Founder Focus is a “Humans of New York” style spotlight on the human stories behind diverse startup founders, their life experiences and perspectives, the origin stories of their startups, and the path they took to where they are today.
Hello everyone, viewers of Cloudflare TV. I'm Jade and I run Cloudflare's startup program.
Welcome to another episode of Founder Focus. This is a show where we shine the spotlight on the stories of startups all over the world and also shine the spotlight on the founders and the backstories and the path they have gotten to where they have come today.
Today, our guest on the show is Yelitsa Jean-Charles, founder of Healthy Roots Dolls.
Thank you for coming on our show, Yelitsa. Thank you so much for having me.
So before we jump into questions, actually, the audience, there is an email down below the stream.
And so if you have questions for Yelitsa, please email them in for that email address.
So I actually don't have the slide with the...
So recently there was a tweet of yours that went viral. Can you tell us about what happened?
Yeah, so I tweet a lot and I just so happened to be hanging out at home in my temporary apartment as my real apartment was getting ready.
And I use social media as a way to engage with my friends and the audience that's following my work and also to promote my company, but I really focus on authenticity.
So I'm always sharing insights on product development, my opinions on things that are going on in the world and acute moments from our customers.
It was a Saturday morning and I had happened to see a meme where people would share them and their products or them and their companies or them and their artwork.
And I was like, I never really got to do mine, so let me do my version. So I said the founder and the product, and it was a picture of me, very cute.
And then it was a picture of my doll, Zoe from Healthy Roots Dolls, also very cute.
And people really liked it.
And you get likes and whatever, and it just kept going up and up and then more famous people, then up and up and then interview requests and up.
And it had, I think maybe 36 million impressions. I haven't checked the numbers recently, and then nearly a million likes.
And we captured the hearts of millions of people.
And now we have even more fans and what I would like to call crow-fans for the company.
Nice. So very briefly, can you tell us about your company's mission and show us a Zoe doll if you have one?
Oh my goodness, she's just out of arm's reach.
Can I grab her? Yeah, yeah. Whoa. I just pulled her by her hair. Hi, this is Zoe.
This is a new outfit. Don't tell anyone. We might be working on this. It's a secret.
So this is Zoe. Yeah, so my name's Yalitza. I am the CEO and founder of Healthy Roots Dolls.
Healthy Roots Dolls is a toy company that creates multicultural children's products.
So we're bringing true diversity and the beauty of our world to the toy aisle.
And our first line of products are these dolls here, which is Zoe and her crow-friends, as I like to call them.
And I created her because I never had a doll that looked like me growing up.
And that's really sad when you think about it.
And as a children's illustrator, I understood that toys influence how kids think, act, and see themselves.
So when little black girls like me can't find dolls that look like them, it can negatively impact their self -esteem.
So I created Zoe, a little brown girl with hair that they can wash and style just like their own.
Because while there are black dolls, you have to do so much more than paint it all brown in order to connect with children of color.
So I wanted to create an educational play experience.
And this doll ultimately came to life because while I was studying illustration at the Rodin School of Design, I was in a class where we had to create 3D products.
And I was assigned Rapunzel as a fairy tale character to reimagine in a modern time.
Yeah. I realize people don't know the story even though I tell it all the time.
And so I sculpted this model out of clay and aluminum foil.
And I turned Rapunzel into a little brown girl with kinky curly hair because a lot of my work was about representation and my experiences as a black woman in America.
And when I presented it to my class, they were like, oh my god, this looks like a doll.
This looks like a doll.
Have you thought about making a doll? I was like, no. I came here to make art.
And then I took that conversation to Facebook. And there was a resounding, you know, commonality amongst my peers where we realized, you know, I never really have dolls that look like me growing up.
Or the dolls that did exist were just painted brown, or they didn't have hair like me, or I just, my parents couldn't find anything.
And so I saw an opportunity there to solve that problem. That's really cool.
So a sort of technical question was, were there sort of material differences in the way that, like you said that you could wash and style the hair of the doll?
Like, how does that work? Like, I guess like when I was a kid, I didn't, I, it had never occurred to me like to like wash and style the hair.
And that wasn't like one of the things that I did with my dolls.
Yeah, a beautiful whole new play experience for kids now with our product.
And I know a lot of children when they have their dolls are like braiding it.
And I know at least that's what I did. You know, I do my own hair.
I do box braids, I do bantu knots. And I wanted to focus on that hair play experience for, because for a lot of young black girls, that's something that is really important to us, how we feel about our hair.
