By: Stephanie Scott
Photos by: Deniece Griffin
Terri-Nichelle Bradley is a startup founder participating in Invest Atlanta’s Students2Startups program. The founder of Brown Toy Box, a company focused on exposing black children and families to the world of STEAM (Science, Technology, Art, and Math), Terri says she “lucked out” when she found intern, Brandon Douglas, who completely got her vision for making an impact in the black community. You can read more about Brandon’s involvement in Part 1 here.
“Entrepreneurship is creating the thing you think the world needs and doing whatever you need to do to make that happen.”
What is your professional background?
I’ve been in Georgia for about 16 years. I worked in public relations and marketing pretty much all of my life. I did that for almost 20-something years. Then, I transitioned from corporate life to consulting in public relations. In that, I was doing a lot of multicultural stuff. Then one day, I told myself I want to do something. So then, I came up with my startup.
How did the vision for Brown Toy Box come about?
The vision for Brown Toy Box, on a macro level, is creating a world where black children are positively represented and know that they can do anything they set their minds to achieve. Our mission really is to encourage and expose black children to careers where blacks are typically underrepresented. We have really honed in on those careers around S.T.E.A. M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math), because those are the jobs that fuel the U.S. economy. That’s where the job market and the workforce is going, and if black children aren’t trained to participate – they’ll be left behind.
If you look at statistics from the Department of Labor, there’s a “leaky pipeline”, essentially, where black students in high school and college are taking classes in those subjects but they never get through that “pipeline” to be able to get into those careers.
There’s STEAM programs for kids in high school and college but there wasn’t really much for kids in elementary school. If you don’t captivate them, show them that there are black trailblazers in STEAM, then you lose them. Particularly, if you haven’t captured that 3rd-5th grader from when they were in Kindergarten, 1st, or 2nd grade, then it’s harder to capture their interest later. On top of that, we’re competing with so many outside factors for their interests, that we’ve got to interest them early.
How do you navigate as a black woman in the world of business and entrepreneurship?
Working in corporate, I felt like I was the “black representative”. I had ascended to vice president of one of the largest PR agencies in the world, and I felt like I was the spokesperson for the black delegation. That’s not what I had signed on to do. I would sit in my car and cry because I hated it so much. I felt very much like a token. I hated going into those Monday meetings and being asked to be the liaison for the entire black demographic.
Then there’s the startup space, where it’s a little reminiscent of my time in corporate. Particularly, when I go out and try to raise funds, I find that people don’t understand the demographic and the target. So they don’t feel that there is a market for this.
That’s where that confidence really has to kick in. You have to have a strong and supportive circle. The women that I’ve met doing certain fellowships and residency programs have been so helpful to me. I’ve bonded with other women entrepreneurs who understand exactly what I’m going through. They too understand what it feels like to have to disarm people, be likeable, and prove your competence as a black woman entrepreneur. On top of being an entrepreneur, which is difficult, the stakes are raised as a black woman.
What is your business model?
Brown Toy Box is completely direct-to-consumer. If a customer wants a box, they go directly to the website and order from there. It was routed in research, and my relationships with African-American moms as the consumer. Particularly, affluent black moms who know about the importance of STEAM and want their children to participate in that. However, from the very beginning I knew that the kids that would benefit from Brown Toy Box the most would be kids who come from areas where they could afford it the least. So, I realized the way to reach those kids would be through their schools. A big part of my business is building relationships and partnerships with Title I schools. The children and families essentially receive the same box, but then there’s also a teacher’s box. The teachers will get items in their box with classroom decor and learning essentials that focus on STEAM. The students will receive boxes that they can take home. By doing this, their parents and families are also learning about STEAM, some being exposed for the first time. It’s about creating exposure.
What mistakes have you made on your journey to building Brown Toy Box?
I’ve made a lot of rookie mistakes. I gravitated towards the parts of the business that I knew very well. I know PR and marketing so I did that well, but my operations, logistics, and the financial side of the business were a mess. This is actually my second time launching. In December of last year, I faced a problem with moms signing up to receive packages for Christmas. I didn’t shut down subscriptions, so I had people signing up on December 22nd and expecting Christmas presents. The cost of shipping around that time exceeded the cost of the box. I didn’t account for customers who would sign up for the holidays and then unsubscribe. My cost per unit when up, and I failed the business plan. I failed to plan, so I planned to fail. But the only time you fail is when you don’t learn. So I learned some really big, expensive lessons and I won’t make those mistakes again.
What are you doing differently with this new launch?
This time around my operations are definitely better. I have new product partners. It was very important for me to source as many items from African-American creators and manufacturers as possible. That encourages economic development in the black community. We have the same target audience, so we end up helping each other.
Why did you choose Brandon to be your S2S Intern?
I was looking for an intern who was young, hungry, and didn’t come from privilege. I wanted to be able to mentor. I wanted someone who had drive. Those are the kinds of students I like to take on as interns. They are ready, eager, and proactive, and that’s what you have to be as a startup founder. You have to have that grind and I saw that in Brandon. I lucked out with Brandon. I couldn’t decide if I wanted an operations intern or someone leaning more towards digital content. Brandon had experience with both. In my first call with him, I knew that I was going to select him. On paper he was great. But when I spoke to him he told me he was a product of a Jamaican mother who made sure he saw positive images of brown people and that he was excited about the work I was doing. I was sold.
As a startup founder, there needs to be a lot of trust between the founder and employees. I’m giving him passwords, account information, and giving him a lot of control of my business. He understood that and what I’m trying to achieve. He understands the impact that I want to have on these children’s lives and he’s just as passionate about having that same kind of impact. I couldn’t have been matched with a better intern.
What have you learned from Brandon?
He tries not to call me an old lady, but there’s some things about technology that I don’t know. He’s taught me quite a bit about the digital space. I’ve done PR, but I was doing traditional PR. He’s taught me alot about how to engage with my consumer. He really schooled me. I’m actually sad that it’s coming to an end soon. Hopefully in the future, I can bring him on to work with me in a different capacity.
What three things do you need to be a successful entrepreneur?
Tenacity, because it’s going to be hard; and if you quit when things get hard, entrepreneurship isn’t for you. You have to be able to get up and dust yourself off, straighten your dress and fix your lipstick, and get back out there.
Confidence, because you will get told “no” a lot. If a “no” shakes your confidence, then entrepreneurship isn’t for you. You have to know that just because they don’t get it, doesn’t mean your idea isn’t valid. It doesn’t mean it’s something the world doesn’t need. That particular person just doesn’t need it.
Accountability, because there have been many nights where I just wanted to shut down and call it a night. However, I have to hold myself accountable to do what I need to do for my business, because nobody else is going to do it for me.
What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
Entrepreneurship is creating the thing you think the world needs and doing whatever you need to do to make that happen.