On Realism and Healthy Roots: Yelitsa Jean-Charles
I love people who cut to the chase: This is who I am; take it or leave it. Yelitsa Jean-Charles is one such woman. In the few months I’ve known her, I’ve grown to love our short-and-sweet exchanges at Union Hall: two tired-but-happy entrepreneurs with big dreams, high expectations, and serious sweet tooths. We finally got a chance to sit down for an interview, and the artist-turned-entrepreneur was everything I knew she’d be: snarky (her words), unapologetic, honest. Read on to meet the founder of Healthy Roots Dolls, a budding company dedicated to bringing diversity and empowerment straight to the toy aisles of America.
Note that this interview contains some strong language.
Let’s start with a fun one: Describe yourself in three adjectives.
Snarky. (I’m being honest! [Laughing.]) Passionate. And a realist.
How would you define “realist”?
I’m optimistic, but I understand limitations. It’s like, I know how the world should be, and then I understand how it operates.
And then you’re working to navigate that tension.
Yeah. ’Cause I have so many friends who are like, “Burn down the establishment!” And I’m like, “Well, first, we have to do this.’” [Laughing.] There’s steps.
So let’s dive into Healthy Roots. Give us the elevator speech.
Healthy Roots is a toy company that creates products that empower children during the early stage of identity development. We do it by creating positive representation through hair play for little girls of color. So our first product is Zoe, which is a black doll that teaches natural hair care. We really wanted to focus on that, because we’ve seen a growing number of women embracing natural hair and defining it as the new standard. Had I, and women like me, had these products as a kid, our experiences growing up would’ve been very different.
I’ve heard you tell the story a couple of times of how you were given a black doll when you were a kid, and you burst into tears. It’s become sort of a foundational piece of your company’s narrative. So I’m curious: In that moment, did it feel significant? How did your memory of that moment evolve as you grew up?
That’s a big question. It’s essentially a question steeped in my awareness and understanding of anti-blackness, which I don’t think as a kid you get. As a kid you just get, “This is how I feel. I don’t know why I feel that way.” So when I got this doll, all I understood was like, “This isn’t the pretty doll.”
When I got older, I may have been a little bit more aware of my dismissing myself from my black identity, but not understanding the ways that it’s toxic to do that, or like, anti-black to do that. Not hanging out with black kids because I don’t wanna be like those kids… Or I thought that, you know, white approval was more valuable, and then getting into high school, being a little bit more aware and not tolerant of certain opinions… And then getting to college and finally having the vocabulary and knowledge to articulate the exact experiences I had as a kid…
How did your family react when you burst into tears? Did you have a conversation about it?
My family’s not really like that. My parents are not very emotive. I often think that my dad wanted a boy. [Laughing.] My dad was always like, “Why are you crying? Stop crying. It’s over. There’s nothing you can do about it, anyways. You might as well just move on.” I think that’s what feeds my realism: being taught from a young age to keep pushing.
Was there a defining moment when you really realized that anti-blackness was a thing?
It was definitely in college. That was the first time… I had always been in predominantly white spaces, but like, as a token in a positive way. But then I got to college and it was like, “No, you’re black. And we don’t like you.” [Laughing.] And it wasn’t anything directly that people said, but experiences I had. Like I was wearing clip-in extensions and a white “friend” that I had – I use quotations because we weren’t friends – was making a joke about my hair, and I was like, “What are you doing?” So having experiences like that where I was pretty much put in my place, where I was like, “No, Yelitsa, you are black, and as accomplished as you may be, as intelligent as you may be; you got into this really good school; your family worked hard; all those things don’t matter to some people because they’re going to see you as this.” And that’s when everything flipped. It’s like the rug got pulled from up under me.
What was coming to terms with that like?
My parents have always told me, like, “Not everybody is your friend.” And I also grew up in a household where I was always taught: You have to be the smartest. You have to always make sure you smell nice. You always have to look nice, because as a black girl, people don’t expect you to be those things. So I came to terms with, “I’m gonna have to work really hard, and I’m gonna have to navigate relationships differently than I did before.” And so my standards for friendships and the dynamics of my relationships changed. My list of criteria grew. [Laughing.]
It was like eating the apple. [Laughing.] I couldn’t un-see. I couldn’t stop making connections.
You have expectations for friendship, and for me, my expectations are “You respect me; you value me as a person; you pour into me as I pour into you.” And then I have extra expectations for other people. If you’re in a position of power, I’m a minority; if you see something or hear something and you don’t say something, we’re not friends. I turn to you: You don’t say nothing? It’s like, “So, you’re not ride or die. You don’t have my back.”
So, I was watching your TEDx talk where you talk about the Mamie Clark Doll Test: They had kids identify which of four racially diverse dolls they preferred. Even the majority of African American kids chose the white doll. And they’ve done similar tests in the modern age and the results really haven’t gotten that much better.
