Podcasts   //   December 2, 2021

‘Our storytelling is our marketing’: Healthy Roots Dolls founder Yelitsa Jean-Charles on growing a modern toy company

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Yelitsa Jean-Charles says she was able to grow her business by being authentic.

Jean-Charles is the founder and CEO of Healthy Roots Dolls, which makes toys that represent more diverse backgrounds. “I never really had dolls that look like me growing up,” she said. So, she designed Healthy Roots’ first product, Zoe, which Jean-Charles described as “a little brown girl with kinky curly hair.”

Zoe was first devised in 2014 as part of a school project. In 2018, Jean-Charles launched a Kickstarter that raised $50,000. Earlier this year, the company raised a $1 million seed round. And, this past October, Healthy Roots landed in over 1,200 Target locations. Jean-Charles joined the Modern Retail Podcast this week and talked about the company’s journey.

Jean-Charles was able to grow the company by posting about her life and experiences. “I talk about loving yourself, I talk about hair, I post selfies, I post about my traction with my company,” she said, “I think it’s really authentic and it clicks with people.” In her eyes, that authenticity part is key. “I don’t think there’s any formula to going viral other than consistency and great content that speaks to a broad audience,” she said.

Even so, virality presents a double-edge sword. “Going viral is terrible,” she said. “You run out of inventory, you don’t know when it’s going to be back.” Indeed, when a post of hers went viral earlier this year, Healthy Roots was already sold out of stock. She decided to use the moment as a way to gather preorders. While people waited for their dolls to get in stock, Healthy Roots provided updates. “We started doing Facebook Lives, Instagram lives, sending weekly updates,” Jean-Charles said. “We wrapped it around a narrative of Zoe coming back from a trip.” True, Zoe was at sea, but she wasn’t exactly sailing on a cruise boat — more of a container ship.

These touches are what have helped Healthy Roots grow. For now, it’s focused on one doll and its accessories. But Jean-Charles sees a bright future. “I think it would be a disservice to not explore every opportunity that presents itself to tell a story and connect with children,” she said.

Here are a few highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

On making a doll outside the Barbie mold
“When I designed it, I was like: how do I make this look like all kids, even though it’s one doll? How can I make this very relatable? I [was] looking at dolls, and thinking about the toys that I played [with] — they have those big, bright eyes; they have that warm smile; they have the soft, rosy cheeks. My primary focus was: I want to represent features that I don’t think I’ve seen on a doll yet. And I want [her] to have hair that I have definitely not seen on a doll yet. But I also remembered that this product doesn’t have to be everything for everyone.”

Growing with a tight budget
“We were able to do what we could do with that [initial $50,000 raised on Kicksarter] — make every dollar count. But now, when I look back, I can’t believe I did anything with that. Because even $100,000 isn’t a lot of money when I think about production and ordering several thousand units of products and covering shipping costs and things like that. And so I was able to learn because I worked with a tight budget. I think it’s helped me work smarter — being able to be very intentional with our design and the choices that we’re making for products.”

Everything is marketing
“Our storytelling is our marketing. We’ve always been marketing since the Kickstarter campaign, since my class project, guerrilla marketing at events. When I started my email list, I was literally getting people to write their emails down on a clipboard, and then transferring that over to Mailchimp… And it’s always been strategic in a way of using our story — using our PR — and building up our social media platforms organically on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, even LinkedIn now. We’ve always been marketing.”