Representation Matters: How One Woman Is Empowering Black Children & Defying Stereotypes Through Backpacks

Last updated on Feb 20, 2024

Posted on Mar 8, 2018

Here's a little-known fact: Less than 2% of the backpacks in the marketplace reflect children of color. After hearing this statistic, entrepreneur and Jacksonville, Florida-resident Casey R. Kelley set out to defy stereotypes and give Black children the representation they deserve with her apparel and backpack line, Blended Designs. Casey grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana and attended both Purdue University and the University of Cincinnati before working in Customer Insights and Analytics. Since 2014, her company has been dedicated to representation with products featuring positive affirmations and images for Black children. We recently caught up with Casey to discuss the major impact she has had on our youth since launching, how she was able to work with Common and Big Sean's foundations, and so many gems on Black consumer insights.

Mandy: What inspired you to launch Blended Designs and what were you doing prior to launching?
Casey: Prior to launching I was working for a private label company here in Jacksonville, Florida and working with a retailer to understand exactly what consumers are buying and why they're buying it. We started Blended Designs right after I got married, because my husband and I definitely have a blended family. I did everything for my wedding and people kept saying you should start your own business over and over again. I heard someone say ideas have expiration dates so I wanted to come up with an idea that was needed but isn't currently offered and that people want but they don't know they want it. I took a leave of absence from work because of severe migraines and my husband and I decided to fast and figure out what's the best direction to go. During that fast my then 8-year-old wanted his picture on a bag. And so of course, me being analytical and data driven, I asked myself who's doing it? And we learned that less than 2% of the backpacks in the market have characters of color. And I decided, OK, we're onto something. This is something that's needed, but it's not really offered. So how can we do this?

Mandy: Are you a full time entrepreneur now?
Casey: Yes, I am today. When I came up with the idea it was right before the time where I was scheduled to go back to work. And like I said, we prayed and fasted about it. The conclusion was 'Don't go back. This is what you need to do. This is your calling.' And so my last day at work was March 24th of last year.

Mandy: Well congratulations! How has the transition been from corporate to working for yourself full time?
Casey: Well, you know, I had a six-figure income so going from that to "when are you going to get your next paycheck" was stressful. But I think because my decisions were based on prayer and fasting, I think that it's kind of ordained. It was bigger than selling backpacks and making money, it was more about the message. Then July 7th of last year, reality star Yandy Smith came across one of our posts and shared it to her followers. That really just took our business to another level and opened so many doors. We weren't prepared for it, but the response helped us understand that we're onto something and this is what we're supposed to be doing.

Mandy: What kind of products do you guys carry it and who are they for?
Casey: The backpacks are really our focal point. Our products are really to celebrate all things melanin and give a positive message. We want to change the image that people see so that we can ultimately change the narrative.

Mandy: So I just had a conversation with another Black entrepreneur about this, but there are some people who still believe that in order to be profitable on a major level you have to expand outside of the Black community. So given that your product is specifically for us, what are your thoughts on that?
Casey: I actually made that mistake initially. When we first started I was more so catering to the bridal community because it was based on us doing things for our wedding, but what I found is that we really do support each other. I mean Black Panther is really an example of us going after our own. FUBU did it. They showed that if we cater to the Black community, everybody else doesn't really matter. However, in my personal research with trying to understand the demand for this product, I realized that other cultures are heavily influenced by Black culture and they're heavily influenced by what we're doing and how we're doing it. They may not carry a backpack with a Black child on it, but they're going to want to duplicate it.

Mandy: Yeah, that's very true. I was even telling one of my friends that all of these major corporations have whole divisions where they just try and figure out what we like to watch, eat, etc. so they can target us and get a piece of our buying power.
Casey: Right. We're a trillion dollar demographic. Our buying power is so incredibly high. There are so many people that are duplicating the same product over and over and they're not understanding why they're not successful. It isn’t that you're not successful because Black people aren't buying your product, it's just that you're doing what everyone else is doing so we have so many options.

