Yelitsa Jean-Charles, the founder of Healthy Roots Dolls, is helping children embrace their hair — and redefining society’s beauty standards along the way
By Leena Rao
Photography by Erin Kirkland
One Christmas when she was 6 or 7, Yelitsa Jean-Charles’ parents got her a doll whose brown skin was similar to her own — and she immediately burst into tears. “I remember thinking, where is the blonde-haired, blue-eyed doll I wanted,” Jean-Charles says. “Years later, I realized how influenced I had been by what society deemed was beautiful.”
Two decades later, Jean-Charles has dedicated her career to creating dolls that look like her. She’s the founder and CEO of Detroit-based startup Healthy Roots Dolls, which launched in 2019 with Zoe, a doll with mocha-colored skin, large brown eyes and curly, voluminous hair that can be washed, braided or twisted. “[When I was] a child, the dolls that were Black didn’t have [Black] hair or facial features — they were just painted brown,” Jean-Charles says. “I wanted to make sure that other children didn’t feel the way that I did growing up.”
The idea for Healthy Roots Dolls was born during Jean-Charles’ time at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she studied illustration and dreamed of designing children’s toys. As part of a class project in 2015, she reimagined the fairytale princess Rapunzel as a “beautiful brown-skinned girl with kinky, curly hair,” she says. After winning a Social Innovation Fellowship from Brown University for the project, assembling 674 Kickstarter backers and raising more than $1 million — one of few Black female founders to do so — she began developing her concept into an actual prototype. She got help along the way from an all-star list of advisers, including Melissa Bernstein, the co-founder of toy giant Melissa & Doug, and Maxine Clark, the founder of Build-A-Bear.
Zoe truly took off last June when Jean-Charles, who’s involved with the Black Lives Matter movement, was inspired to post about how she’d designed a doll that celebrated diversity. She tweeted side-by-side photos of herself (“The Founder”) and her creation (“The Product”) — and her post ended up getting nearly one million likes. Within days, hundreds of orders started piling in for Zoe. “Seeing your vision come to life and executed is always a really great feeling,” she says. Still, she’s wary of being seen as an overnight success. “I feel like people see these things [and think], ‘Oh, it just happens. No, because I built a great company.”
Jean-Charles, who grew up the daughter of Haitian immigrants in Queens, New York, landed in Detroit in 2019 after being accepted to the Backstage Capital Accelerator Program, which invests in companies led by underrepresented founders. “The entrepreneurial ecosystem is so strong, and I love how welcoming people are here,” she says, adding that she leans on local entrepreneurs for advice, including Gwen Jimmere, founder of haircare company Naturalicious, and Karissma Yve, of jewelry design and manufacturing platform Gildform.
Jean-Charles’ “ability to run through a brick wall and make anything happen,” is the key to her success, says Candice Matthews Brackeen, general partner and founder of Lightspeed Capital and one of Jean-Charles’ longtime mentors, plus an investor and board member of Healthy Roots Dolls. “Yelitsa commands a room, particularly a board room,” Brackeen says. “She has a natural ability to navigate complex negotiations.”
One such instance came a few months ago, when Jean-Charles struck a deal with Target to sell Zoe. The dolls went on sale in February and sold out online within days. “Last year I was interviewed for the Target Accelerator [a program for startups] and was not accepted,” Jean-Charles wrote on Twitter the same day that Zoe debuted on the company’s website. “This year we are selling with them.”
The Target deal and expansion to brick-and-mortar retail is just one part of Jean-Charles’ vision for Healthy Roots Dolls: She says her goal is to create a living, breathing community around her dolls — and Black hair. She notes that 65% of the world’s population has curly/wavy hair but “for a lot of young black and brown children … it can be challenging because we aren’t necessarily taught how to take care of our hair, and we’re not taught to love our hair.”
She says that’s why Zoe’s hair is made of fiber that can be styled just like real hair. Children are encouraged to play with and style her hair with combs and accessories. The company plans to launch online tutorials for various hair styles, like braids. “The doll sets a good foundation for how the girls can style their hair,” says Jasmine Sumlin of Belleville, who bought Zoe dolls for her stepdaughter, 8, and daughter, 2. “Both girls love playing with Zoe’s hair and always talk about how her curly hair looks like their own.”
Zoe has even inspired Jean-Charles to embrace her own hair, which she says she didn’t know how to style until she was 20. “Once I learned how to do my own hair, I started rocking my curls and learning all the products and having pink braids and all these different hairstyles,” she says. She changes her hair color and style at least a dozen times a year. Her favorite look: a purple-and-pink ombre color with braids.
As for what the future holds, there’s still so much more impact for Jean-Charles and Healthy Roots Dolls to make on young girls and boys, says Brackeen. It’s a sentiment that Jean-Charles — who recently made Forbes 30 under 30 List — echoes.
“Children need to have toys that represent the people in their world so that they can explore and play and be exposed to different people,” she says. “I want nothing more than to break down the stigmas that we often have in our cultural divides so that children can just be the best possible versions of themselves.”