“We want to thank President Barack Obama for ushering in a new era of awareness of third culture kids, children representing different backgournds and joining them to create a celebration of new experiences,” so declared Janai Nelson and Crystal Granderson-Reid, the creators of the unique dolls, the Brownstone Buddies.
It is beyond beautiful how these two Brooklyn-based moms have kicked their entrepreneurial spirits into gear, while raising their five children and still being involved wives to husbands with heavy careers.
Nelson’s husband is Benjamin Talton, a professor of African history at Temple University, while Granderson-Reid is married to Kenyatta Reid, principal of Satellite 111, a Bedford-Stuyvesant junior high school.
Coincidently, the husbands have known each other for eons, while their wives just met 10 years ago, but you couldn’t tell. These ladies act like they have been friends since kindergarten, finishing each others sentences, completing the other’s thoughts and what not.
And not only do Nelson and Granderson-Reid’s children play like siblings, their moms have built a burgeoning business by producing Brownstone Buddies, which have just been picked up by mega toy store FAO Schwartz.
The buddies are eight dolls from all over the world and each one comes with a passport and a story. For example, Ama, from the Gullah Islands, has a passion for numbers and a lineage that begins in Ghana; Veena has a grand passion for dance and is from India; Maricela is a Spanish-speaking bookworm with grandparents residing in Costa Rico; Ethan is a Trinidadian artisan with sculpture and all things artisan on his mind;Miko is an adventurer with travel on her mind with her Japanese American pops and Swiss mom; and Pippa is Irish American and British and loves anything musical and can play by ear.
Grounded children with a firm, strong sense of self can enjoy the diversity of the soft, cloth, 2-foot high dolls, say the proud co-founders of Brownstone Buddies.
“We do everything from stuffing the dolls to designing the clothes,” say the pair, who incidentally call all the dolls by name, as if they are lovable grade schoolers over for a playdate.
“We don’t mind learning,” said Nelson. “Life-long learning–that’s what we want to promote, because these dolls reach the earliest learners.”
A Westchester native, Granderson-Reid has three girls, Selah, 8; Nala, 6; and Bailey, 4. A New York City girl, Nelson has a son, Kimathi, 6, and a girl, Nandi, who is 4.
Granderson-Reid, who has a background in PR and the modeling world, added that in targeting these early learners, “people start seeing each other for who they are, and at the end of the day, what it comes down to is how you affect other people. Through this brand they learn about other people and their cultures.”
Nelson cites her prior career as a civil rights attorney before she went into teaching and notes that she has always been moved by the infamous Clark Doll Experiment (1939), the Black and white doll test. “It showed a disturbing lack of self-confidence,” as so many Black children picked the white doll, she said. Brownstone Buddies were partly motivated by a desire to allow children to be “able to see reality affirming images of themselves.”
Granderson-Reid stated, however, that children given the dolls have been “really gravitating to dolls that are really different from themselves. My children love Veena. They love the look of the doll and the style. There is a true aesthetic that our children are in love with.”
And how did they pick the eight culturally diverse dolls? “Our personal history and what we were interested in,” said Nelson, noting her own Geechi heritage.
Then there is Pippa with her leg braces. “We wanted to show children with disabilities and children without disabilities that children with disabilities are fun and personable, and can still be a part of the group without it being looked at like there’s something wrong. She’s fun and mobile, she gets around and inspires all these kids. Each one comes with their own passport and you can personalize it.”
As they seek a mass retailer, the ladies promise that there will be books and cartoons because “we’re actively moving in that direction.”
The FAO Schwartz hook up was one of hard grafting. In 2006, they had to audition.
“We are an ideas company,” said Granderson-Reid. “We got the idea, we fleshed out the concept, we took it to FAO Schwartz and they loved it. We haven’t set limitations on what we can do.”
Nelson added, “We’ve been on an incredible and exciting journey, and one thing that has anchored it all is our friendship, and that has made it just a complete labor of love. We’ve had so much fun with it and we are constantly thanking each other for being a part of the team–together. But it is a lot of hardwork,” Nelson grinned, “a lot of dedication, a lot of perserverance, and it hasn’t been a smooth and easy road, but we’ve kept it going and we are deighted with the success that we’ve had so far.”