65% of the world's population has curly or wavy hair, and only four out of 10 girls love their curls.
And more and more women now, especially within the black community, are embracing their natural hair texture.
After years of feeling like we can't wear our hair like this, or being told it's not professional or being told it's not beautiful.
I didn't know how to do my hair until I was 20. As a natural in my head, I spent most of my life straightening it and changing it because I was told this isn't how you should look.
And that's something that a lot of people that I know and you know, around the world have experienced.
And so I wanted to focus on creating a positive play experience with curly hair, with natural hair, so that those girls could see their hair as beautiful and as another option for them.
So Zoe's been designed with a unique fiber for her hair so that it's full of curl power and black girl magic.
And it allows you to do the washing, it allows you to do the box braids, the bantu knots, the twist outs, all these like all these I'm not sure you're familiar with, but these are the fun hairstyles we get to do with our hair.
And so that's how we went about approaching it, is from a different play experience and the value that we can create for children around educating them and empowering them.
So how many, how many dolls are in Zoe's squad? As many as we want, but there will be more than one.
Yeah, because the whole goal is to represent girls from around the world.
And you can't do that with just one doll. But we also recognize you, I truly believe you don't have to be a brown child to have a brown doll.
So while Zoe is the only doll we have, she can still be very valuable for all children because of the fact that she represents people that are in their day to day life and is a new friend in general for them.
So we do want to create dolls from different skin tones, facial features and hair textures to really get that great cast of characters and create different stories around them, different accessories and all that stuff.
Nice. So in addition to dolls, I saw on your site that you also had hair care products and you've partnered with Procter and Gamble on that.
Could you tell us about how that partnership came about? Yeah, so one of my goals with Healthy Roots Dolls has always been to align with brands that not only share our values, but like it makes strategic sense in terms of the work that we're trying to do with educating girls and helping them learn more about their hair.
So in previous years, we've partnered with Shea Moisture, Cantu, Mixed Shakes and Oyin Handmade on our first natural hair starter kit, which we called the Curl Care Kit, which was paired with our doll because from our Kickstarter backers, we learned, okay, great, my kid loves this doll.
I still have no idea what to put in my kid's hair.
Because when you go down the hair care aisle, there's so many different products.
So we decided to curate a box of products that people could use with their dolls and with themselves to learn how to take care of their curls.
The Procter and Gamble partnership with My Black is Beautiful came about after I was living in Cincinnati and had been featured on local news.
I developed a relationship with a mentor who was an executive in residence from Procter and Gamble who initiated that conversation with My Black is Beautiful.
And My Black is Beautiful is all about just that, celebrating black is beautiful.
And they were working on their own hair care line to align with their mission.
And because of the values that we shared, we just saw that a perfect alignment to provide their products for our customers bundled together for the holiday season of 2019.
And I guess it was a big hit. We don't sell hair care products, but we're always open to exploring new partnerships and seeing what ways we can create value for our customers.
Cool. So let's segue a little bit into shining the spotlight on your own story.
Could you give us a little brief overview of your background and the path that you've taken?
Yeah. So my parents are from Haiti. I am a first generation Haitian American, grew up in New York.
I studied illustration at the Rournon School of Design after developing a passion for art, partially inspired by Harry Potter, Aragon, all of the children fantasy novels.
And I said this in my college essays where I talked about, I viewed artists as having a unique responsibility to be culture curators and educators and focus on the impact of our work because visual language speaks more to people globally rather than written word and something that can transcend.
And it's so true, even looking at my peers and where they're working now, so many of my friends have gone on to create some of the biggest shows on Culture Network right now for kids and Nickelodeon and major motion picture projects.
And it's like, we have to be aware of what we're producing and being culturally competent and aware of the impact of our work.
So I went to the Rournon School of Design where I studied illustration in my undergrad and my career really started in social justice work.
So in 2014, 2015 was heavily involved in the Black Lives Matter movement and was inspired to create work that discuss issues, social issues around colorism, internalized racism, my own experiences as a Black woman and recognize that while I was very passionate about these conversations and long-term impact for our society, the best way that I could create long-term impact was by getting to children because adults kind of suck.
But with kids, I feel that it's very important to develop children and develop confidence in children and have conversations with children about identity, about respecting others, about being good people.
And so I focused on pursuing a career in children's media, children's books, children's TV shows, things like that, and somehow ended up making dolls.
That's really cool. Yeah, I think adults are kind of set in our ways, but we all have our capacity to change as long as we want to change.
