When Mattel Inc. announced last week’s donation of $1.85 million to the Otis College of Art and Design in Westchester, it acknowledged that the company best known for Barbie will be getting a direct benefit of the gift – in the form of its future talent pool.

The gift, the largest corporate contribution Otis has received to date, is the latest step in a long relationship between the toymaker and the institute of higher learning. Mattel has long been the No. 1 employer of Otis graduates, hiring the college’s alumni to work on the company’s toy and fashion designs and marketing and advertising campaigns for the past 15 years.

And, of course, Mattel execs want to make sure they’ll continue to have a quality pool of candidates from which to draw.

The Mattel money will be used for student scholarships, curriculum improvements and facility enhancements.

“This is an important gift on a lot of different levels,” said Deidre Lind, executive director of Mattel’s philanthropy programs and the Mattel Children’s Foundation. “It benefits the community, school and students. But it also benefits Mattel as a business.”

Mattel also had its Otis alumni design a one-of-a-kind “Otis” Barbie with bright pink hair and an elegant wardrobe. The doll is a collector’s item gift to the school.

The relationship between Mattel and Otis began 15 years ago, when the college moved its campus from the Mid-Wilshire area to Westchester, near Mattel’s El Segundo headquarters. Mattel execs quickly recruited Otis students to show them L.A.’s hot spots and emerging trends in pop culture so they could draw inspiration for products that would appeal to young people.

“It was a cool-hunting exercise,” said Samuel Hoi, president of Otis. “And it sparked Otis’ idea that we should think about the opportunities in our immediate environment and the industries we serve.”

Otis then began offering a degree in toy design and started working closely with Mattel. The company provides internship opportunities for Otis students, and last year sent a group to Mattel’s Hong Kong manufacturing facilities to see how the toys are made.

Other local toymakers, including Jakks Pacific Inc., Walt Disney Co. and MGA Entertainment Inc., also hire from Otis, but Mattel remains the top employer of the college’s grads.

“We have the training of a future work force right in our backyard,” Lind said. “It’s a funnel of talent, innovation and creativity.”

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