They do it periodically, and the results are typically still the same. Not to the same degree, but it’s enough to be like, “What?” … Children shouldn’t be doing that, period. Any degree of children being overwhelmingly negative towards black dolls? That’s not good.
I was stunned by that.
It shocked me, too, ’cause all of this was new to me. I was applying it to my life, and I was like, “This all makes sense. This all makes so much sense.” [Snaps her fingers.] It was like my life flashed before my eyes and I was like, “I understand.” It was like eating the apple. [Laughing.] I couldn’t un-see. I couldn’t stop making connections.
Trying to enjoy media now sucks, ’cause there’s always something. There’s always a reason not to engage with something because you understand the layers of impact. It’s hard.
And yet, we can’t just tune it all out.
It’s “consume responsibly.” You have to understand how money impacts everything, and the only real way to affect change is to affect people’s money. … The appeal to something dies for me once I know something. I can’t enjoy it the same way. And it’s just finding happy and healthy alternatives. There are so many products from people of color or minorities, in general, that you can purchase that support people. Makeup brands… There’s ColourPop; there’s so many other brands that are cruelty-free. It’s just about acting; it’s not hard work. It’s letting go of the idea that it’s hard.
Had I, and women like me, had these products as a kid, our experiences growing up would’ve been very different.
Like I just started the Whole30, and I am a sugar fiend. Like, when Walmart announced that the Oreo cereal was coming back, I went immediately to the store. But you have to take the time to just figure out your alternatives. I had to read labels and learn what sugar looks like in different names and forms. Took myself to Trader Joe’s. Took myself to Whole Foods. Just find the information you need.
So, back to Healthy Roots: Why hair?
In the African American community, there’s often phrases that talk about hair. It’s like, “Your hair is your crowning glory.” And hair was always such a big part of my life as a kid. I remember my mama: I would sit between her legs and she would braid patterns into my head, like stars and hearts, and then I got too old… But every black woman has a connection to hair because of just, the experience of getting your hair done and navigating the standards of beauty, whether it’s blowing your hair out or wearing beautiful braids or getting a perm.
I chose hair because I didn’t understand my own hair. I met this girl in college who cut off all her hair. She has beautiful, really full, straight black hair, and she chopped it all off, and I was like, “Girl, what the hell? Your mama goin‘ kill you.” ’Cause cutting off your hair as a black woman? It’s like, that’s some serious ish, and she was like, “Well, you know, I didn’t know what my hair looked like, and I was just kinda over it.” And I was like, “Wow. I’m gonna be 20 something, and I don’t know what my hair looks like as it grows out of my head. That’s crazy.” So I started going natural, and it was really fun.
And I was watching all these documentaries. Have you ever seen “Good Hair” by Chris Rock? It talks about beauty trends in the African American community, and talks about perms, in particular. It’s a chemical process of straightening your hair, and it pretty much strips a protein from your hair in order to relax it. Sometimes you can get them as young as 4 years old. They do an experiment where they take the chemicals from perms, and they put a Coke can in it, and it like, eats the Coke can. And people put that on their hair.
So because I had gone natural and had such an incredible, positive experience, and I learned so much about the impact of perms – I’ve seen it in my family. I’ve seen the chemical burns. I’ve seen the hair loss. And I just realized: We don’t have to do this. I mean, you can if you want to, but you shouldn’t feel like that’s your only option because society tells you that’s what you have to look like, when you have beautiful hair growing out of your head just the way it is.
So I had conversations and interviews with moms, and I asked them about hair and why they do their kids’ hair a certain way, and they said: 1. “I don’t have time.” 2. “I don’t know what to do.” Or 3. “I just do whatever my mom did.” Nobody has the knowledge of natural haircare, and so that’s why I decided to address it. I wanted to make a black doll to show representation and different features and skin tones, but then I realized you could take it so much further by adding the opportunity to address haircare because it’s something that children don’t have access to.
I wonder where that crowning glory phrase came from. I love that.
I don’t know the history. But, just looking at the history of different African cultures and tribes: Every tribe had a specific braiding pattern. It had significance, and they did these ornate, beautiful styles. I remember learning how, when they brought slaves here from Africa, they would shave their heads as a way to disgrace and dehumanize them. Like, yo. That’s so messed up.
So, your background is in illustration and fine art. Do you feel like that’s shaped you as an entrepreneur?