Yeah, I think I like seeing that change happening with people where it's like, you know, when I first started this company and I was navigating the startup ecosystem, a lot of people were saying, oh, it's just a doll or what's the big deal about hair?
But then they see the way children respond to the product. They hear the kids say, oh my God, it looks just like me.
And they realize while that might not have been my personal struggle, I recognize now that this does impact people.
And, you know, maybe we should be working to create more pre -representational products and empowering kids.
It does matter. So speaking of childhood, there was a story of when you were seven years old and at Christmas.
Can you tell us that story?
Yeah. So when I was seven, one holiday season, my parents gave me a black doll and I instantly started crying because to me, it wasn't the pretty one.
You know, the one that I'd seen on TV, the blonde hair, the fair skin, the blue eyes.
And that's a testimony to the fact that children are socialized to perceive things like we are socialized to understand race and to be taught racism at a young age.
And, you know, the fact that I at a young age felt that there was something wrong with me, just the way that I looked from the color of my skin to the texture of my hair to and then wanting that and then seeing that in the toys that I played with or the content that I consumed because I never really saw women that look like me being shown as beautiful on the TV.
We never got to be the princesses. And so that's part of the inspiration behind my work is recognizing that how the lack of representation can impact your self -perception and making sure that that content is available to children today.
Thank you for that story.
Let's explore some of the inflection points and key decisions in your path.
As a first generation immigrant myself, I found this quote very relatable that you were quoted in Forbes as saying, do you know how much money my parents paid for college?
My island parents did not come to this country for me to drop out. Could you tell me about the relationship that you have with your parents and the hope and optimism that they have placed in you and also how that affected your decision to immediately pursue your project versus stay in school and finish?
So I didn't drop out.
I stayed in school to be clear. My mother loves it. So coming to this country, I attribute the way my parents raised me to the success that I have now and the grits, the resourcefulness.
Let me not say my parents. My mom was a little bit nicer.
But my dad was the type of person where you couldn't ask him questions until you did your best to solve something first.
I would be like, daddy, how do you fix this?
He'd be like, you figure it out. I believe in you. And so I'm like, I'm going to read things.
We used to have encyclopedias, googling things.
And I was like, oh, I did it. And so watching my dad be a resourceful person, I watched my dad fix everything.
I watched my dad talk to his friends and ask for help and those kinds of things.
And so my parents, I just was always taught to try to problem solve for myself and to be reliant on myself.
I guess I was also an only kid, so that was part of it.
I was the only person I could play with, so I better figure out what I'm going to do.
And so it's always expected for me to get the best education possible because there are a few things, well, maybe not a few things, but of the things that you can control in life, what you choose to do with your life is part of it.
And so always focus on maximizing opportunities and maximizing opportunities to them meant maximizing my education and being very proactive about what I was pursuing, what I was learning and the path that I was going down.
And so when I was like, I want to go to art school, they're like, what are we talking about?
So art school wasn't a big deal to them as long as I went to the best art school and I did the best that I could while I was there to maximize my opportunities.
So once my parents learned about the institution and they realized that it was a very strong school for me to attend, I was able to go and it was very challenging.
The school that I attended, it's a lot of 1% children, um, people whose family knew they were going there from birth, had private art teachers, you know, knew all of the old masters, like do watercolor, gouache, oil painting, whatever, Caravaggio, this, you know, whatever.
And I'm sitting there like, yeah, this is my favorite anime.
Um, did not have the same pedigree. However, I was still there and I had great grades and my work was strong and I started a company.
So I think, you know, my school and my parent, my personal upbringing helped me develop the, the grits, the resourcefulness and the ability to creatively think, um, and always be problem solving and looking for ways for me to create value and using my skills to do that.
Nice. Yeah. I, um, I also have, uh, this sort of being also a, an only child and also first generation highly related.
Yeah. And, and also, you know, there's, there's this thing about us first generation kids.
Um, so when I decided to, uh, you know, leave my job at the time and start a company, um, my, my parents had, were filled with nervous trepidation on my behalf.
And there was, there were some kind of like tense moments because, you know, from their perspective, they would much rather, uh, their child take as sort of like the, a good, easy guaranteed success kind of, uh, path as opposed to, you know, high risk, high reward kind of path.
Um, could you tell me a little bit about how your, your parents reacted and the kind of conversations you had around your decision to start a company?
Yeah. If I could be perfectly honest, we didn't really have those kinds of conversations.
