Before Nicole Hawthorne gave birth to her daughter Jayla in 2016, she was already researching dolls that represented people of color. Mainstream toy companies were slowly adding diversity to their designs, but Nicole was looking for handcrafted dolls that her daughter could pass down to future generations. As Jayla grew into a toddler, her collection of heirloom-quality dolls also grew but only after her mom had spent hours scouring the internet.
Nicole, a project manager by day, knew there had to be an easier way.
She launched Jayla’s Heirlooms in November, a curated collection of Black and Brown handcrafted dolls designed in collaboration with makers from across the globe.
Despite a global pandemic that resulted in one of the worst economic downturns, Nicole was one of the 4.4 million Americans who started a business in 2020 — up from 3.5 million in 2019. The U.S. toy market also experienced a boom last year, grossing approximately $32.6 billion, according to The NPD Group/Consumer Tracking Service.
Mom and daughter turned to Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade items, and connected with dollmakers from places like South Africa, Paris and Russia to prototype dolls that would sell on the Jayla’s Heirlooms website. [Visitors can also shop for custom greeting cards.]
Four-year-old Jayla is more than just the inspiration behind the business, Nicole smiled when she said her daughter also serves as quality assurance.
“Once we pick a doll, I’ll show her a design — the hair, the face, the dresses, etc. — and ask, ‘What do you think about this?’ Usually, the ones she loves are the ones we’ll move forward with,” Nicole explained. “She makes sure the dolls are safe for children, you know, like things aren’t falling apart. She’s so excited about talking to people about them.”
In April, Jayla’s Heirlooms was among the 19 North Carolina startups awarded a $10,000 grant from NC IDEA. The micro grant program provides funding to promising startups not yet positioned for the Durham-based foundation’s $50,000 seed grants.
In a recent interview, Nicole talked about the process from design to delivery and how the NC IDEA grant will help Jayla’s Heirlooms level up.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Share more of the backstory behind Jayla’s Heirlooms.
My daughter really is the inspiration and it was pretty much her idea. I was trying to find something that I saw in the handmade realm that represented her true beauty. I was not able to find a handmade doll that I felt really reflected her.
There’s no reason for us not to be represented in handcrafted dolls, so I curated them. Family and friends were asking where I was getting the dolls — because I was just doing it for fun so Jayla could have a little collection. When I told them we designed them with different people, they said, “You gotta sell them.”
Within the last year, I asked Jayla if she thought we should sell them. She said, “Yeah, mommy. Let’s sell them.” That’s when we started getting them made for resale.
I got a lot of encouragement to help to bring this concept to life.
Q. Is this your first business?
I had a business in the past where I was doing marketing consulting, but I had a small team. This is the first one where it’s just me and baby girl going at this on our own. It’s been exciting and scary, but it’s good to keep trying. Our hope is to create a workshop where [the dolls] are actually produced in Charlotte in the future.
I work from home — I’m an agile project manager; that’s my day job — because I had those skills, I knew exactly what to bring to the launch. And I have a marketing degree from Johnson and Wales University, so all those things kind of tied in.
Q. How long is the process from design to delivery?
Because we work with international makers, it could take a while. Usually, six to eight weeks from design to delivery. We’ve been navigating that, especially with Covid. We had some stock that got caught in New York for two months. We can only do so much dealing with a pandemic, so we’re just trying to be patient.
Q. What’s the cost for dolls in the collection?
We sell them between $60 up to about $170, depending on the customization. When we work with a designer, we tell them the look that we’re going for and then they make it on our behalf. We have some makers in South Africa, we have some in Paris, we have some in Australia, so this really is a global effort. The reason I put that lens on it was because we have American Girl, but we don’t have “International Girl.” We don’t have the vibe that people are from multiple backgrounds.
Q. How many have you sold since launching in November?
The first month, we had about 15 dolls and we sold out. I wanted to do a small sample for the soft launch. By May, we sold about 50 dolls that we created with designers.
Q. Does a percentage of the sales go back to the designers?
We pay the designers up front for making the dolls on our behalf and then, we mark up accordingly. They usually give us a 10%-30% discount depending on the design and size of the doll. We buy small batches and want to be sure we are paying them fairly. Our hope is that our collaboration brings much-needed income and resources back to them, their families and their respective communities.
Q. You mentioned that the NC IDEA grant was the first grant you applied for. What made you go for it in the first place?
I signed up for the Women’s Business Center of Charlotte (WBCC) and their executive presence program. I had a wonderful coach. I wanted to keep learning about this startup process. I’ve worked for three startups already, and I’m at a startup right now for my full-time job. The startup culture and entrepreneurial spirit is really in my bones. That’s what really triggered me to start was already having a history of working for a startup, and then saying, “Why can’t we be a startup?”
I was listening to a couple podcasts — The Toy Coach and Brown Toy Box — to hear from other toy makers. Then, DeAlva Wilson, my coach at WBCC, was so influential in getting me to apply for the grant. I applied and had some supporters review it and helped me go through my pitch.
This is our first grant that we applied for, and we won. That’s the universe confirming that we belong in this space. If we didn’t have this grant, we’d be moving at a much slower pace. I am so grateful that we did get it.
Q. What’s next?
The “Jayla” doll is coming soon. With the NC IDEA grant, we’re able to do a rollout on Amazon, and it’s going to be our own custom dolls. We’ll finally be able to afford to brand one and make it at scale. We’re working with our producers in South America to make it happen.
We started out of the necessity to see our beauty in something that is traditionally very simple — people call it a rag doll, but I refuse to call it a rag. This is something that is an heirloom and will potentially be passed down to cherish in the future.