’s really refreshing and important to see the diversity being explored in marketing and being able to meet the needs of different consumers. You know, again, because our society is changing so much, but it’s always been diverse. And we’re just now I think catching up to that from a marketing standpoint, which is important.

And I love that that now we’re able to start that process with younger and younger people through books like yours. So I think that’s fantastic.

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah.

Jackie Ferguson: How do you talk to your friends about ally ship?

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah. I’m fortunate to have a lot of friends that look like me and also that don’t look like me and think like me and you know, some of my best friends, I think if you looked at us on the street, you’d be like, man, how, like, how are they, how are they friends?

And that’s really cool. And fortunately the common belief thread – I think it’s true in all my friends is we share that common belief that I really think most people share. It’s unfortunate that not everybody does, but most of us share the belief that we all matter. And I’ve had lots of conversations about whenever a group of people is marginalized or treated as less than, or not shown human dignity. I think my conversations with my friends are more, just an acknowledgement of just, I can’t believe that the world that we live in is this broken and there’s some sadness there, but then there’s also a lot of motivation for things like Keepsake, where it’s like, okay, you know, but we’ve got this unbelievable opportunity to live our lives in a way that makes a difference and that matters like a, you know, Bonhoeffer or some other people that we can look to as mentors and heroes. And so as sad as it is, I think it can be a fueling feeling then.

Jackie Ferguson: Awesome. And my tell us, are your books available for purchase now? If not, when will they be available for purchase?

Mike Vaggalis: Ugh. I wish I wish that they were available now. We’ve got our one book that we sold last November. It’s a Christmas story. So it’s not seasonally relevant right now. We are working really hard with our amazing partner, No Barriers when talked about before, and we expect that book to be available this fall.

So we’re targeting, I am doing everything I can to push for August likely. It will be September when we launched that book. We’re actually co-authoring that book with this amazing woman, Mandy Harvey, who I’m sure a lot of your listeners will know she was on, America’s Got Talent a few years ago. She got the golden buzzer from Simon.

She is this unbelievably dynamic and talented singer. She’s got this, like go check out Mandy Harvey. She has got amazing pitch and I am so jealous of what she can do with her voice. And she just happens to be deaf. Unbelieveable. She’s got this crazy cool life story. And so we’re so honored to be working with Mandy and with the No Barriers organization.

So we’re really excited to launch our first book with No Barriers. And we’re doing that this fall.

Jackie Ferguson: And Mike, can you tell us a little about what that book would the story about that book?

Mike Vaggalis: I will give you a sneak preview. So it’s a book that blends imagination and reality in a really fun way. So No Barriers believes that the reason that we’re working together is because we have such similar beliefs about, about the world and about the amazing quality of people. So they believe that what’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way. And they exist to show people that they can overcome barriers in their life. So this story is about a group of kids who have this really cool challenge that they’re trying to overcome. And part of it takes place, and you can see where it’ll take place, in a here and now today setting, maybe a playground and part of it that happens in their imagination and the world that the kids fabricate in their mind as they go to overcome these really big obstacles in their life. And to understand that what’s within them is stronger than what’s in their way and understand the power of having what no barriers calls our rope team and a group of people that you go through life with and you support each other and you push each other and you use each child’s individual strengths to the benefit of the overall group.

Jackie Ferguson: Wow. That sounds exciting. So we’ll look for that coming in the fall.

Mike Vaggalis: Yes. Yes.

Jackie Ferguson: Mike, the nation has erupted in response to the murder of George Floyd as one more link and a tragic chain of murders among African Americans. What’s Keepsake Tales’ response and light of this tragedy and others?

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah. I just want to say, at Keepsake Tales, we unequivocally shout that Black Lives Matter.

We denounced racism, police brutality, and white supremacy, and we commit to actively dismantling these far too long held institutions. We’re putting all of our efforts into helping all children, especially racial minorities, children with disabilities and children of sicknesses see themselves as the champions of their very own Keepsake Tales.

