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Meet Leslie Scott: The Woman Who Invented Jenga

Fact: Its name comes from the Swahili word "jenga," which translates to "build."

Leslie Scott, creator of Jenga.
Photography by: Sue Macpherson

If you've ever played a round of Jenga, you can relate to the whirlwind of emotions experienced in mere minutes: the lighthearted laughter, the stints of serious concentration, the growing suspense — all components of a good game. It's exactly why the creator behind it, Leslie Scott, had all the confidence in the world that the game would fly off the shelves as soon as buyers saw it. But when she introduced the game to the male-dominated London Toy Fair in 1983, she realized that wasn't the case. It took time, twists and turns to break into this lucrative industry.

 

Recounting back to the beginning, Leslie Scott was a worldly woman, born in Tanzania, raised in West and East Africa, and educated in Uganda, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Ghana and England. She eventually settled in Oxford, but never forgot her roots, which helped to inspire her iconic invention.

 

The concept for Jenga came from her childhood experiences and memories of home. It was based on a game her family would play in the 70s, using her younger brother's wooden building blocks. (Who would've guessed that this common pile of wooden blocks would eventually change her life forever?) After several years of playing with the family, Scott decided to modify, name, and manufacture the now highly-addictive party game.

 

When asked about why she believes Jenga has become such a household name, Scott explained in an interview with The Oxford Times: "In a world that was getting more and more complex, this was something simple, and sometimes simple works."

ombre tumbling tower game
Photography by: Shanna Sullivan

When it coming up with a name, Scott wanted something that wouldn't be familiar to Americans. Instead of making up a new word entirely, she drew from her roots and borrowed the Swahili word "jenga," which translates to "build." And despite backlash from her future prospects, Irwin Toy and Hasbro Corporation, the name was something she always believed in. "Both companies loved the game," she recalled in an interview with Freshpeel, "but both 'hated the name because it didn't mean anything.' It was a potential deal breaker, but I stuck to my guns."

 

[DIY THIS: An Ombré Tumbling Tower Game]

It was certainly difficult to stand strong with this key point of the game, especially when her initial introduction of Jenga in 1983 wasn't as successful as she hoped. It was three years later that Scott hit a true breakthrough when she relaunched Jenga at the Toronto Toy Fair. Alan Hassenfeld, chairman of Hasbro, sought after the game, exclaiming, "We just have to have it." And thankfully, for the sake of the brand, she kept true to herself by staying firm on details such as the name.

 

[NEXT: Meet Elizabeth Magie: The Woman Who Invented Monopoly]

Although Jenga turned out to be a wild success and has allowed to her to devise and market over 30 games in a 26-year span, Scott recounts on the move that cost her millions: she signed away the worldwide rights to the Canadian-based brother of an Oxford friend. While agents receive 75 cents per every ten dollars from sales, Scott receives just a nickel from every 10-dollar sale.

 

Even though the game hasn't made Scott a millionaire, this wildly successful family game allowed her to do what she loves most: developing games. And who doesn't love a good game to bring friends and family together?

 

Feeling inspired? Watch how to host a family game night with a do-it-yourself twist on Jenga: