By Clifford Parody
The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) After seeing her two daughters shun their naturally curly hair in favor of the long straight hair of the dolls they were playing with; Angelica Sweeting decided to create a doll that highlighted her daughters’ natural features. Sweeting focused on making a doll that her daughters and millions of other young girls could relate to, whose characteristics would work to instill pride and positive body identity. Talk about women in business with a purpose! We love it…..women entrepreneurship at its best!
The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla.
Angelica Lewis Sweeting, who grew up in Lakeland, and her husband, Jason, have two daughters who love to play with dolls.
But as their daughters grew older, the Sweetings started noticing something about Sophia and Sydney.
“Like most young girls with kinky-curly hair, my daughter Sophia was not happy with her kinks and curls because of the doll I was putting in her hands every day,” Sweeting said. “Sophia wanted long, straight hair, and she even started expressing a strong dislike for her facial features and skin tone.”
With this in mind, she set out to create a new doll — one that her daughters, and millions of other young girls, could relate to, whose features would work to instill pride and positive body identity, she said.
The process began two years ago.
“I got the idea for the doll and literally researched for months on how to get it done,” said Sweeting, who went to college in Miami and now reside there, said. “I finally found a manufacturer and we created the Angelica Doll.”
Once the concept was solidified, the prototype took eight months to develop, painstakingly testing out every aspect to make sure it could withstand the force of children having fun.
Finally, she was able to hand it over to her daughter.
“My daughter was so happy to finally see a doll that looked like her,” Sweeting said. “She felt more confident in who she was.”
The doll stands 18 inches tall and sports features like a wider-set nose, fuller lips, and a bursting head of washable and hair that has all the natural kinks and curls that come along with it — the things Sweeting said black Barbie dolls and many others missed.
“During my research, I found so many articles on the lack of diversity in the toy and doll industry,” she said. “It inspired me to fill a much-needed void in the market.”
With the doll in hand, Sweeting, who was working as a grants program manager for the YMCA of South Florida, left her job and began focusing solely on moving the Angelica Doll forward using the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to build a financial foundation.
And her husband was right there with her.
“Kickstarter is a huge undertaking and it takes months of preparation,” Sweeting remembers. “We talked about all the sacrifices we would have to make, but deep down we both knew it would be a worthwhile endeavor. I quit my job Dec 6, 2014.”
“I had faith in Angelica,” said Jason Sweeting, who works as a musician. “She is a very focused and passionate person, so I knew she would put her all into the project.”
The pair settled on the name Natural Perfect, and together they began prep to launch a Kickstarter, not knowing just how far it all would go.
On May 19, 2015, Angelica and Jason launched their campaign.
“Naturally Perfect has one specific aim: to change the standard of beauty one doll at a time for young girls,” Sweeting says in the company’s Kickstarter video.
“No parent wants their child to feel uncomfortable about how they look,” Jason Sweeting adds. “We want them to feel confident inside and out.”
The goal of the campaign was to raise $25,000.
Seven days later, they exceeded their goal.
By day 15, they had nearly tripled it.
And by the end of the campaign, 1,316 people pledged a total of $84,743 in just 30 days.
The Sweetings were floored.
“I was hopeful but I had no idea,” Angelica Sweeting said. “I could have never imagine it happening like this.”
Two months later, mass production began.
“After Kickstarter, I knew this would be something I would dedicate my life to,” Sweeting said.
As the Kickstarter funding rolled in, websites all over began calling Sweeting for interviews, and soon she found herself and her doll being talked about in Cosmopolitan, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post and Today.com, to name a few. Even sites in Europe got on board.
With word spreading, people began to ask if it would be possible to get a doll with a light or darker skin tone, or with different shades of hair.
The Sweetings took heed. Last month, three more dolls were added to the line-up.
“Expansion has been very exciting!” Sweeting said. “Our company is dedicated to providing the full spectrum of beauty up and down each and every toy aisle. People see our dolls and say ‘Finally, finally, dolls that show the beauty of women of color.’ ”
Exciting as it all is, the demand hasn’t been all roses.
“I find that prioritizing the immediate direction of the brand is most challenging,” Jason Sweeting said. “Our customers want us to do so much and it’s hard to pace ourselves.”
“I definitely look for guidance and mentorship as my company grows,” Angelica Sweeting added. “I’m blessed to have a super-smart and accomplished family. I lean on them a lot for advice on business.”
Dr. Berney Wilkinson, a Polk County clinical psychologist with Psychological Associates of Central Florida, said that what the Sweetings are doing is important.
“Research has been very clear for a number of years now that the images we see in media and even in toys certainly influence the way we feel about our body image,” he said. “And with some of those types of toys and products, the image that is being proposed isn’t positive or realistic.
“The move in the direction to have a more realistic image, something that people can relate to, is a positive thing; it can be good for self-esteem.”
Discovering and cultivating one’s identity, Wilkinson said, is a cornerstone of human development, and toys that show the “the full spectrum of the human experience will help children realize that whoever they are and however they look, they are part of the human experience.
“Kids want to feel they fit in,” he said. “It (these types of toys) helps them with their identity. Part of developing that identity is being able to see differences and contrasts with others in a healthy way that helps you become secure.”
Right now, Wilkinson said, society seems to be moving in the right direction, with many other cultures and disabilities finding a place on television and the toy aisle.
There is still work to be done, he said, but progress can have a massive impact on the everyday lives of all, not just minorities.
“If you grew up in a culture and there were no toys that looked like you, no toys that represented you, it’s not that much of a jump to say ‘Well, do I really matter?’ ” Wilkinson said. “The fact that we are moving into this direction where we have more representation of different races, different ethnicities, different orientations … it helps people realize that they do matter, it gives them a voice and allows them to identify who they are in a healthy way rather than an aggressive, retaliatory, angry or depressed way.”
During a trip to Nigeria in 2000, Clifton Lewis, president of the Neighborhood Improvement Corp. of Bartow, said he noticed something strange when the schoolchildren were working on art.
“In all the paintings the animals were painted correctly, but all the people the children colored were colored a light yellow,” he said. “Every school we visited that was the case.
“There was something in their psyche, in order to be correct a human being has to be a light yellow.”
Lewis said he thinks the Angelica doll is something that, even as a toy, can easily be seen as a teaching tool.
“I think it would be very helpful that the young people would play with dolls for different colors to reinforce the fact that we live in a multiracial ethnic society,” he said. “Being black or African American is a good thing. Diversity, real diversity, is very important.”
His daughter, Maya Lewis Johnson, works with children from 5 to 18 years old, teaching dance at Artistry in Motion in Bartow and is a mother of daughters herself.
Johnson said that when her kids were coming up, “I had to order a doll that was black, unless I traveled out of the county.”
When she saw the Sweeting’s project she was enamored.
“I thought it was wonderful. In the world in which we live, we deal with all varities of people and all types of races,” she said. “It’s important for kids to see it because it’s validating. They need to have dolls that represent them.”
From here, the Sweetings plan to continue refining and growing their product line, hopefully pushing their way into the mainstream.
“The toy industry is finally starting to make progress but it’s not enough,” Sweeting said. “Our children take in so much through media and play and I want to help ensure that young girls don’t feel pressure to be anything except themselves.”
Jason Sweeting agrees.
“I see the company really growing and becoming a part of the lives of consumers,” he said. “Our why is more important than our what.”
And the Sweetings aren’t looking just at toys.
“Dolls are only the beginning for our company,” Angelica Sweeting said. “We are building a brand that is centered around celebrating unique differences and natural beauty.”