She Built a Toy Brand to Fill a Market Gap—and Teach a Generation to Love Their Hair

When a seven-year-old Yelitsa Jean-Charles opened her present—a Black Barbie doll—on Christmas morning in 2001, she burst into tears. She later recounted this story in a TEDx talk, telling the audience that her reaction surprised her parents. But it shouldn’t have. 

All around her, media and toy companies told her that the beauty ideal was white, blond, and blue eyed. “I started distancing myself from anything that could associate me with Blackness,” she says.

Little did she know this experience would be the catalyst for an idea that would fill a gap in the toy market and forever change the trajectory of her life. 

When little girls can’t find dolls that look like them, it negatively impacts their self esteem.

Years would pass before Yelitsa would confront her relationship with her own identity again. While studying art at the Rhode Island School of Design, she had an epiphany: it is the responsibility of artists to react to and solve problems around them. 

She began to investigate how representation in stories and toys impacted the way Black girls saw themselves—and their hair. “When little girls can’t find dolls that look like them,” she says, “it negatively impacts their self-esteem.”

Yelitsa’s research took her down a rabbit hole and a class project morphed into a force to watch in the toy industry. Her brand, Healthy Roots Dolls, was born in 2015 and has since raised $1.5 million in funding, secured a partnership with Procter & Gamble, and recently landed a deal to sell dolls in Target stores across the US.

How Healthy Roots Dolls found—and filled—a market gap

Three kids laugh while holding Healthy Roots Dolls
Healthy Roots Dolls saw a gap in the market for dolls that celebrated the beauty of natural Black hair. Healthy Roots Dolls

Yelitsa drew on her own experiences growing up to form an idea: a doll that focused on education and hair play that celebrated curls. She pitched a variation on the classic Rapunzel character for a project in her illustration program at school, and the idea took hold. 

She saw that there were Black dolls on the market and those that leaned into hair play, but none, in her experience, that empowered children to learn to love their natural hair. 

“I applied for a social innovation fellowship through my institution,” she says. “They gave me a grant to work on the company over the summer.” Accepting the fellowship and applying for other grants, Yelitsa says, forced her to conduct deep research on the idea and approach it in an informed way. 

Brands have been making dolls with different skin tones, different body shapes, tall dolls, short little round dolls. It’s interesting seeing how they have approached representation and variety.

In order to determine whether the product she was designing actually solved her identified problem, she looked into children’s products on the market and systemic issues around race and identity. “I saw that hair play is not new when it comes to toys,” she says, referencing a doll with hair that kids could straighten with a magic lotion. “That’s not what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to change the curls.”

Yelitsa acknowledges that dolls have come a long way in recent years. “Brands have been making dolls with different skin tones, different body shapes, tall dolls, short little round dolls,”’ she says. “It’s interesting seeing how they have approached representation and variety.” But her product research also uncovered a gap in the market and sought to fill it with her solution—one that went beyond “just painting a doll brown.”

In 2015, Yelitsa launched a Kickstarter campaign for Healthy Roots Dolls and introduced the brand’s star, Zoe—an 18-inch doll with washable, styleable hair—to the market just two years later.

Healthy Roots Doll Zoe sits on a yellow couch surrounded by kids' books
Zoe, Healthy Roots Dolls’ flagship product is a result of extensive research to fill a market gap in the toy industry. Healthy Roots Dolls

Through the first few years of the business, Yelitsa juggled being a full-time student and a full-time entrepreneur. We asked how she balanced the two. “I didn’t,” she says. “I had to step down from multiple student leadership positions. It was very, very hard.”

Being a student came with additional challenges as Yelitsa sought to grow her brand and get funding. “I’m young, I don’t come from this space,” she says. Systemic racial and gender bias within financial institutions meant that traditional sources of funding felt out of reach, too. She strategically approached venture capitalists that had made inroads in changing the bleak statistics, and applied for grants and competitions designed for young and Black entrepreneurs. 

Target is definitely a huge opportunity. But we are recognizing how much more work we have to do before every kid has a Zoe doll.

But starting a business in college also gave her access to experts and resources, such as professors who had worked in the toy industry. “If you’re paying $80,000 a year for school,” she says, “you’re getting access to a lot of things, and you should be taking advantage of them.”

After a full public launch in 2018, Yelitsa went back to the drawing board, armed with user feedback, and relaunched Zoe in partnership with Proctor and Gamble’s My Black is Beautiful campaign. “New product design, new experience, new packaging, new brand, new storytelling,” she says. “That’s the product that you see today.”

This year, Healthy Roots Dolls fulfilled its contract with Target to get Zoe in the hands of kids and doll collectors all over the country. But Yelitsa rejects the idea that her brand is anything close to mainstream. 

“Target is definitely a huge opportunity,” she says. “But we are recognizing how much more work we have to do before every kid is running around with a Zoe doll.”

Finding a gap in the market: Launching to meet a need

Many of the world’s most successful business owners started by identifying a problem and solving it. In many cases, the product is not a new idea but a fresh take on an old one. “You’re not the first person to do it,” says Yelitsa. “You have to make improvements. You have to build a better product, tell a better story.”

About market gaps 

A market gap refers to a business opportunity created by desire or an audience in the market that is not currently being served. It can happen when the world or technology evolves and an existing industry lags to adapt. Or when a previously fringe community with specific needs gains numbers and buying power. 

Filling a gap in the market can be achieved in one of three ways:

  1. Develop an entirely new product
  2. Improve or reimagine an existing product
  3. Market an existing product to a new audience (sometimes referred to as filling a “product gap”)

Netflix and Uber updated existing services for a digital and mobile world. Olipop put a spin on a common refreshment. The founders of Bug Bite Thing and Thinx created entirely new products to address common pain points in innovative ways. 

