TOMY's Lorena Montalvo: Early career designer bringing her whole self to work

by TOMY | 05 Apr 2023

Biographies and Interviews

(Mary) Hi Lorena! Less than five years ago you started as an intern at TOMY and then joined full-time as an Assistant Product Designer on Lamaze. How's it going?

It’s been great to say the least! I’ve learned an immense amount working just five years in the industry. I have worked my way up to a Senior Designer position in toy and am now leading projects I’d never thought I’d work on so early in my career! It’s been a very fruitful journey and I can’t wait to see where the road leads me here at TOMY!


You attended Columbia College in Chicago where you received your BFA in Illustration. Did you know there was a strong toy culture in the Chicagoland area?

I actually didn’t. However, some acquaintances worked at a popular toy shop, called Rotofug,i that I would visit during my time at school. Rotofugi let artists showcase their work in the store from time to time, so it was a great experience and intriguing to see the blend of illustration and toys in the same space.


What drew you to the toy profession? 

I always thought I was going to be a children’s book illustrator: I was studying to be an illustrator in school. But after my first internship at a toy company, Creata Inc., it opened my eyes to the possibility of having a career in toy design. The toy profession is one filled with AMAZING creators and wonderful people. The art of creating and designing toys is very fun and rewarding, but the awesome people in the industry are a big factor in making it a great profession to be in.


You've been a toy collector since childhood? What do you collect?

I was always obsessed with Sanrio ever since I can remember. I collected anything and everything Hello Kitty! I eventually branched off to a new favorite character in the Sanrio family, Gudetama, and the property has stuck with me into adulthood. Plush has always been my go-to collectable. I had a whole collection when I was living with my parents and now have a new collection in my own house. As a kidult, I find extreme joy in indulging in my plushie addiction. It’s the same joy I felt when my parents would buy me a plushie as a reward for being good. Some might find it creepy to have a mountain of plush glare at you all day in your office… but it brings me comfort. I also like all the stories that come with finding specific plush. Some are easy finds and others are holy grails that deserve their own shelves in appreciation for their rarity. I also collect vinyl figures… like a lot of vinyl figures… but plush has a special place in my heart and especially in my home office.



You are a native of Puerto Rico. Do you travel back?

Yes, I was born in Ponce Puerto Rico. It’s right at the bottom of the island – a unique and beautiful city. I moved to the states when I was two but travel back from time to time to visit family. I love where I’m from, especially because of the people and of course the FOOD! My father comes from very humble origins and going back and visiting reminds me that our people are very resilient. With every knockdown they rise back up, and with so little, the people do so much.


I also can’t get enough of the food. A home cooked meal from our family members over there just hits differently when it’s made from fresh ingredients (avocados, plantains, yuca, yautia etc.)  often grown in my family’s back yards! I remember when I was younger my great uncle would often bring these giant avocados to have with our lunch. These avocados are often the size of a large papaya! The peel is thin and bright green – not like the dark green bumpy small ones you often see at the grocery store here. They taste unlike any other avocado… add a bit of salt and *chefs kiss* --pair that with a guisado and some white rice and that’s my dream meal.



You have a large family of nieces and nephews and even a nine-year-old brother? Are you the most popular aunt among your young family?

This is self-proclaimed, but yes, I am the favorite aunt amongst most of my nieces and nephew. My nieces and nephew range in age from the oldest being 10 and the youngest 1.5 years old.


My eldest sister’s little ones have taught me that simple is better. She joked that for Christmas we shouldn’t gift any toys to her kids because they would be happy with a cardboard box and some bubble wrap. Her little ones find  joy in playing with simple everyday items (steel pots and pans, empty water bottles, remote control, keys). It taught me that you don’t have to complicate toys for kids.


The older kids have opened my eyes to how much sooner kids have stopped playing with toys. I was still playing with dolls well into being 12 years old. My eldest niece, who recently turned 10, stopped way earlier than that. She and even her friend’s interests have mostly been in the digital space- the same can be said with my younger brother as well.


You and your design colleagues worked on the new Bebé Fuerte and Yumi Ami lines. Inclusion and celebration of LatinX culture are two themes that run through those lines. What has it meant to you to help develop these products that children will be playing with this fall?

It means the absolute world to me to be able to enrich these products with my knowledge and cultural background. This was a unique opportunity for me to have been able to work on these lines – really dream projects. My managers trusted me to add that sazón the Bebé Fuerte line needed to be truly authentic. From the colors to the patterns, every little detail had a reason.


When I first started at TOMY, I had a goal to bring some sort of diversity to any product line I was working on. Having worked on Yumi Ami and Bebé Fuerte, I can happily say that goal was accomplished. But it doesn’t end here! My hope is to be able to continue to grow the product lines we have with more attention to diversity and inclusion.



Did you have any mentors that made an impact on where you are today in your early career?

Through my various internships and my time at TOMY I’ve have been graced with great mentors! I’ll forever be a mentee. You can never stop learning from others. I’ve learned so many things from them specific to my career but one of the main things that I took away from their guidance is just how much they believed in me and my work. As creators, you often doubt yourself and your work. To have an ally in the industry, more experienced and who believes in your potential, is one of the best motivators. That dynamic has helped me push your boundaries strive for my best.



What do you do in your free time that fuels your creativity?

I like to look outside of my professional field for creative fuel. Video games are one outlet where I get a lot of inspiration as a designer because a lot of thought, and work goes into creating a video game. Every detail is intentional, and I’m always amazed at how the video game industry keeps pushing itself on innovation and excellence in graphics. I’m currently obsessed with playing Hogwarts Legacy and can’t get over the beauty of the design of scenery and the details put into not only the costumes and characters but especially the environments.


I also get major creative fuel from Anime. It always amazes me how much time and effort it takes to animate just seconds of animation. Even animation is constantly innovating and evolving for the best type of visuals and graphics. My current favorites are obviously Demon Slayer, Jujitsu Kaisen, Spy Family, and Dragonball Z. I’m a sucker for great stories.


In this tight labor market, any tips to senior management on keeping early professionals at their company?

Creating a platform that allows employees to grow from the beginning is a huge plus not only for the employee’s morale, but for the business as well. We want to see a future for ourselves. Seeing women in senior management roles is also a big inspiration and motivator for me: It keeps us early career individuals ambitious.


My mom is a senior architect who faced sexism and discrimination for being a Hispanic woman working in her industry. She feared I would face the same type of discrimination in my career. Happy to say these types of worries are less as many companies have come a long way to eliminate hostile environments. I’m very lucky to have started my career when I did and fortunate to work at a company that has a focus on recognizing discrimination and takes steps to ensure the behavior is prevented and prohibited.  


You are big fan of Reggaeton. What artists are on your playlist?

I’m a huge fan of Reggaeton – it gets me GOING! Artists constantly on repeat are Natti Natasha, Bad Bunny, J Balvin, Rauw Alejandro, Manuel Turizo, Wisin Y Yandel, Sech, El Alfa, Daddy Yankee, etc… I have so many more! It’s extremely hard to pick one song to add but this song never gets old for me!: 



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