CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Four years ago, Chrishonda Benson’s daughter told her that she didn’t like her brown skin “because it wasn’t pretty.”
Her daughter, Mariah, then 4 years old, felt that way because she couldn’t find a Black doll and extra accessories in stores. So Benson, a Charlotte native, decided to find a way to show Mariah and other children that they are beautiful just as they are.
Last October, she launched Pretty Dope Society, a line of personalized products from mugs to backpacks with images of people of color and artwork created by Black artists.
“I noticed the lack of representation for Black and brown children,” said Benson, now 32 and living in Fort Mill, South Carolina. “When children are able to view themselves as the main character in their book of life, it’s incredible to witness their boost of self-esteem and self-worth.”
While retailers like Amazon and Charlotte-based department store Belk have highlighted Black-owned businesses and inclusive products, Benson says it’s not enough.
“I just want to see more,” Benson said. “Seeing a glimmer of yourself when you shop has been challenging for Black people for a long time in our society.”
PRETTY DOPE SOCIETY TAKES OFF DURING COVID
Since last year, Pretty Dope Society has sold thousands of products online through its Etsy store and website. Sales revenue is closing in on $100,000, Benson told the Observer.
Benson started the shop with coffee mugs then added diaper bags and blankets for children. The product line has since expanded to drinkware and she added backpacks in June. Products have been sold from California to New York, Benson said.
Products also are personalized, which is important to Benson who said she never could find something with her name, “Chrishonda,” on it.
Benson was in corporate communications before she completed a master’s degree in business from Florida International University in 2019. She took classes in creating and merchandising products before starting Pretty Dope Society.
She’s overcome several obstacles launching during the COVID-19 pandemic, including supply chain issues and shipping delays. But the biggest hurdle, Benson said, has been “getting eyes on the product.”
She reached out to CoCoa Twins, an African-American online clip art store to learn more about sourcing art and licensing, Benson said. Some of the national artists she uses along with Cocoa Twins are Edward of EJE Selects and Glam Marks Illustrations.
Benson also started a vinyl decal shop on Etsy, Pretty Dope Vinyl, just before the pandemic in January 2020. The shops operate full-time and are Benson’s only income.
“That afforded me to start Pretty Dope Society,” she said. She plans to let her daughter take over the sticker shop.
The goal, Benson said, is to keep expanding the products, including home decor, and get into small boutique shops throughout the U.S. and even internationally.
“This was born out of a need I found for my child,” Benson said. “I created it because there was a gap.”
WHAT BEING A BLACK ENTREPRENEUR MEANS
In North Carolina, the number of minority-owned businesses nearly tripled from 1997 to 2018, from 61,551 to 183,333, according to the nonprofit North Carolina Business Council. Nationwide since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, 41% of Black-owned businesses have closed, the council stated online.
Shante Williams, an entrepreneur and chairwoman of the Charlotte Black Chamber of Commerce, said it’s important to make sure that everybody knows Black businesses exist in all sectors in all industries, and that “we’re participating in the economy in different levels.” The chamber, which formed 16 years ago, has 200 active members.
“Entrepreneurship and business ownership is one way that folks are able to get out of poverty and build wealth generationally within their lifetimes,” Williams said.
The pandemic, she said, also helped show Black entrepreneurs that it’s important to be in diverse industries, as service or professional-based jobs took a hit during pandemic shutdowns. For example, she said, Black-owned businesses are growing in the home goods sector where people are looking for specific types of decor.
“It’s opened up the realm of possibilities for people looking to get into the space,” Williams said.
She encourages Black-owned business owners to sign up for a Black business directory and register with the city and state as a way to support minority businesses and diversify networking channels.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR PRETTY DOPE SOCIETY
This fall, Benson will roll out products with her own drawings, plus home decor from rugs and clocks to ottomans and pillows.
Next year, she hopes to do more pop-up shops in Charlotte and get into boutiques, which she didn’t pursue because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She’d like Pretty Dope Society to evolve into a brick-and-mortar gift shops where customers can buy conversational products that are “pieces that people remember years from now.”
Mariah, now 8 years old, will also help out with the next branch, Pretty Dope Kids, after helping design the backpack line that launched in June.
“The coolest thing is her seeing products that look like them with their name on it,” Benson said. “I’m just trying to fill the void.”