Toy company celebrates beauty of diversity
Chances are, if you grew up playing with dolls, they all had similar features: porcelain skin, glossy hair, a big smile. But, for Rhode Island School of Design illustration graduate Yelitsa Jean-Charles, these dolls did not represent the beauty and diversity she knew were important for the self-image of young girls of color. Thus, Cincinnati-based Healthy Roots Dolls was born. After reimagining Rapunzel in one of her design classes, Jean-Charles was inspired to create a toy company that celebrates black women and helps young girls navigate and learn about their natural hair.
“I started the company because of my own experience growing up,” said Jean-Charles, CEO and founder. “I remember when my parents tried to give me a black doll for Christmas and I instantly started crying because I had been taught from what I’d seen in the media that this wasn’t the pretty doll. The pretty doll had blonde hair and blue eyes. This mentality definitely impacted my self-esteem and it wasn’t until college that I learned how to express myself and talk about how it feels to be discriminated against because of the color of your skin and the texture of your hair.”
To rewrite beauty standards, Healthy Roots Dolls come with a variety of facial features, skin tones and hair textures. Not only does “Zoe,” the company’s flagship doll, celebrate the beauty of her natural hair, Healthy Roots Dolls also sells a complementary Curl Care Kit that helps young girls learn how to style and care for their hair.
“In the black community hair is a really big deal, because your hair is your crown, it’s your glory,” said Jean-Charles. “Before I started my natural hair journey, I realized I had no idea what my natural hair even looked like, and I was 20 years old! The Curl Care Kit is like a gift from Zoe that describes her own natural hair journey. And she hand-picks products for the kids. You have to do more than just paint a doll brown in order to connect with children of color. With Zoe, I want kids to know that they don’t have to change their hair in order to be accepted.”
Jean-Charles’ startup journey is far from over. After receiving a $4,000 fellowship from Brown University to work on Healthy Roots Dolls and study the influence of children’s media, Jean-Charles started a Kickstarter campaign that raised $50,000 to help bring Zoe and her curls to life. The next step for Healthy Roots Dolls: winning the inaugural Wendy Lea grant from Main Street Ventures, a partner of Ohio Third Frontier. Named after the former Cintrifuse CEO, Jean-Charles noted the importance of Lea’s leadership in the startup space.
“When I first got to Cincinnati, Wendy Lea was one of the first people I saw that was a powerful woman, especially because she was running Cintrifuse,” said Jean-Charles. “Initially, it was hard for me to connect with a lot of the other startups in the space because they were focused on tech and there weren’t a lot of black people or women at the time. But, receiving that grant shows Cincinnati’s commitment to supporting underrepresented founders and different types of startups. The grant is incredibly validating because I look up to Wendy Lea in many ways.”
For young girls, it’s clear that Lea isn’t the only role model in the community. When Jean-Charles finally got to see photos of children enjoying their new Zoe dolls, she was inspired by how passionately the community rallied behind her dedication to empowering girls of color.
“It’s always so exciting to see that people know about our brand and our mission,” said Jean-Charles. “For me, it’s even more important that we’re top-of-mind when it comes to thinking about companies that are doing things to support children of color. I love that we’re shaking things up in the toy industry and that our customers connect with our values.”