Mandy: So it's just a matter of differentiating.
Casey: Right. I mean, there's only so many hair products we can use. There's so many Black soap items that we can use. And if there's plenty to choose from, it's not that Black people aren't supporting, it's just that your market share just may not be as high.

Mandy: You're not just selling cute bags, you're selling representation. And I think that's so powerful. Even myself, I don't remember ever having or seeing anything like this when I was younger besides a few Black dolls. Was there a specific moment when you knew that you were making a difference in some way?
Casey: When I first posted them we had maybe 5,000 followers combined between Facebook and Instagram. One of our followers commented that she doesn't have children yet, but she wants to buy a backpack so that when she has children, they can be reminded of their greatness every time they reach for the bag. And that was just so powerful to me. We're not consistently telling our kids that they're great and that they can do anything, and the media damn sure ain't telling them. So that's when I knew this was it.

Mandy: Were there any major roadblocks that you had to overcome while getting the business up and running?
Casey: The biggest roadblock is that we grew really fast. Everybody wants to sell, sell, sell. We anticipated doing 1,000 backpacks our first year so that's what we had manufactured. After the post from Yandy, we ultimately did 6,300. And so trying to keep up with the demand... we lost money in the long run because we were rushing production and rushing shipping to get the product to us from the manufacturer. It was just insane. And so then it was like, how do you recover from that? How to get money so that we can continue and that was the biggest stumbling block for us.

Mandy: What would you say are your top three biggest achievements so far in business?
Casey: Of course the post from Yandy, and Sara Jakes Roberts went on our website to buy bags for her daughter and she posted it as well. And right now we're working with different foundations including Common's Common Ground Foundation and Big Sean's Sean Anderson Foundation to help donate our backpacks to kids that are in more marginalized community. They probably couldn't afford our bags anyway, but, you know, they still need the message. It's so important to make sure that we're still giving back to kids that could benefit the most from our bags.

Mandy: That's amazing. How did that even come about?
Casey: I consciously looked for foundations and celebrities that worked with foundations that focused on education and working with kids. With Common, I found the Executive Director for his foundation on LinkedIn, reached out to her and sent her a sample. They set up a call and wanted to move forward. With Big Sean it was all Instagram. I reached out to the foundation’s Instagram and they connected me with Project Knapsack, an amazing program started by Porcha Dodson. They fill backpacks with school supplies and send them to Africa, but they also give backpacks and school supplies to the local kids who are writing the letters to the kids in Africa. So they work a lot with Big Sean's Foundation and we partnered with them to do that.

Mandy: What advice would you give other business owners who are hoping to get into the retail space?
Casey: The best way to go is through supplier diversity. They have initiatives where they have to have so many Black manufacturers and women manufacturers. It's a whole different mindset where they help you get setup. Initially we were going to go into Walmart. In April of last year, I sent a presentation to Walmart and within an hour they called me back. We were moving forward and trying to figure out what to do. What I've found is that financially it wasn't a good decision. I didn't want to water the price down. I wanted to be more of a premium brand, but it showed me that I can get the retail approval.

Mandy: Where do you see Blended Designs and yourself in five years?
Casey: I think that there's more of a push to celebrate diversity now and to celebrate the Black brand. So we want to position ourselves as a more premium brand that is available in Nordstrom or Saks because it will have that crossover appeal. With Black Panther, yeah, representation matters for us, but for the most part, people that are not Black don't buy products that have Black people on it. I think that's going to change over the next number of years. We've gotten hate mail where we've been called racist because all of the characters are Black but yet those same people aren't going to say anything when they walk into stores and see only white kids on the shelf. The expectation is that we will buy our daughter a Frozen backpack, but they will not buy their child a backpack with one of our characters on it. I think that Black Panther is going to force that change where you've got kids who are asking for products with Black characters. I want to push parents out of their normal comfort zone, which will ultimately change how we've been doing things.

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