Two weeks ago, as of today, George Floyd was murdered. This was just the latest in a string of such racially motivated murders. We just say unequivocally, his murder was evil. It represents the deep roots of an all too pervasive racism that stained our country red with the blood of innocent men, women and children, simply because of the color of their skin for centuries.

And as I’ve talked with my black friends over the past couple of weeks, my heart is broken again and again, as I hear how deeply they feel, this latest tragedy, I empathize with those friends. I’ll never be able to fully understand what they’re going through. And I’m committing myself both personally, and with Keepsake Tales to learning how we can be better allies.

It’s been said for every thousand that are hacking at the leaves of evil, there’s one striking at the root. And I want to challenge all of us, myself included, to prove that untrue by committing ourselves to striking at the root of racism, not merely by saying the quote unquote right things, because they’re socially expedient at this time.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I want to share three ways that I’m committing to attack the root of racism personally. Number one, lamenting. Grieving with our grieving nation. And particularly with my black friends. Number two, listening. Seeking to hear my friends whose skin color is different than mine and increasing in my ability to empathize.

And then three, learning, Oh, we’ve got the book White Awake on order, and I’m excited to dig into it. I’m also rereading the Seven Habits of Highly Effective people. And I’m finding that much of the content, even in just the first intro chapters, it’s highly relevant for our world today. Jackie, I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to partner with The Diversity Movement in your work to launch the Diversity Beyond the Checkbox training. That training, particularly the sections on unconscious bias and privilege have been foundational in my own processing of events over the past two weeks, I would highly encourage any other business owners to go to TheDiversityMovement.com to access their trainings. Finally, we’re doubly committed to our work at Keepsake Tales. Showing every child that they are one of a kind and that they have intrinsic value. Can you imagine if every child grew up understanding that they had everybody else in their lives matters?

It’s our prayer and our belief that by building Keepsake Tales, we’re contributing to the hard and needed work to attack with all of our spirit, the root of racism.

Jackie Ferguson: Wow. Mike, what would you like to leave our listeners with today?

Mike Vaggalis: Yeah, thanks for asking Jackie. So we are pioneering and leading this discussion about diversity inclusion in children’s literature.

Not that we’re doing it alone, but we need your help. So the best way that you can help us is go to our website. It’s www.mykeepsaketales.com and sign up for a mailing list. And we’ll be in touch with you with new information about our product launches about exciting news from the business, and go ask five of your friends to go onto the site and sign up for the mailing list and go tell five of their friends.

And then just be aware when you’re reading children’s books with your children or grandchildren, just observe the diversity that exists today. And if you recognize that it’s not where it needs to be, that’s what we’re trying to combat. And then if you happen to be an angel investor, and you’re looking for a mission driven business with a great business model, please reach out to me.

And I’d love to talk to you. The virus, like so many organizations, some of our funding goals have been delayed and we’re still working forward. This is a mission that we are absolutely committed to solving and we can move faster. If we’re able to bring funding partners on board, the most important thing though, is just, just spread the word, share what we’re doing and feel free to drop us a line with encouragement or advice, or if you’ve got a skillset that, that you think we can use, please reach out.

And we’re so excited to be part of this community and want to do that and support this in any way that we can.

Jackie Ferguson: Awesome. Mike, thank you so much for sharing your story and insights with us. You’re doing such important work and ensuring that our next generation of leaders can see themselves in more and broader ways.

You can learn more about Mike and Keepsake Tales by visiting www.mykeepsaketales.com. Keepsake Tales will be available for order starting this fall. And we’re so excited about it. Thank you so much, Mike.

Mike Vaggalis: Thank you so much, Jackie.

Jackie Ferguson: Thanks for tuning in everyone. If you like this show, we encourage you to subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen and leave us a rating and review as well. This show was edited and produced by Earfluence. If you’re looking for information on how full service podcast production can amplify your voice and build your community, visit Earfluence.com.

I’m Jackie Ferguson and we’ll see you soon on Diversity Beyond the Checkbox.

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