By Kelsey Butler
The Dadisi Crew is an eclectic bunch. Dre is athletic and passionate about astronomy, Maya is adventurous and loves to code, and Amara is a budding environmental scientist who encourages her friends to recycle. A couple of things bind the group together: Each member is fascinated with a cutting-edge discipline, and they’re all Black characters.
The fictional clique and its circle of friends are the creation of Terri-Nichelle Bradley, a Black mom of four who is determined to inspire Black kids to pursue well-paying careers in STEAM—science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. The characters are at the heart of her company, Brown Toy Box, which makes educational play kits featuring fields such as chemistry, museum arts, and robotics.
“My dream is for a child to walk up to me 10 years from now, 20 years from now and say, ‘You know what? I decided to take up marine biology as a major because of Brown Toy Box. And now I am one of the most sought-after marine biologists in the country, in the world,’ ” Bradley says in an interview from her warehouse near Atlanta. “What we’re really trying to do on a bigger level is disrupt generational poverty.”
Black households in the U.S. have just a fraction of the wealth of White ones, and part of the problem is underrepresentation in lucrative jobs. While Black people account for about 12% of the U.S. population, just 7% of workers in the computer science industry are Black, as are only 15 of the more than 350 NASA astronauts who’ve traveled to space.
Each of the boxes Bradley sells contains an activity book, a hands-on project, and a figurine of a character that looks like the kids she’s trying to reach, with cultural references woven in. In one kit, Maya, wearing a purple sweater with matching bows for her Afro puffs, shows off the basics of writing in computer code. In another, Dre, who loves to rap, guides kids through making their own telescope, dressed in a space suit. The company’s name is meant to reflect the brown skin of its characters, whose group is called Dadisi after the Swahili word for curious.
Bradley started her company in 2017, putting kits together with items from other toymakers and selling them through subscriptions, but more cash was going out than coming in. In the early days of the pandemic, she sent a note to subscribers to tell them she was rethinking her business model.
She started seeking out mentors for advice on running the business, a departure from her earlier career in crisis management and communications. She also consumed reams of content on startups and applied for incubators and accelerators for Black-owned businesses. In 2020, the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund awarded Brown Toy Box $50,000 in cash, which gave Bradley some breathing room.
She ultimately did away with the subscription model and designed kits of her own. By late 2021, she’d landed a key victory: Target Corp. started selling her toys in its stores and on its website. The kits are also available through the Brown Toy Box website and at such places as the Village Retail, a Georgia shopping collective focused on promoting Black-owned brands.
The supply chain chaos wrought by the pandemic derailed Brown Toy Box’s path to profitability last year, when the price to ship a large container to the U.S. from China jumped from $2,000 to $20,000, Bradley says; she shipped about 20 such containers in late 2021. Still, she’s optimistic about growth prospects. New retailers are regularly being added, and corporate partners are increasingly funding orders of Brown Toy Box kits for schools in low-income communities. The company, which Bradley expects to be profitable this year, projects around $3.5 million in sales in 2022, up from about $1 million in 2021 and $220,000 in 2020.
Bradley has maintained 100% of the equity in the business, and she’s focused on working with other Black-owned businesses to spread the wealth. “For me, Brown Toy Box is an economic driver,” she says, “just as much as it’s a tool for educating and disrupting generational poverty.”
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com.