Founder & CEO of Healthy Roots Dolls, Yelitsa never had a doll that looked like her growing up. The one time her parents gave her a black doll, she burst into tears because it wasn’t the “pretty one”. Since then, Yelitsa has made it her goal to make sure that no other children feel the way she did about her own appearance growing up. While in her Junior year studying Illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design, Yelitsa redesigned the fairy tale character Rapunzel as a brown girl with beautiful kinky hair. After speaking with classmates and friends, she saw the opportunity to address the demonstrated need for more diverse toys and representation in children’s publishing. With a grant from the Brown University Social Innovation Fellowship, support from the RISD E’Ship Program, Masschallenge Accelerator program and 674 dedicated Kickstarter backers, Healthy Roots was born.
Yelitsa has gone from not knowing how to do her own hair at the age of 21 to teaching young girls all about their own. Since starting Healthy Roots in 2015, Yelitsa has graduated from RISD with a BFA in Illustration and a concentration in Gender, Race & Sexuality. She was most recently recognized on Essence’s 2017 50 Founders to watch list and won the Startup Stampede as well as the New Voices Fund Pitch competition.
Who is Yelitsa Jean Charles and what was your motivation for starting your brand?
Yelitsa is a young entrepreneur still finding her way. I am the CEO and founder of Healthy Roots, a toy company that creates products that empower young black girls through hair play. I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2016 with a BFA in Illustration and a concentration in Gender, Race, and Sexuality. I am the child of Haitian immigrants who still ask me to go to nursing school almost every time they talk to me on the phone, and I am incredibly passionate about creating a different world for the girls that follow me. I started Healthy Roots because of my own experiences growing up. When I was little, my mom doing my hair was one of my favorite experiences because the hair patterns, beautiful beads, and hair accessories made me feel like a princess. But then growing up, I didn’t really see girls with hair like mine being told that they were beautiful or being represented. So, I felt like something was wrong or I wasn’t as beautiful, and that impacted my self-esteem.
As I grew up, I talked to other women, and I realized that we shared the same experience. I used the opportunity to use children products to combat that issue. I was going to go into children’s illustration. Seeing the lack of representation in children’s media even though over 50% of children in the United States are of color, didn’t add up for me. I also noticed that more and more people are embracing natural hair and that there is an opportunity to help them to love their natural hair. That’s how I got to Healthy Roots. I designed a character named Zoe who was inspired by a Rapunzel project that I did, where I turned Rapunzel into a brown girl with kinky curly hair. My friends really liked it and so did my peers. I applied to the Brown University Social Innovation Fellowship and received $4000 to start the project. It turned into a line of dolls that teaches girls natural hair care through hair play with a doll that has hair that they can style just like theirs.
What were the main challenges you faced with building your brand?
I don’t think there were any challenges. There was so much to work off of in terms of the experiences that people were sharing, and it was something new that no one else was doing. It was an open opportunity to do whatever we wanted. Coming up with the branding and the messaging, getting to explore what it looks like to create a doll for young black girls that we never had growing up… it was us putting our minds together and asking customers about what they are looking for in the product and what kinds of experiences we can create for kids. It was a lot of fun.
What can we expect from Healthy Roots?
We have a special product for the holiday season for people who order before Christmas. It’s called the Curl Care Kit. We partnered with Shea Moisture, Cantu, and Mixed Chicks to put together a kit of products for the girls to use on their hair as they are learning to do their natural hair. It also comes with a Denman brush for the girls to use on themselves or the doll. I pitched them and they supported the mission and the concept and wanted to support young black girls learning to do their hair.
What advice would you have for women looking to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t say no before you can say yes. A lot of people will turn down or won’t pursue opportunities because they think it is not for them. Always turn in that application, always send that email, always ask questions, because you never know what might happen. That is how I started Healthy Roots. I applied for the fellowship program even though I did not think I would get it. But talking to people about it, figuring out what the program is looking for, and talking to people who have gone through the program helped me to take the step to apply.
Tell us about some of your accomplishments and which one you are most proud of.
Honestly, I’m really not an accomplishments person. Those are not the things that drive me. It is about seeing the results of the work that I have done. We gave shirts to the Curly Queens Pageant and seeing the photos of the girls loving their shirts was really great for me. Delivering our dolls from our Kickstarter campaign was also really great.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, and resources?
- The Read podcast
- This American Life podcast
- How I Built This podcast
- The Friendzone podcast
What is your definition of winning?
I don’t know if I have a definition, but I base winning on impact. A lot of things are subjective in terms of the decision people make and you cannot measure your value based on someone else’s approval, but you can measure it on the impact that you’ve had on other people. If you are impacting tons of people and getting positive feedback and support from your community, that is winning. Even if you don’t win the $50,000 cash prize or you may not get mainstream recognition, but if the people you are doing it for recognizes, that is winning.