By Janice Malone, Tennessee Tribune
It seems that the old adage “necessity is the mother of invention” continues to ring true even in the 21st century, especially for ‘mompreneur’ Karen Byrd. The California-based business woman is the founder/creator of NATURAL GIRLS UNITED, a doll company that takes straight-haired dolls of different skin tones and gives them customized, ethnic textured hairstyles and clothing.
Less than 10 years ago, Natural Girls United was created while Karen was still working in corporate America. Today, she’s now sending her beautiful dolls to customers throughout the world. One third of her customers are from the United Kingdom. Other customers are ordering from Africa, Brazil, Netherlands, Australia, a few from China, and of course, the USA. “The idea for these dolls really started in my childhood. I had dolls that didn’t look like me or anyone around me, “recalls Karen. “The hair wasn’t like mine, nor the eye colors. Even when the black dolls were released, they still had features of the Caucasian dolls. It was confusing for a child. As an adult, as I was raising my daughters, I still couldn’t find any dolls that really did have our African American hair features. So, after half a lifetime there still wasn’t anything out here, as far as real ethnic looking dolls were concerned.” Karen decided to find an answer to this problem.
Her Natural Hair Dolls actually began as a hobby. She experimented on changing the hairstyles on just two dolls, took photographs of them, and placed them on a natural hair blog site she had at the time. “People got so excited over the pictures and asked if they could purchase the dolls. From there, the demand for the dolls just increased more and more,” recalls Byrd. There have been numerous “doll tests studies” as early as the 1940’s, with sociologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, and more recently in 2007, with high school student Kiri Davis, which have clearly shown that African American children often think black dolls are bad and ugly, while considering white dolls as good and beautiful. “These types of messages are very harmful and confusing to children,” says Ms. Byrd. “I know it was confusing to me when I was a child. It all has to do with the images they see as they grow up. If a child is constantly looking at images, dolls, television, books and magazines – and only seeing beauty as something or someone with non-ethnic features and long, straight hair – then they are going to assume that this is what beauty is. It’s something that has hurt young people for centuries.”
Karen now buys the dolls retail at full price. She’s very hush-hush about what she uses to get change the straight doll hair to become more ‘texturally ethnic.” Each style can take from three hours to three days to complete. The dolls have custom clothing attire that’s fashionable and fun to complement the hairstyles. Many of the clothing outfits she uses are often handmade. Several of the dolls have long eyelashes, painted nails, with a new handmade dress and heels. Chunky Locs, The Coils, Soft Locs, Spiral Curls, are just a few of the 32 different hairstyles customers can choose from. Other new styles are always being created by this busy and creative business minded mom.
But right now, Karen says that she’s swamped with orders from customers who want very specific customized ethnic dolls. Her company gladly creates customized made-to-order dolls for clients as well. The Natural Girls United dolls have been featured in the Huffington Post, The Steve Harvey Show, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry and numerous print and online publications. Ms. Byrd is currently a woman show meeting the high demand for her international clientele base. She says: “There’s been past holiday seasons where I have sent out about 120 dolls. One year I had so many orders until I had to turn some of them down. But that will not happen again. I plan on hiring some assistants. My orders usually slow down after the Christmas season but not this year. So far, the orders are steadily increasing!” That’s a good problem to have for a young company. Customers can order the dolls directly from the website www.naturalgirlsunited.com
Prices for these customized dolls vary, so make sure to check out the website or give their office a call for more specific prices. In addition to the diverse, pretty dolls, customers can also purchase trendy clothing, accessories and other merchandise that will continue to keep their dolls looking fashionably fabulous. Creating the Natural Hair Dolls has now become more than a labor of love for this cultural innovator. She adds, “Some of the best feedback that I’ve had is to hear customers say how young girls look at the dolls and say how happy they are to have a doll with hair and styles that looks like them. It’s just great to hear news like that because the dolls are helping kids to build their self-esteem.”