Melanites | Creating A New Category
A strong advocate for gender equality and diversity, Jennifer, founder of Melanites, realized there weren’t enough options in the toy aisles for young boys of color. After working as a tutor at a community center in Miami, Jennifer noticed the lack of relatable inspirational role models. With her company, Melanites, Jennifer hopes to create a new platform to teach boys that they can express themselves through positive imagery and role play without the pressures of hyper-masculinity.
How did you come up with the idea for Melanites?
The idea started a while ago but it was catered to young girls. It was all about celebrating natural hair and diverse facial features. Every time I went into toy stores, I noticed there were only dolls with straight hair and blue eyes and never brown eyes or curly hair. My focus shifted last summer when I started working at the community center. Interacting more so with boys made me realize there was a greater untaped need so I switched the idea to cater to them.
I noticed when the boys were around their friends, they had a macho demeanor and mostly talked about sports, etc but once they were in the classroom and they were separated, you got to see a different side of their interests come out. Specifically when I asked them questions around their interests and goals, it showed me that without an open avenue, it’s really hard to express yourself. So that’s how Melanites was born.
How would you describe Melanites in 50 words or less?
Melanites is a new way of thinking about gender stereotypes and diversity in the toy industry by offering a new category of play that lets boys know that they can express themselves freely and dream big.
How did you come up with the name?
Melanites is a play on the word “melanin.” I wanted people to understand why I started the company and who I was trying to positively affect. “Celebrating Brown Boyhood” is the tagline to initiate a conversation about what it means for boys to have a childhood in different cultures and how that makes them maneuver their lives differently.
When did you decide you wanted to go ahead with your idea?
After I decided to attend Babson, I applied to the WIN Lab. When I got in with Melanites, I took the idea more seriously. It was the perfect time to get it off the ground and launch it, especially with the support from all the women founders around me going through a similar process.
Do you have a team or a co-founder?
Right now it’s just me! However, I am looking to build a team and expand the Melanites skillset. It is a lot of work but it’s definitely rewarding seeing your vision come to life.
I remember I saw a doll you produced. Who is helping you make these dolls?
The one you saw is just a prototype. Through the WIN lab, we talk a lot about lean startups and creating prototypes quickly particularly finding a way to show your idea even if it isn’t a finished product. So that doll was a combination of clay and paint. I went to the toy store and bought a model of a female doll and made a male doll based on that. I made the clothes based on YouTube! I watched videos and cut the clothes out.
Wow, that’s awesome. Is that the only doll you have produced?
Yes. I’m planning to create a kickstarter campaign to fund more prototypes. I’m going towards the 3D printing route rather than the traditional oversees route. Also, since I am Haitian-American there are some factories in Haiti that I am looking at as well. So I’m trying to make sure that everything that I do, goes back to the principles that I care about.
How much do you plan to sell these dolls for?
I don’t have a price yet because that would be based on the manufacturing costs. However, my main goal is making sure they are priced to be accessible to my target market.
What did you learn from college that has helped you with the business?
From UM - my lens was all marketing. So everything was about awareness, crafting your story and making it relevant for others to buy into. UM also had a launchpad where I was given the opportunity to meet other entrepreneurs about creating networks around you. They stressed, “your network is your net worth. Share your idea with people around you.” Even at Babson the ways that I meet people is talking about Melanites. Sometimes as entrepreneurs, people tell us to keep our idea secret until it’s finally ready to show the world. But that’s not really how it works. Even though I am solo right now, it’s impossible to do this myself - so I’m learning to create my network.
Your network is your net worth. Share your idea with people around you.
Did you receive funding for this venture?
Right now everything is bootstrapped. From the website, to prototyping I’ve been paying for everything myself. After SheDemos, though, I won the 'Fan Favorite' prize where I received marketing and legal help.
Were there any challenges you faced or are there any you are facing now?
When you have an idea, it becomes your baby and you create all these notions of how you want it to be. But you have to realise it really is about your end user and your customer. For me personally, having market research studies and going to these places to talk to these boys, and asking them “Who are your role models?,” “What influences you to buy a toy?” etc. You can’t really start until you have that information. That was one of my first hurdles. When you are too excited to get something off the ground, you have to make sure you understand who you are giving this product to and in the best way that you can.
Then my second challenge was that I needed funds to make a prototype. Mainly because it was so hard to describe without a visual. It became hard for users to connect with the idea.
How do you plan to go about building a team?
Through Babson we have a peer connections profile where I can create an internship position for student to receive credit. There is also the Blank Center, which is a department on campus, where they hold a lot of sessions for entrepreneurs and students to network with one another.
Any advice you would like to give to young women founders, like yourself?
I would tell them if they have an idea that they are sitting on - just go and do it. That was one of the things that hindered me. When you think about the word entrepreneur, you always get caught up on thinking “Am I going to be the next Steve Jobs" and you don’t think you’re idea is important enough to launch. But there is a piece of the pie for you. And somebody out there cares about your idea. If you are passionate about it, go ahead and launch it. You have to have the confidence in yourself and your business and by interacting and sharing your idea with others, it will only help you grow.