“The family has been extraordinarily supportive,” said Granderson-Reid. “They saw as we developed the protoypes, they saw them over time, but it wasn’t until they came out and they actually saw the full group and they said ‘wow.’ They were completely blown away and that was great because we wanted an objective opinion. We didn’t want our families to have seen them and kind of love them because they love us. We kept them top secret even from our families.”
Before the Buddies came their Flatbush neighborhood baby group. “We used to do these really great cultural things with our children, and the two of us brainstormed one day and thought we could do this and make it into a company. But basically, we started with a concept and a name because our company name is Brownstone Babies LLC, and the dolls are the Brownstone Buddies. It was natural and it had a spark. That was 2003, and in 2004, Janai and I started meeting and developing a concept and what is Brownstone Buddies, recognizing a mutual adventurous entreprenurial spirit. So we spent some time and wrote out our business plan. We planned it out and started exploring why do we like being in business on our own and why are we willing to put ourselves through this crazy task,” said Granderson-Reid.
“We both realised that from early on from being children, we were always trying to sell things,” lemonade, cookies, choclates and the like. “That needed an outlet and we found each other,” said Nelson, “and we said, ‘Oh, we can do this together.’ It was the perfect synergy.”
So this is the beginning of something else?
“Yes, absolutely,” they said in unison.
“What we found in discovering our creativity again in each other…what was lying dormant was the fact that we are really great creative writers; we are really great business women; we are great designers. I mean, who knew we could sketch? We discovered all these creative things that we weren’t using.” While the creativity, as anyone will tell you, is beautiful and fulfilling, the grind, oft times, is not. “We were able to draw upon our professional skills, I mean, being an attorney was tremendously helpful so the transition was different, but in so many ways the same. Crystal was bringing her PR background and a lot of this is public relations and marketing, so we had a skill set we just hadn’t targeted towards entreprenuerial endeavors,” said Nelson.
“For so many years, we were meeting at night. We were like mice in the night after our children would go to sleep. After the day was done, we were meeting from 8 until sometimes 4 in the morning,” recalled Granderson-Reid. “And then we’d be right back up again–not all the time, but if necessary.”
The Buddies being their baby gave them the extra motivation they needed.
“We’re are own bosses. It’s just us running as a team,” Nelson concurred. “There’e no one else to rely on–it’s you! That’s what seperates the drive of an entreprenuer from someone who works for a company because you have to be self-motivated.”
Granderson-Reid said, “The kids were so excited when they came to the opening at FAO Schwartz. They were blown away, they loved it and I think they’re very proud of us. It is very important that they see us as the business women that we are. That is an enormous blessing and benefit that we’ve been able to give our children that image, and be role models in that way.”
The multicultural collective of dolls was born out of “pure curiousity about other cultures,” said Nelson. “They’re a group of friends. We want them to play together.” You’d think all their children had all eight dolls, perhaps? You would be wrong. The mommies want to instill a discipline of appreciation.
“They don’t have the whole collection just yet,” said Granderson-Reid. “Two of them have two dolls and one has one doll, Veena Miko and Maricela, and my little one just got Ama for Christmas.
“We want them to experience each doll as they get it, and explore their interests and their culture, so that we’re not throwing it at them. You can have all of them and just forget what the point is. And the point is, buy the dolls, enjoy the culture and interests of the dolls, and explore that for a while, and collect all eight–they’re great!”
And the Buddies are looking to grow.
“We’re looking for the right opportunity to expand and the right partners. We do know that we want to reach a broader audience.”
There is also a socio-political reasoning here.
“Well, we know that these dolls resonate with a diverse audience on every level of diversity. We want to get them to a place where they are accessible to that audience and where their story can be told,” said Nelson. “We don’t mind learning, and we are learning a lot.”
With excited children and proud husbands come the gushing grandparents who are seeing “a different world that their grandkids are growing up in, and that this is normal for them.”