Influential Leaders

Lisa Radcliffe

Founder and CEO, PunkinFutz
Recognition Year(s): 2023
Area of Impact: Community or Social Impact
School: The Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College-The City University of New York
Location: United States

Lisa Radcliffe is founder and CEO of PunkinFutz, a Brooklyn-based maker of therapeutic sensory toys and accessories for children with adaptive needs. Inspired by her son and daughter, Radcliffe aims to enable creative play for every child. PunkinFutz exclusively employs adults with disabilities, and its products—colorful wheelchair bags, calming compression vests, and more—use accessible design and are ethically sourced and manufactured.

Radcliffe is committed to creating positive societal change. PunkinFutz products are designed to appeal to all children, not just those with adaptive needs, thereby fostering inclusion, compassion, and understanding. Many PunkinFutz products, such as fidget toys, compression vests, and even water bottles, help calm children and promote focus. At a time when students have experienced major anxiety, loss, and upheaval due to the pandemic, PunkinFutz toys promote the social-emotional learning that is critical to academic success.

Research shows that imaginative play is crucial for a child’s cognitive and behavioral development. Too often, products for children with adaptive needs are utilitarian and unattractive. PunkinFutz products are designed with input from occupational therapists, people with disabilities, and other experts, and they bring creative play to children who are often excluded from it.

Through PunkinFutz, Radcliffe demonstrates her commitment to purpose, people, and planet. The company helps protect children’s economic and environmental futures by sourcing and manufacturing its products ethically and sustainably and by employing people from the community it serves: those with a variety of disabilities. By exclusively employing adults with disabilities, Radcliffe is a compassionate leader who is transforming the conversation around disability and not only changing people’s lives but also making others aware of their potential. In addition, Radcliffe recently launched a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization, Powered by Inclusion, which solves an unmet need by providing after-school programs for children with disabilities.

If not for her education at the Baruch College Zicklin School of Business, Radcliffe would not have launched her business. After a 25-year career leading technology companies, she enrolled in the Zicklin School’s Evening MBA program to expand her horizons. The experience reenergized her and changed her life. Indeed, the PunkinFutz concept developed from a business idea she originally pitched for an entrepreneurship class; eventually that professor and another Zicklin School colleague joined PunkinFutz’s advisory board.

Perhaps not surprisingly for a leader who has built her company around creative play, Radcliffe describes her time at the Zicklin School as “fun.” She took longer than average—six years—to finish, partly because she took extra classes to open her mind to new areas, such as product ideation, business analytics, and social media marketing. When she wanted to study social entrepreneurship but couldn’t find a course, she worked with the Zicklin School’s Lawrence N. Field Center for Entrepreneurship to create an independent study. She enjoyed business school so much that she even encouraged her high school classmates to follow her example and go back to school for their MBAs. Several did and have launched new careers.

As a nontraditional student alongside classmates who were young enough to be her children, Radcliffe gained an understanding of the younger generation: how they think, interact, and approach problems. “This was incredibly useful for my growth as a human being,” she says, and it was crucial for her ability to lead a successful 21st-century startup.

Radcliffe leads by example. By designing and producing toys and accessories for children with adaptive needs, her company promotes access, inclusion, and positive change. By exclusively hiring adults with disabilities, Radcliffe creates worthwhile opportunities for people who are often overlooked by employers. Her goal, she says, is “to create a sustainable model of a different kind of company: one that produces exceptional products for children today, while creating meaningful employment for those children tomorrow.” Some of those children may one day become business leaders themselves.

Radcliffe inspires the future business leaders she met at the Zicklin School both directly, through the relationships she developed, and indirectly, as a living example of a nontraditional business student and entrepreneur. She inspired her former high school classmates to return to school for their MBAs and start their own companies. She also inspires by her modesty. “I feel uncomfortable with the idea that I’m making change,” she says. “I’m participating in change. Multiple groups come together to effect change.” By drawing often-overlooked groups into the conversation around diversity and inclusion, Radcliffe promotes true inclusion and belonging. At a time when much of global society has splintered into factions, Radcliffe’s vision that “we all succeed together, or we fail” is a true inspiration.