And Yelitsa took a timeless toy and reimagined it for a new audience.

8 steps to launch a business that fills a market gap

Close up of the face of Zoe by Healthy Roots Dolls
Zoe took four years of R&D and a full rebrand to come to life as the version currently on the shelves. Healthy Roots Dolls

Identifying a gap in the market sometimes starts with a hunch or a personal pain point. But solving it and ending up with a finished product that meets market demand can take months or even years of research and development. Yelitsa offers her advice to those new to entrepreneurship.

1. Identify a problem

Yelitsa learned in her research that only a tiny fraction of children’s books in the US were about children of color—a stat that didn’t line up with the makeup of the population. “I started thinking, how can I, as an artist, address these issues of diversity that I see impacting young girls of color,” she says.

The problem may spring from your personal experiences. If this is the case, you may be the right person to solve it as you identify with the end user. If the problem you identify serves another audience, ask yourself if maybe it’s best solved by someone else. 

2. Find underserved audiences

Are you the only one facing this problem? If so, your idea may not have enough market demand to justify solving it through a business. Yelitsa found that her audience was wider than herself and even wider than young Black girls and their parents. Through conversations, she found demand from those from other backgrounds, doll collectors, and customers of other brands.

When you’re ignored by the mainstream media, you have to become a problem solver.

There is still plenty of room across industries for those looking to fill market and product gaps for underrepresented audiences. “When you’re ignored by the mainstream media, you have to become a problem solver,” says Yelitsa. “We have to solve our own problems.”

3. Listen 

It’s especially important to bring voices on your team and into your research that represent your target customer. Do this as early as possible. Before you begin any formal research, float your idea past friends, colleagues, and mentors. Join online communities and poll members about your industry. 

Sometimes the conversations may deter you or steer you in a slightly different direction. For Yelista, listening strengthened her drive to press forward. “It honestly was just further validation,” she says.

4. Conduct market research

Yelitsa was a college student when she decided to start her business and develop a product from scratch. She was new to all of it. Though she folded in many experts and mentors over time, she ultimately needed to put in the work. 

“How do you get from point A to point B, figure out what you’re building, design it, find someone to help you do the renderings, and find a factory to work with?” she asks. “During the process, I realized people can’t answer these questions for me.”

During research:

  • Scrutinize potential competition. Who else is on the market? What do they do well? What are they missing?
  • Look to the past. Were there any failed attempts to solve this problem? Where did others go wrong?
  • Pulse check. What are the new trends? Where is the world headed? Does your product or service tap into a movement and therefore benefit from increased conversations?
  • Conduct interviews. After casual conversations, level up to focus groups, surveys, or other formal interviews to gain more insight into the psychology of your potential customer.
  • Talk to experts. While your idea may be new, the process of designing and manufacturing products in general has a lot of constants. Tap into the knowledge of those who’ve done it before.

“I needed to determine what I do know,” says Yelitsa. “I’m an art student, I’m creative. I can explain my ideas. I can draw what I want to build. But I may not necessarily know how to make it.”

5. Propose an innovative and researched solution

At the end of your research you should have validated the gap in the market and landed on an iteration on your original idea that is now backed by data, research, and a solid plan or prototype. 

You now have a clear and viable idea with an identified audience. Let’s build!

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6. Build your brand and business plan

Building your brand and nailing your pitch will both complement the research you’ve done. It’s the polished exterior that will help you gain the attention of media and investors, even before you build an actual product. 

“In order to get into the next accelerator program and launch a Kickstarter,” says Yelitsa, “I had to learn how to tell my story and talk about my company.” 

7. Seek funding

“I fully understood that, as a college student,” says Yelitsa, “traditional sources of capital to build a startup were likely not going to be accessible to me.” As someone creating an innovative product to fill a market gap for an underrepresented audience, however, Yelitsa qualified for specific grants and programs.

Her next step was launching a crowdfunding campaign. “I went directly to consumers,” she says. “Presented the concept to them and let them vote with their money and proved that there was demand.”

8. Go to market

When you’re heading into production, especially if you’re new to the industry, ask a lot of questions, says Yelitsa. “I connected with people at industry events and tapped into resources made available for my industry to get updates and follow the guidelines for toys.”

She also stayed close to the manufacturing process in the early days, working into the wee hours of the morning to communicate with overseas factories. “Once you approve a mold, you cannot get that $7,000 back,” she says. “So you have to make sure it’s right.”

But launching the product doesn’t mean the end of R&D. Your audience’s needs will change, the market will shift, trends will come and go. Continue to listen and evolve your product. “We got feedback on the limbs, realizing people wanted them to rotate all the way around,” says Yelitsa. “Feedback about little details like the packaging and how it was delivered.” Continuing to communicate with customers allowed Healthy Roots Dolls to relaunch with an improved product.

Yelitsa’s final thoughts

Yelitsa, founder of Healthy Roots Dolls hold three dolls in her arms
Yelitsa Jean-Charles dreams of inspiring the next generation to love their natural hair. Healthy Roots Dolls

In college, my best friend gave me some really great advice,” Yelitsa says. “Figure out what you want to do, figure out how to do it, and then do it.” And she did. Though she’s a success story, her journey did not come without its challenges and learning moments. “This was my first time being an entrepreneur. I was an art student,” she says, “not a business student.”

As her brand grows, she has not lost sight of her learning trajectory. “I ask myself all the time if I am creating value.” In doing so, she stays deeply connected to the problem she initially set out to solve. 

Her goal of “total doll domination” is on its way to being realized, with plans to expand her Healthy Roots Dolls team, inspire new generations with hair play, and tell more stories. And into the universe she lobs one more chance thought: “Any executives or producers who want to call me can.”

Feature image courtesy of Healthy Roots Dolls