An Interview with Karen Byrd, the Woman Reimagining Black Barbie

Meena Harris interviews Karen Byrd, the small-business entrepreneur behind Natural Girls United, a company that makes natural hairstyles for black Barbie dolls.

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I loved my Barbie dolls when I was a kid, but the only one I can remember, my favorite one, was Hawaiian Barbie. That's because she resembled me— racially ambiguous, though slightly Asian, with dark, thick, wavy hair that became less unruly as it got dirtier. Her name was like mine, too, ethnic-sounding but easy enough for white people to pronounce and remember: Kira. The rest of my Barbies were black and brown. I identified with them even though my skin was much lighter (I'm black, Indian, and white, and I consider myself a woman of color, despite my friends' insistence throughout my childhood that I have "white-girl hair"). I never much thought about Barbie's straight hair, maybe because it was more or less like mine. 

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But a lot of little black girls who play with Barbies can't identify with naturally straight hair. Sure, we come in different shades and textures, but a black child likely doesn't look at "Barbie Style Grace Doll" with her fine, flowing hair and think to herself, She looks like me, and she's beautiful. Adding a single Coachella braid to the front or back doesn't count. When she sees "Barbie Glam Shower!" — a doll-sized bathroom set — does she wonder where Barbie misplaced her plastic shower cap or satin bonnet?

Nearly 75 years since the Doll Test, which showed that children associate negative qualities with black dolls, the world's top toy maker still hasn't gotten black Barbies right. That's why Karen Byrd, a natural-hair enthusiast living in Oakland, California, decided to fix them herself. In 2011, Karen created Natural Girls United, a one-woman business that gives makeovers to black Barbies by replacing their straight hair with natural styles. Auburn dreads, charcoal twists, a honey-blonde 'fro — Karen makes them all. What follows is a conversation with Karen about her path from the corporate sector to starting a small business dedicated to creating authentic images of black beauty for young black girls.

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MH: I'm curious about your transition to running Natural Girls United full time. Where were you working before, and what was the most challenging aspect of taking the leap to doing your own thing?

KB: Before I started working on dolls, I worked in a corporate job doing human-resource and executive-assistant work for a large corporation. I started working on dolls as a hobby because it was something I always wanted to do. Once my corporate job ended due to a layoff, I had enough customer interest to keep doing it as I looked for a new job. But the amount of customers that requested dolls kept growing to the point where I was able to do it full time. The biggest challenge depends on the time of the year. January through September, sales are not as busy because it's not the holiday season. So it takes a lot of careful budgeting to get through the first two-thirds of the year. But once the holiday season starts, it is a challenge to be able to keep up with the orders, because I am still currently my only employee. 

MH: I love your Naturally Beautiful Hair Blog. Did you start it before Natural Girls United, and how has it helped or inspired your business?

KB: I had my blog for a good six years before I started working on dolls. It has been a great inspiration. I started my blog with the goal of sharing my passion for natural hair. It has definitely grown to writing about artists, singers, community, fashion, and more. I am hoping to appeal to a larger audience by expanding to a lifestyle blog that still focuses on natural hair. 

MH: It seems like your mission is much greater than just dolls. 

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KB: I want to help children and women of ethnic communities build their self-esteem and sense of self-worth. The Natural Girls United doll project is something that I hope will help to bring a positive view of what ethnic beauty is. There is a serious need for our young girls to be able to have dolls that look like them. It is something that affects their self-esteem, confidence, and how they view themselves. It is important that they have images around them that reinforce that positive message that their beauty is wonderful. Each day that we show them that they matter is a day that we are moving in the right direction. 

There is a serious need for our young girls to be able to have dolls that look like them. It is something that affects their self-esteem, confidence, and how they view themselves.

MH: One of my favorite Facebook posts from recent memory is a Siblings Day tribute to my friend Katie. It shows a four-year-old Katie, who is Japanese and white, clutching a black baby doll as her mother holds her baby sister behind her. On your website, you refer to the Doll Test as a principal reason for starting your business, so your black daughters could play with dolls that actually looked like them. Isn't the point, in part, that little white girls should play with ethnically realistic dolls too?

KB: I think kids of all races should play with different cultural dolls. It's very important that they have dolls that look like them. But it's also important for them to understand that people come in different shades, have different features and hair. And that everyone is beautiful and their differences should be celebrated.

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MH: What advice do you have for women wanting to start their own businesses? 

KB: My advice for someone who wants to start their own venture is to do a lot of research. Start off slow — you may want to keep your job while you start, or maybe work part time. Just to make sure that you still have funding coming in while you are starting something new. Surround yourself with other go-getters and people that will support and encourage you. Be patient. It takes a while to get a strong following and customer base. And if you love what you're doing, it will help you to get through the first year or so, where it may be a bit of a struggle to get your business off the ground. Some great advice that I have received is to just be open to new ideas. And to always try to make connections with people that can teach you more about business and manufacturing. 

Surround yourself with other go-getters and people that will support and encourage you. Be patient.

MH: Have you ever contemplated giving up? Why? How did you overcome it?

KB: I have, numerous times. Most retail companies experience highs and lows in sales. It's a financial struggle during the slow time of the year before September. I have gotten through it by just trying to remember how much I love what I do. And that my work is important, and that I need to keep going. My family does come first, and in the future if I am not able to support my family doing what I love, I will of course need to make some adjustments in how I provide for them. But I hope and pray that I don't have to go back to my corporate job … ha ha. 

MH: What is your ultimate goal? 

KB: My ultimate goal is to make ethnic dolls more mainstream. I want moms and children to be able to find dolls in stores near them, no matter what part of the world they are in. All children should be able to find dolls that look like them. 

This interview has been condensed and edited. Meena Harris is an attorney in Washington, D.C. She is also the creator of the I'm an Entrepreneur, Bitch brand, which supports and promotes women's economic empowerment.

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