Um, and I feel like the reason why those kinds of conversations didn't happen for me is because, um, I didn't, while I didn't have a safety net, there really was no risk.
You know, I wasn't taking out huge loans.
I was trying something. And if it didn't work, I could always rely on my degree and just go work that regular job or, you know, go get that nursing job or, you know, go be a graphic designer.
So because I wasn't like 10 years into my career and like quitting a six figure dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, to like start something, my parents didn't, they were never afraid.
They just wanted to make sure that like, I was good while I was being scrappy, um, and figuring it out.
So yeah, I didn't really have to have those conversations with them, but they, but my parents would regularly do that.
Yalitza, do you want to come home, go to nursing school?
You know, we take care of you, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. I was like, did you not see the photo of the big check that I just won?
I just, you didn't see that?
All right. They know, they no longer ask me that. Um, but it took some time for them because, you know, like I said, they, they have a very, their understanding of how to be successful and how to support yourself is very different.
Like, you know, you work this, you know, normal job where you go every day, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.
What is, what is a pitch competition? What is an accelerator program?
Accelerate what? Why are you going to all these different States all the time?
I'm doing programs. I'm meeting people. I'm networking. You need to go sit down at home and cook.
Um, so it's very much a different world for them, but they, they trusted the child that they had raised and that, you know, they trusted the tools that they had given me to be smart and to be resourceful.
And they always knew that if I did ever get in trouble, I would call them.
And so they never, they ever doubted my ability to be successful.
They just, you know, how long is it going to take you?
So you mentioned pitch competitions in a few places and you, and you've won a bunch of them.
Can you tell me, um, like how they have been as an experience, uh, for you?
Like, were they helpful? Do they give you much lift? Like, tell me about that.
Uh, the experiences. Yeah. So for Healthy Roots Dolls, I've raised nearly, um, half a million dollars.
Uh, and it's a combination of grants, pitch competition, winnings, and investment.
And so the way that we started was we got a $4,000 grant from Brown University in the social innovation fellowship.
Um, and then we did $50,000 on our Kickstarter campaign doing pre-sales of our products back in 2015.
And then in terms of, and that's after that, you know, investment, but the pitch competition path, um, it started with, what was my first competition?
So the first major competition I was, I won was after our first holiday season in February of 2018, I went to Durham, North Carolina, um, and participated in the startup stampede American underground program, where I learned all about direct to consumer and marketing and e-commerce.
And I won a hundred thousand worth of marketing services from the McKinney agency, um, where they helped us think about our marketing strategy, our brand and our voice.
And then after that, I won $25,000 from the new voices pitch competition at essence fest.
And then after that, I got a grant from main street ventures in Cincinnati, Ohio.
And then after that, I won Detroit demo day in 2019 and won people's choice in first place for a total of $125,000.
Nice. Yes. There's other money somewhere.
And I can't remember all the, it's been so long, just like racking up.
And so the reason why I chose that path of fundraising is because I had in 2017, I'd heard no so many times from investors and, you know, them telling us, Oh, we need to see more traction or we want to see this and X, Y, and Z.
And so I spent 2018 as I like to refer to my medium article, minding my damn business, literally.
So I kept my head down and I focused on building my business. You want to see more traction?
Okay, cool. I'm going to learn how to do digital marketing, building my custom audiences on Facebook and, you know, doing my retargeting ads and the Facebook pixels and the email marketing and the lead gen and all that stuff so that I can have a more successful holiday season.
And I use my pitch competitions winnings to fuel that and to hire contractors and to hire team members, to help me build out the company and find that product market fit so that now we are sold out and we were sold out even before we went viral.
And now, you know, 50% of our inventory is pre -sold.
And now we have retailer interest because of the way that we were able to build our brand awareness and build that organic, you know, that, that authentic branding and find our core audience that would really latch on to this.
And so for pitch competitions, what I also learned was you can't go to all pitch competitions.
It just doesn't make sense to go to all the pitch competitions.
Like there are only so many times I'm going to pitch against somebody trying to cure cancer.
I'm never going to win. Like I can't.
But you know, if I go to pitch competitions where it's for physical product companies, or for female founders, or for women of color, or for black founders, people who you have to go to the people who are looking for you because you can't just you have to be more selective.
You have to curate the opportunities to make sure that they're as optimal for you as they are for them.
Because there are people who are looking for your company, there are people who are looking for your brand, and you shouldn't be pitching everyone.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. If you were, so it sounds like you've learned a lot in the startup journey that you have, that you have come through so far.
