Ugly is in the Eye of the Beholder

From the moment that Alita Nemroff Friedman ’87 saw her children’s reaction to the Uglydolls, she knew she had something special on her hands. Meet the marketing mind behind the hippest toys on the planet.

by Natalia Krepak
photography by Douglas Benedict

Alita Nemroff Friedman ’87 has built a successful business around one of the hottest toys on the planet. But it hasn’t been pretty. In fact, it’s been Pretty Ugly.

Friedman is director of sales and marketing and a principal of Pretty Ugly, LLC, which manufactures and sells the Uglydoll®, an award-winning brand that now includes more than 20 styles of plush stuffed characters, a stationery line, a card game, and T-shirts. A series of Uglydoll books from Random House will debut in April, and Friedman hopes Uglydoll will become an animated TV series or movie one day.

In almost fairy-tale fashion, the Uglydoll phenomenon started as a love story. David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim, two artists who met in school in New York City, shared a dream of making toys. They fell in love, but when Kim’s student visa expired in 2001, she had to return to Korea.

Horvath would sign the love letters he sent her with a drawing of a cute little character they had created together called Wage. Kim, in turn, sewed a stuffed doll of the character and sent it to Horvath. (Like all fairy tales, this one has a happy ending: Horvath and Kim married, and now make toys together.) In 2003, a close friend of Friedman’s, Drew Matilsky, launched the brand and soon enlisted Friedman to handle the marketing and sales of the product.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, all Friedman needed to see was her children’s reaction to the dolls.

“From the first day in 2003 when I brought them home to my kids—who were 8 and 5 years old at the time—they got it,” says Friedman, who lives with her husband, Glen Friedman ’86, and two children, Stephen and Alec, in New Jersey. “They read the tags and they couldn’t stop laughing. They wouldn’t put the dolls down all weekend. At that moment, I knew I had something unique and special in my hands.”

“Lehigh was one of the happiest times of my life,” Friedman says.

In addition to her 20 years of experience in accounting and marketing, Friedman credits her Lehigh education—she graduated with a degree in accounting and a minor in sociology—with preparing her to succeed in the business world.

“The whole accounting faculty challenged you to be the best you could be and taught you how to be accountable to yourself,” Friedman says. “Lehigh taught me how to live and function in the real world. The skills I learned at Lehigh are the skills I use in my everyday life.”

Her sociology minor allowed her to explore other academic courses outside of the business school. “All the various activities through organizations and course work expanded my horizon,” Friedman says.

Her education and experience led Friedman to come up with a creative plan to turn Uglydoll into a top specialty brand that is licensed and sold worldwide. Her initial strategy involved walking around New York City and targeting high-quality shops in every neighborhood. She read endless pop culture, design, fashion, and home décor magazines and pitched her product to retailers featured in them.

She and her team built a comprehensive press kit because she believes that public relations is the best way to advertise a company. The strategy paid off, as Friedman has appeared several times on NBC’s Today show (most recently, to donate $250,000 worth of Uglydolls to the Today Show Toy Drive in December) and the CBS Evening News. The Uglydolls have been featured on CNN’s Newsnight, CNBC’s The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch, and in hundreds of major newspapers and magazines, including Time, The New York Times, and Businessweek.

And celebrities including Snoop Dogg (LEFT), Nelly, Andy Dick, Ashlee Simpson, and Nicole Richie have helped create “buzz” for the dolls by embracing them. Uglydolls even has its own store within FAO Schwarz, the world-famous toy store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. And the dolls were recently featured for the holidays at Harrods department store in London and were on display in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.

There are a handful of new characters added to the Uglydoll line each year and they’ve become highly collectable, partly due to some limited editions. Asking Friedman to name her favorite Uglydoll is like asking someone to name their favorite child. She loves them all, Friedman demurs.

However, she admits that if she’s in a happy mood, she finds herself particularly drawn to Moxy, the long-eared, mint green female of the bunch.

It’s little wonder. If there’s anything Friedman has shown a lot of since her Lehigh days, it’s moxie.

The Uglydoll team is a small, tight-knit group that works together closely on a daily basis. Friedman works with the artists to create new strategies and media plans, and also helps them to prepare for interviews and announcements of new products with popular magazines such as People, as well as for various television shows and numerous trade publications.

Creator David Horvath and Alita Friedman at the first UGLYCON in San Francisco in December.

The creators and Friedman work on how they want to position themselves in the media and review each new design to make sure their strategies are aligned.

Uglydolls were an instant success once they hit the high-end department stores and museum shops. And the Pretty Ugly team made the conscious decision to keep Uglydolls as a specialty item, instead of making it a mass-market product.

“It’s a real grassroots operation,” Friedman says. “We are the next big brand…the next SpongeBob SquarePants or the next Simpsons.”

Friedman, who went directly from Lehigh to her first assignment on Wall Street, can draw on her experience as a certified public accountant with former Big Eight accounting firm Arthur Andersen in New York City, where she audited companies in the service, entertainment, and manufacturing industries.

She also spent a decade managing audit and operational consulting practices in New Jersey before moving onto the “mommy track” after she had two children. During this time, she started her own human resources consulting firm that recruited technologists.

She was running the consulting firm when she was asked to join Uglydoll in 2003.

Two decades after graduating from Lehigh, Friedman maintains her ties to the university. In 2007, she worked on the 20th-year reunion fund-raising committee for the Class of 1987. This is her way to give back to the school, she says.

Friedman hired a Lehigh intern over the summer and attended the Lehigh accounting club reception in New York City to meet all the junior accounting majors. She also makes it back to at least one football game a year.

Her love for Lehigh is far more than just business, though. Even today, her closest friends are still the ones she made as a freshman living in Richards House. And like so many Lehigh graduates, she met the love of her life on campus.

The group of about 10 women who moved into Richards House together as freshmen enjoyed each other’s company so much that they decided to live in Richards again for their sophomore year.

Friedman appeared on NBC’s Today show with Al Roker in December.

More than two decades later, they still keep in touch on a regular basis, visiting for birthday celebrations and holiday parties. Even their children have become friends.

In January, a dozen alumni and 15 of their kids got together for a New Year’s brunch. Friedman quips: “As my husband likes to say when they snap the group picture of the kids, ‘There goes five million dollars’ worth of future Lehigh tuition.’”

Friedman met her future husband at Lehigh. During her junior year, Alita Nemroff found herself being pursued by a senior varsity hockey player named Glen Friedman. Their friendship started in Accounting 311, when Nemroff was forced to stand in front of the class as a “Purchase Order” and Friedman was called up as a “Bill of Lading.”

Their friendship blossomed into what is now 18 years of marriage, and they still joke about that class often.

During her Lehigh days, Friedman became hall president at Richards and was involved with the Student Activities Council, where she worked on the committee involved in recommending where lights should be placed on campus for safety and security. She also ran on the track at the Saucon Valley fieldhouse to exercise with friends.

Friedman continues to run with her husband and kids in two or three road races for charity every year and has played against her children in their annual parent/child ice hockey games.

“Lehigh was one of the happiest times of my life,” Friedman says. “The relationships I developed at Lehigh are still a big part of my life today. My group of friends is a mix of interesting people with different backgrounds, majors, and interests. We are an eclectic group and have maintained strong relationships over the years.”