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2020 Earnie Awards Winner – Company of the Year: Sesame Workshop

Company of the Year

Sesame Workshop

Est. 1969

Gabriela Arenas

Vice President of Licensing, North America

First paying job: Substitute teacher for third grade

Pet peeve: Entitlement and lack of drive

Most coveted dinner guest: Coco Chanel, Michelle Obama, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Bob Iger or Jeff Bezos

Hobbies: Tennis, Yoga, Traveling, Cooking

Best advice you’ve ever received: Trust your intuition

Favorite quarantine snack: Popcorn

Last book you read: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Personal motto: Generosity and kindness are the key to a life better lived.

What do you attribute Sesame Workshop’s success to in 2020? Mission work has always been a vital part of Sesame Workshop’s DNA, and that means meeting kids’ most urgent needs, whatever they may be. When Sesame Street launched in 1969, staffers drove a van around Harlem, distributing materials to help kids learn as they were watching Sesame Street. And while kids’ and families’ needs have evolved over the years, our model still stands. We work with experts to define what kids need and then we develop a curriculum to address those needs.

This year, that meant responding to COVID-19. While we transitioned almost instantly to a 100 percent remote work environment, we also recognized families’ sudden critical need for help. We developed new ways to create content in response to current events and worked quickly to produce “Caring for Each Other”—an initiative for parents, children and teachers, focused not only on best practices for staying safe, like proper handwashing techniques, but also on key topics that  families needed help with the most: adjusting to changing routines, creating playful learning opportunities at home, managing big feelings and staying physically active. To date, with “Caring for Each Other,” we have distributed new PSAs to 97 countries in 39 languages, two international primetime TV specials, including Elmo’s Playdate, two live CNN Town Halls reaching viewers around the world and a web hub posting weekly Muppet playdates, games, and strategies for caregivers to comfort children and promote home learning.

We’ve also addressed another tough issue—racial justice. Sesame Street has the ability to explain complex issues to children like no other program can and, for many years, we have equipped families and caregivers with the support they need to have empathetic conversations. We believe this moment calls for a direct discussion about racism to help children grasp the issues and teach them they are never too young to be ‘upstanders’ for themselves, one another, and their communities. With CNN, we produced “Coming Together: Standing up to Racism,” which aired in June. And we recently released The Power of We: A Sesame Street Special, a co-viewing experience for children and families, addressing racism and modeling how children can stand up to it. Available on HBO Max and on PBS KIDS, it features Elmo and Abby Cadabby, who are joined by 6-year-old Muppets Gabrielle and her cousin, 8-year-old Tamir, as they learn how to become “upstanders” to unfair treatment based on skin or fur color.

Sesame Street YouTube has seen +183 percent increase in views from this time last year. Part of the reason is that we produced so much new content around our Caring for Each Other initiative. We had 37 million views for Muppet Moments, and our Sesame Street Monster Meditation with Headspace saw 24 million views. Families are looking for good quality content during this time, and we are proud to be able to meet their needs.

What’s new in licensing?  We were able to pivot to a speed-to-market model to create a robust offering of resources with a multigenerational approach to our licensing.

When kids were going back to school, there was anxiety about stepping out and needing to wear a mask. Our characters are so relatable to kids and trusted by parents that they are a fantastic means to communicate messages and help ease anxiety.

With Sourcebooks, we published All Heroes Wear Masks for kids and families. It took only three months to get it on shelves, and it elicited great reaction, not only from consumers but media as well. In December, we’ll see Random House’s Even Grouches Wear Masks, featuring everyone’s favorite grouch, Oscar. It took a total of four months from concept to on-shelf.

We have seen the audio category increasing tremendously. When lockdowns started, we were mid-development of our podcast collaboration with Audible, and we had to continue the work remotely. The Sesame Street podcast “Foley and Friends” launched in October to great reviews.

With families spending more time together at home and looking for activities, Sesame Street Magna-Tiles and LEGO sets have done well.

In the apparel and accessories category, we’ve been working with partners to leverage their social and marketing vehicles to share our resources with young adults and to plant seeds of long-term change. Champion included a call-out on their social media channels and sent an eblast to their database. Bombas sent out an eblast to their subscribers. And we worked with MaskClub.com on an on-demand, ‘buy 1, donate 1’ model, and have since partnered with multiple other companies to help adult and child fans of Sesame Street express themselves while covering their faces.

How has the company supported its employees during the pandemic?  Sesame Workshop has been incredibly supportive during COVID-19. Our CEO, Jeff Dunn, regularly sends out a ‘State of the Street’ email to keep employees informed and connected. Early on, he let us know we should focus on our health and family first. Sesame Workshop instituted flexible work hours, provided a stipend for ergonomic needs and introduced meeting-free Fridays. Our executive team also make themselves available for questions and concerns. Because we couldn’t be together for our annual Halloween costume contest, we instead had a virtual party featuring new skits and costumes from past Halloweens. The organization also planned something special for Thanksgiving. These are challenging times for everyone, and Sesame Workshop is helping us adjust to the new normal and providing meaningful resources for our work family.

What are Sesame Workshop’s main goals for 2021? We’ll continue to explicitly tackle racism and its impact on children through an array of programming and Sesame Street in Communities content for families and caregivers. We’ll focus on the importance of sustainability and instill in young generations the need to take care of our planet. And we’ll focus on wellness, mindfulness, and general physical/mental health of families at home. Today’s kids are under more stress and pressure than ever before. We’ll continue to create content and collaborations to help the whole family stay strong and healthy together–physically and emotionally.

How do you envision the children’s industry evolving over the next five years? We are seeing a resurgence in all things character-branded because they simply provide an emotional connection, comfort, safety and enjoyment during times of turmoil. Categories seeing an uptick include athleisure and loungewear for all generations. Unexpected collabs will drive excitement in the market. There will be an increase in demand for sustainable companies and an increase in support to companies with diverse ownership. In toys, we’ll see a resurgence of family play time and classic play patterns like puzzles, family activities at home like cooking, and a focus on arts and crafts. Lastly, we’ll see companies working overtime and finding new production models to respond to ever-evolving consumer needs.

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