I don’t know if illustration had an impact on me as an entrepreneur, but I will say that being an artist did. RISD is where I learned how to put into words my experience as a woman of color, but also how to show it through my art and to communicate it. One thing that I wrote about in a lot of projects was how I viewed artists as change agents and educators to the world, because everyone can understand art, and you have the opportunity to impact and reach tons of people and educate them about something they might not know. I really got involved in Black Lives Matter in my sophomore year of college, bringing activists to campus, organizing demonstrations, getting involved in the community, and in my junior year, I wanted to go back and show my peers that you can make change in your art. You can be a social activist and a visual artist at the same time. We should be using our art for good. So I started talking about my identity in my work a lot. I did this one piece; it was a question about, “How do people see you versus how do you see yourself?” I did my boobs. I always joked about how I could put stuff in my bra ’cause it’s so big; so it was a paper art piece, so the bottom layer was my brown skin and then there was a blue layer of my bra, and I did a dotted line of the items in my bra, so it was like, car keys, phone. And then the “how do people see you?” side, I did two white hands imprinted. It was social commentary.
The only real way to affect change is to affect people’s money.
The last art series that I did before I started Healthy Roots was called “Strange Fruit,” and I merged black women with nature, because I wanted to recall our natural beauty – but it wasn’t just that. I did all these hairstyles that I used to think were ugly: beautiful braids and patterns. And then highlighting African features that often are not portrayed as beautiful because they’re not eurocentric: beautiful wide noses, full lips… Their necks were like these thick tree trunks. All my work had bits of social commentary about race, about black femininity.
I miss that. I would say that it has informed my experience as an entrepreneur by giving me a varied language and background to work from besides just finance or business. I think one of the biggest skills that a lot of people don’t have in our changing society is cultural competency. I’ve learned the language and how to navigate these spaces: I not only I understand you; I understand how you understand me.
What kinds of frustrations and challenges have you run into as an entrepreneur – especially being young, a woman, and a woman of color?
There’s a lot of gatekeeping – gatekeeping in the sense of like, “I need you to do this, this, and this before I introduce you to this.” Why do I have to prove myself? I totally get that you have to build credibility with people, but when I already have credibility, now you’re just fucking with me.
Sometimes people are like, “I want you to work hard ’cause I had to work hard.” I don’t care if it took you 15 years to get to where you got to. It’s not gonna take me 15 years to do it, because I’m not you. If I’m ready now, I’m ready now. What? I don’t even know what else to say about it.
The sooner you value yourself, the sooner that people will value you.
I had a conversation with a potential investor where he was questioning my understanding of my market, telling me that there are products already in this space. So I responded; I was like, “Hey. Obviously, I failed to do two things: Clearly get you to understand my product, and clearly get you to understand the market.” And I set him straight, and he actually offered to invest after that. I’m in the place where I don’t want to take money from people who just don’t get it. If I have to drag you to get to the point, it’s too much work. You either get it or you don’t.
What advice would you have for other entrepreneurs?
I don’t chase. You shouldn’t have to chase people – and I see this with any aspect of life. If you find yourself constantly emailing someone, not getting any responses; if you find yourself constantly reaching out to a friend, not getting any responses, you got your answer. The answer is no. That’s it. If somebody wants to work with you, they’ll work with you. People will make what they feel is valuable a priority. And the sooner you value yourself, the sooner that people will value you.
So you’ve been at this for three-ish years. How has your vision for Healthy Roots evolved along the way?
I would say, I never intended on Healthy Roots being a thing. Healthy Roots just happened to be a thing, and the world has continued to let me do it. I didn’t go to school like, “I’m going to have a toy company!” I didn’t start this like, “I’m going to have a toy company!” Even now, I’m like, “I’m gonna have a toy company?” [Laughing.] We’re just gonna keep seeing where this goes.
I’ve definitely learned how to communicate Healthy Roots. We’re not just a toy company; we’re a lifestyle brand communicating experiences for children of color and for people who don’t feel represented, period. I wanted people to realize: We’re starting with this doll, but this is not the only product that we’re gonna be making. I want my toy company to take the risks that others aren’t making. Over 50 percent of children in the U.S. are of color, and you’re not putting any toys out there for these kids. That’s fine. I got it. And for people who are gender nonconforming or transitioning or gender fluid, you’re not representing those kids, either. I got it. I got everything. Whatever you don’t want, I’ll take it. Because it’s fun. It’s fun to make people feel good.
So where can we get a Zoe doll?
Dolls are available now, and by buying a doll, you’re not only empowering children; you’re helping our company grow and spread our messages. Dolls are available at healthyrootsdolls.com.
Tell us about an influential woman in your life.
The right answer is Mom. But in my world, Beyoncé is my mom. I’m just kidding. I really love Beyoncé. I like Beyoncé’s brand. The fact that like, you can say B and think Beyoncé… And just the way that she visually represents herself and her artistry; she’s really stepped into her blackness, and I think Beyoncé’s journey is representative of a lot of black people who are trying to be successful in this country. So I’m just trying to get on my Beyoncé stuff.