As a young child, Healthy Roots Dolls Founder Yelitsa Jean-Charles broke down in tears when her parents gifted her a Black doll. Although the color of its skin matched her own, as a girl who never saw herself represented in toys, she felt it wasn’t the “pretty doll.”
Several years later, while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, Jean-Charles was tasked with a class assignment to redesign a fairytale character. Thinking back to her childhood and the lack of characters who looked like her, she chose to reimagine Rapunzel as a Black girl with natural, curly hair. Many of her classmates commented that her design looked like a doll, and she learned that a lot of them had the same experience as her growing up.
“I wanted to do more than paint a doll brown,” Jean-Charles says. “I wanted to design a doll with hair that girls could wash and style so they could learn to love their natural hair.”
Today, that dream is a reality with Healthy Roots Dolls’ Zoe, a lifelike, detailed doll that comes with real hair products that girls can use in their own hair. The character has been practicing different styles and is ready to teach her new curl friends through online videos and tutorials.
Zoe’s detailed backstory helps her share her journey toward loving her hair. It began after doing the “big chop,” which is the process of cutting off all chemically processed hair. Zoe had her mom to help her through the journey, and now she is here to help girls discover their own curl power.
In the short time from her idea to when Healthy Roots Dolls launched in 2019, Jean-Charles did whatever it took to make her company a success. She utilized grants from her university, joined accelerator programs, began a Kickstarter campaign, and took time to travel to meet people and learn what her customers expected of her company.
It turns out that she didn’t need to travel far to understand what people wanted. One year ago, Jean-Charles tweeted a photo of herself alongside Zoe that quickly garnered a lot of attention — and now has more than 36 million impressions. Her words, “The Founder” and “The Product” had struck a chord with millions of people who had never seen themselves or their daughters represented in such a way. Parents replied how excited they were to find Zoe, and how beautiful the doll is.
The Founder: The Product: pic.twitter.com/o5SNHB368q
— Yelitsa Jean-Charles (@TheYelitsa) June 6, 2020
“[Since last June,] nothing has stopped,” Jean-Charles explains.“Everything is moving very quickly — lots of demand, lots of love. We’re trying to keep up as best as we can as we’re doing the work that we want to be doing. It’s happening much faster than we could have anticipated, but it’s an honor to be able to be a part of so many kids’ lives.”
Jean-Charles credits Zoe’s success to the doll’s ability to represent a lot of little girls who may not have any other toys that have that effect. Kids can see themselves in Zoe, and as a result, feel more confident in their appearance.
“Zoe’s hair having real curl power is because I never had a doll like that growing up and recognized the demonstrated need for representation for children,” Jean-Charles says. “[I’ve had] conversations with people and saw how important it is to not only have a doll that looks like you, but one that you can also learn from because of that educational hair play. Particularly for girls with naturally curly hair, if you already can’t find something that represents you, you are already struggling to love your hair. Only four out of 10 girls love their curls, despite the fact that 65% of the world population has curly or wavy hair. Imagine if you had a doll that was all about having fun with her hair and what that would mean for you.”
GROWING THE BRAND
Jean-Charles was named in the Retail and Ecommerce Forbes 30 Under 30 list as a result of her understanding of the world around her and how she can change it for the better. Before checking her email to see the announcement from Forbes, she learned of the award randomly one day from a business contact. She feels excited to be a part of the list.
Jean-Charles may not have imagined as a kid that she would one day be an award-winning toy inventor, but she says the progression from her art background — she holds a BFA in illustration and in gender, race, and sexuality from the Rhode Island School of Design — to owning a doll company was quite natural.
“While I might not know how to sculpt and do the CAD (computer-aided) designs, I do know how to draw and bring something to life,” she explains. “I know how to find people with the right skill sets to help me do that.”
Jean-Charles says the most important factor when working in kids’ media is to understand that you can make a positive impact on kids.
While Zoe is now available at Target — a move that was done to make her available to more kids — the Healthy Roots Dolls’ website is still home to her personal blog. It comes complete with tips on hair care products, discussions on popular culture, and an introduction to who Zoe is. Kids can learn about Zoe’s journey to loving her hair, and ultimately, learn how they can do the same.
Jean-Charles admits that Zoe loves making friends, and the company’s ultimate goal is to make sure all kids can be seen and represented. While that doesn’t mean that new dolls are promised this year, Jean-Charles wants Zoe to be available to all who feel connected to her.
And, of course, more curl power.
This article was originally published in the June 2021 edition of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!