Maria Billias and Ernesto Carrizoza, both seniors in the Eller College of Management, got their first exposure to Tucson-based special needs toy company PlayAbility Toys in a social entrepreneurship class taught by Stephen Gilliland, professor of management and organizations and department head.
In a visit to the class, the company's CEO, Marty Fox, explained that seven to 12 million kids in the U.S. have some form of special needs – but toys in the mainstream market have not been designed with them in mind.
PlayAbility Toys partners with families and therapists to design and manufacture high-quality toys aimed at engaging children with visual or auditory impairment, autism, physical limitations, developmental delays, or cognitive disabilities.
When Gilliland sent his students information about internship opportunities with PlayAbility Toys, both Billias and Carrizoza jumped at the chance. They have spent the spring semester working for Fox, who also is an adjunct lecturer at the Eller College, and Sara Larson, sales and marketing director for PlayAbility Toys.
"As an intern, I focus on marketing projects such as approaching potential special needs-related organizations to be part of the PlayAbility Toys affiliate program," said Billias. "I also researched ways that PlayAbility Toys can better reach its markets and assisted in the company's social networking activities."
Carrizoza also worked on market development and cites both Fox and Larson as mentors.
"They gave me the opportunity to work on product development," he said. "For instance, we proposed a plan to rename and redesign the color scheme of an existing product from a company that will be partnering with PlayAbility Toys and re-releasing it later this year."
He is planning to graduate in the fall and is currently studying for the GMAT in preparation for grad school.
"The real world, first-hand experience has been essential to my understanding of the many business tools I have learned in class," Carrizoza said. "The experience at PlayAbility has helped me to focus more and achieve my goals as a student. It has also changed the direction of what I will focus on when I am completing my MBA, from an emphasis on marketing to entrepreneurship."
"The internship made me realize the passion I have for helping people and working for a company with a mission that I strongly believe in and admire," said Billias. "I would like to be involved in social entrepreneurial endeavors throughout my career."
In addition to working with PlayAbility Toys as an intern, Billias is part of a four-person team working on a consulting project as a class assignment in management and policy.
"Our team conducted external and internal analyses of the company to develop recommendations for its long-term sustainability," she said. "We focused on ways that PlayAbility Toys can increase its reach within its market and enhance awareness of its educational toys."
Billias will graduate in May and hopes to find a position that helps her learn about global markets, especially developing countries, in a role that will actively contribute to her community.
"I have grown passionate about non-profits such as UNICEF," she said.
Down the line she aims to pursue graduate studies in international management.
"One day I would like to work in a university setting where I can generate innovative solutions to better my community and to mentor students from different backgrounds."