If you could, if you had a, you know, like a five-minute sit down with a version of Yalisa from like three years ago, what are some of the key things that you would be teaching your time-removed self?
Scared money don't make money.
All this, you gotta put out your brave face.
All this week my mentor, like Maxine Clark, she's a, she created Build-A-Bear, and I talked to her about like all the products we're working on, and she's like, order more.
Just bigger inventory. She's like, you need to stop being so scared.
People want your products. People want what you're selling.
And so like for me, because I come from this world of my parents, it's like, you know, be very, you know, don't spend what you don't have, and you know, make sure everything's right.
So like for me, it's very hard to spend money thinking forward like that, but you have to believe in your product and understand like, yeah, if I spend this much money on marketing, here's gonna, here's what the return on investment gonna be, and this is where I can reinvest that capital to then do this.
So I spent so much time holding on to my pitch fund, my pitch winnings, and my grant winnings, and it's like, you need to hire people so that you can make more, make more time for yourself to do other things, and then spend money on these campaigns, and hire PR, and like you have to try things.
That's the other thing I would say.
You can't spend so much time thinking about something, because the only way to see if something works is to try it.
Bias towards action. Yeah, do things, because people are always telling me like, what do you think about this, or do you think I should try this?
I think you should do it and see which one works for you.
Yeah, that's the advice I would give. So, all right, let's, in our last five minutes, what's next for you and for the company?
What's next is total world domination. For the company, we're ultimately focused on creating this multicultural company, and really focused on the play spaces that we're creating for children, and so looking to invest in that, and doubling down on our customers, and understanding them, and what they're looking for, and building a really great team behind that to execute on it.
So, for me, I'm looking for, you know, other creative people to join my team who are just as passionate about creating positive representation for children, and we're looking to learn from our customers, and seeing what we can do to support people in this time, and, you know, make them better children of tomorrow.
What do you look for when you're hiring people? That's a big question.
Yeah, yeah, it is. If I had to say one thing, I like to see how people think.
So, like, I like to ask people, like, let's say that you, your boss proposed something that you thought was impossible to do at first.
How would you do it?
So, it's like, I want to see that you try. Like, it's never good enough.
To me, it's never good enough to be like, you know, I did this one thing, and it didn't work.
If you come to me with a problem, I want to also hear solutions. How are we going to fix this?
What, like, I want to see people thinking about big ideas, because I think about big ideas, and then, like, I want to, like, I never, there's no, I don't want people who say no to things.
I want people to say, you know what, let's figure it out.
Let's see what we can do. Let's, let's dream big, and, like, think big.
So, that's what I ultimately look for, is people who are not afraid to, you know, get their hands dirty, try to figure things out, and not allow their thinking to stop themselves from being creative, and being, you know, forward-thinking.
Looking for a lot of a bias towards action personality types. Is that it, really?
Yeah. Okay. What's the assessment? You just got to go, go out there, try stuff.
Yeah, it's like, yeah, I don't want people who come to me and be like, I'm not sure about this.
Did you try it? Let's try it, and then come back to me, and show me the results.
Cool. And before we go to audience questions, is, are there other things that you would like to share with the audience?
Pop culture, art recommendation, whether it's a book, or a movie, or a video game, or anything that you've really taken to liking recently?
I really like the Eurovision movie on Netflix.
Uh-huh. One of my friends is from Spain, and he was like, you don't know Eurovision?
And so then we went down this rabbit hole of, like, the best songs from all of Eurovision.
Oh, nice. It was like, yeah, because it's like, I'm not, I'm not technically American culturally, like, I'm a third culture kid, like, I'm part of American culture, I'm part of a Black American culture, I'm part of Asian culture, but it's so interesting to me how, like, in America, so many of us don't know about these things, or like, global things, like, how the heck did we not know about Eurovision?
Yeah, I thought that movie was really fun.
A ton of Internet traffic, that's what they have. Cool.
Uh, well, thank you for being on our show. Um, let's see, it doesn't look like we have any audience questions, so, all right, I guess we answered all the questions before.
Yes, exactly. Cool, oh, so if someone wants to, uh, learn more about Healthy Rootstalls, where do they go?
Yeah, so you can go to www .healthyrootstalls.com, you can check us out on Instagram at Healthy Rootstalls, um, Facebook Healthy Rootstalls, and then I'm at The Yalitza on Twitter, and Black Girl Versus the World on Instagram.
Cool, thank you.