Fun at work – Former Mattel designer Derek Gable is being honored for teaching kids that fun at work is part of the job

Derek Gable with the pie chart he uses to teach Positive Interactive Energy. Photo by David Fairchild

by Elka Worner

Derek Gable came up with his first invention when he was seven years old – a warning system to trick his parents into thinking he was asleep while he read comic books late into the night. He looped a fishing line around the light switch in his room and ran it down the stairs. “When my dad stood on the second stair, it turned the light off in my bedroom, so I knew he was on his way,” he said. “If you’re an inventor you see problems as opportunities.”

Gable said that as a child he was always fascinated by how things worked, often taking apart kitchen appliances, to his mother’s consternation, and then not knowing how to reassemble them.

“I spent most of my life in my bedroom, in trouble,” he said.

Now Gable leads the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, a three-month program for middle school, and high school students, sponsored by the Palos Verdes Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. 

His classes aren’t focused solely on business plans, prototypes, and market research. A vital component to business success, he said, is the ability to have fun, and to feel passionate about your work.

Former Mattel designer Derek Gable is being honnored for teaching kids that fun at work is part of the job.

“You do your best work when you’re enjoying it,” the former Mattel product designer said. “You do your best work when you’re happy.”

“Having fun isn’t goofing off,” the longtime Rancho Palos Verdes resident added. “Having fun is doing what you love.”

The 80-year-old inventor transforms his students from shy, awkward students into confident entrepreneurs who can pitch in front of an audience, utilizing a process he calls  P.I.E. or Positive Interactive Energy.

“When you work with people in a positive interactive way, magic happens,” Gable said. “Success and happiness are based on gratitude, a positive attitude and achievement.”

Gable teaches students basics like smiling because “your face is your door, open and inviting, or closed and rejecting,” putting down electronic devices, and “talking in person to your family and friends.” 

Personal and financial success also hinge on being grateful for what you have, helping others and “going beyond your social circle.”

Daniella Vincent said she took Gable’s Young Entrepreneur course when she was a junior at Palos Verdes High School, when she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life.

“The classes were very interactive. He made them fun and entertaining,” she said. “He knows how to take shy, self-conscious, and unmotivated high school students and transform their whole mentality.”

During the class, Vincent said, Gable helped her create a 15-page business plan for a jewelry company. Vincent, 21, majored in entrepreneurship at Loyola Marymount University and is on track to become a certified financial planner.

Peninsula High student Aiden Hannauer, 18, said Gable helped him patent a sheet music holder for musicians known as the “Flip-It Music Holder.” The invention was born of Vincent’s personal experience performing outdoors in a jazz band, and the “having the sheet music blown away by the wind.” 

“He inspired me to keep going and said that it had a lot of potential.” Hannauer said.

Gable earned a mechanical, and production engineering degree in his native England. After college, he created parts for Rolls Royce jet engines, designed still projectors, car building robots, and machines to make Cadbury candy. “I felt like Willy Wonka because I would take candy home for the neighborhood kids,” he said.

In 1968, an engineer he had worked with, invited him to come to the United States to work for Mattel. He and his wife Pam, both still in their 20s, packed up and moved to America for “freedom and opportunity.”

“America gives you the gift to be whoever you want, and to write your own story,” Gable said.

Former Mattel design director Derek Gable with some of his team’s toys. Photo by David Fairchild

He worked at Mattel during its heyday, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with founders Ruth and Elliot Handler. 

“The company was full of young creative mavericks who were chosen for their cutting-edge ideas, and willingness to step out of the box and take chances,” said Gable His title was director  of a Mattel think tank, known as Preliminary Design. He was responsible for male action figures, small dolls, games, and novelties. 

Gamble oversaw a team of 20 creatives who invented 50 toys, and accessories for Barbie Dolls, and Hot Wheels. His group came up with the Master of the Universe action figure He Man, a $4 billion brand. Back then, management knew how to nurture talent, he said.

“In order to manage creative people, you have to allow them to play. You don’t structure them. You don’t tell them what to do,” he said. “You say, ‘go and play’ and they judge you on your results.”

The creatives, or “freaks” as Gable calls them, were slowly pushed out by “the suits — the accountants, lawyers and marketing types,” he said.

When Mattel disbanded the Think Tank, Gable left to start West Coast Innovations. He and a partner invented the first audio recording Lock Box system for showing real estate. The security device stored a house key and recorded Realtors’ entries into a property. The company-controlled 80 percent of the world market, with sales of $10 million a year.

The company also focused on helping inventors take their concepts to production. 

Now, in addition to teaching at the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, he runs a class called “I have this great idea, but I don’t know what to do with it.”

Teaching hasn’t stopped his inventing . Gable’s latest invention is the Sonic Fin football, a toy football, which has been thrown 145 yards, almost half a football field. Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson serves as pitchman for Sonic Fin.

For his contributions to Young Entrepreneurs Academy, The Palos Verdes Peninsula Chamber of Commerce is honoring Gable with its Citizen of the Year Award on  November 16 at the Trump National Golf Course.

He was invited in 2013 to be a guest speaker at the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, and fell in love with the program because it “teaches kids stuff that makes their lives better and allows them to be who they should be.”
Gable believes successful people have strong people skills.

“I’m all about boosting confidence in a good way. Being able to lead people, inspire people,” he said, speaking of the skills that aren’t taught in school.

“Derek’s creativity, positivity, and commitment to the students in the Chamber Young Entrepreneurs program is unparalleled,” said Chamber President and CEO Eileen Hupp. “He is always offering to mentor, and guide our businesses, particularly startups and newly opened businesses.”

Students in his classes said Gable practices what he preaches, injecting enthusiasm, positivity, and teamwork not only into each three-hour class, but his life.

“He’s goofy. He laughs a lot and cracks a lot of jokes,” Vincent said. “He’s not someone who drew within the lines.”

Having fun and being a bit non-conformist is what many stressed out high school students need, Gable said.

“Success isn’t about having a billion dollars,” he said. “Success is using your time well and doing the things you’re supposed to be doing.”


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