School is back in session and any parent, grandparent, uncle or aunt knows that backpacks are just as important as fresh first day of school outfits. That’s where Blended Designs comes into play. For this Black-owned, Florida based company, bookbags aren’t just for carrying homework, they serve as daily reminders of self-worth and Black excellence. The collection of bookbags, pencil cases, lunch bags, and other school accessories are adorned with images of happy Black faces and the words “I can do anything.” From pre-school to HBCUs, Blended Designs empowered fashion is everywhere.
TheGrio spoke with Blended Designs co-founder Casey Kelley about how the company came to be, her entrepreneurial journey and why it’s important so surround Black children with positive images of themselves.
What’s In A Name
Blended Designs was born in 2014. Casey Kelley and her husband Harvey are a Black Brady Bunch of sorts. When they got married, they also joined together Harvey’s five daughters and Casey’s two sons. To save money, they created their own wedding decorations and they ended up selling their creations on Etsy. The name Blended Designs comes from their blended family.
The bookbag production began when Casey’s then eight-year old son Carter came to her with a request. “He wanted a book bag that looked like him, he was very specific, he wanted his face. It’s really because he saw a kid at his school that had red hair and blue eyes and the kid was wearing a backpack that’s a cartoon character with red hair and blue eyes playing with a truck and it looked just like the child,” said Kelley. “And so, I tried to find one. My background is insights and analytics. My job was looking at data and understanding consumers buying behaviors and what decisions they make, but also what’s available. So I used my access to data and found 670 backpacks, and of those, only 14 of them included children of color.”
Corporate Life to Entrepreneurship
Carter’s request came at a very fortuitous time. After taking a break from a very stressful career, she decided to step out on faith. “I was on a medical leave of absence from a very stressful job. I was having panic attacks and anxiety, and I just needed a mental health break. During that time, I was happier and more content than I’d ever been,” recalled Kelley. So, I didn’t want to go back to work after those 12 weeks. I was talking to my pastor, and he told my husband and I to fast for three days. My son came to me during those three days with his backpack request and it was on from there. I never went back to that job.” Kelley left that six-figure job, made a plan, and the rest is history.
Today, both Kelley and her husband are instrumental to keeping Blended Designs growing. While it has always been Kelley’s full-time focus, her husband has kept his day job at a non-profit that works within the school system. “So we kind of joke that he is doing market research because he works with high school kids. Unlike my old job, my husband really loves his job and the kids he helps. It also doesn’t hurt that his job gives us insurance,” joked Kelley.
Blended Designs took off in sales just months after launching the backpacks in 2017, when reality show star and entrepreneur Yandy Smith shared a social media post featuring their creations. It became an early lesson in how to properly scale.
“We literally just blew up overnight. Because we grew so fast, we did not have the inventory. We thought we would sell 1,000 backpacks and in two months, we did a quarter million dollars in sales. So, paying the expediting costs for faster production and faster shipping cost us money and we actually lost money that first year,” explained Casey. “If I had to do it all over again, I would have invested more in the front-end so we would have had the inventory and been able to make a profit. When we first started out it would take up to three weeks for us to ship, now we ship within one business day of a customer making an order.
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My Riley’s @riley.benet LAST first day of school at @morehouse1867. You are forever my baby and my little gizmo even though you’re adulting and taller than me. I am praying you have an amazing senior year. So looking forward to May #classof2020 #perfectvision #seniorszn I love you #thatisall Oh and the Riley II backpack is back in stock 🎒
Being the Change
Kelley is passionate about her company and she takes every opportunity to underscore the how Blended Designs is much more than just about carrying cute backpacks. “Our mission is to elevate, empower and educate. There’s a negative narrative about our community and part of that narrative is all of the negative images we see of ourselves perpetuated by the media,” said Kelley. “Because of the messaging and representation behind our brand, it’s not just a back to school item. Parents, mentors, and other family members are buying them not just for utility, but for the kids to have something to be empowered in school. That how we came up with 1954 when we first wanted to brand the back to school line”
The name 1954 is a nod to the year of the Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court case which made segregation in schools illegal.
Evidence of how much people love Blended Designs can be found on their Instagram page. There are many smiling faces alongside their creations. “When we have events, we always hand the backpacks to the kids, but when the kids grab the bags and hug them, it just warms my heart,” shared Kelley.
Blended Designs has kept well stocked for the school year and Kelley has plans for the 10 characters featured on the school items to be on other platforms. Could Blended Design cartoons be headed your way? Stay tuned.
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