Yelitsa Jean-Charles is literally changing the face of the doll industry. Through her Healthy Roots Dolls Toy Company, Jean-Charles introduced the world to Zoe – a beautiful Black doll with curly hair and authentic features. Her company’s mission is to “empower young girls and represent the beauty of our diversity.” Now Jean-Charles has raised $1 million in seed funding to expand her line of products, which also includes educational storybooks.
“As a company, our goal is to be representation for all children,” Jean-Charles, a Black woman, told Crunchbase News. “Before Zoe, I could not find a doll that had the same hair texture and color of skin that I did. We are now building products for every child. They can see themselves, or their friends, in Zoe, and it also represents diverse play in early stages of development.”
Jean-Charles first launched the Detroit-based company in 2014 while in undergrad at the Rhode Island School of Design after recognizing the gap in the market for Black dolls that truly reflected Black features and hair. She introduced Zoe in 2019, who retails for $79.99. Healthy Roots also offers clothing and accessories for Zoe.
“I never had a doll that looked like me, and my mother worked really hard to make me feel beautiful when she was doing my hair,” Jean-Charles said. “But, most of the time, I felt less like Cinderella and more like a pumpkin because I didn’t see more girls with hairstyles like mine celebrated as beautiful and valid, and that was an experience that a lot of women shared.”
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A June 2020 tweet of a side-by-side shot of Jean-Charles next to Zoe went viral and – with the unprecedented support for Black and women-owned businesses amid a reckoning against racial injustice – Jean-Charles said business “has been pretty crazy.”
“We have never had a year where we consistently offered the product, then COVID happened, and brand recognition grew over the summer during Black Lives Matter,” she said. “We ended up going viral and selling out, and we have not been able to keep Zoe in stock.”
Backstage Capital became Jean-Charles’ first investor after one of its principals, Brittany Davis, met her at one of the firm’s accelerator programs. “We’ve seen her since Day One be heads down and focused on the product. Now we are seeing that journey, and it has been cool to be a part of it,” Davis told Crunchbase.
Adding other companies have tried and failed at representing the Black community because despite their brown skin, many dolls still had mostly Caucasian features, Davis said Jean-Charles’ work “hits us all personally.”
“Yelitsa is phenomenal and builds representation in a product,” Davis added. “The future of this country will be a minority majority, so she is building for the future customer. She is going to be at a scalable size, meeting them where they are — more diverse.”
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In addition to Backstage, companies like Lightship Capital, Broadway Angels, Alpha Bridge, The Community Fund, Sequoia Scout; individuals like Sahil Lavingia; and opportunities like pitch competitions, accelerator programs and crowdfunding helped Healthy Roots raise a total of $1.5 million in funding, Crunchbase reported.
On a goal to achieve “total doll domination,” Yelitsa Jean-Charles recently tweeted “Zoe is an icon in the making.” She plans to use her finding to meet demand and shore up her team in certain areas including marketing, creative and so she can build on Zoe’s legacy and create more products for other diverse groups.
“I’m looking forward to creating more value for our customers and listening to them to see what they like so we can design for the future,” Jean-Charles said.