Startups Ramp Up

Startups Ramp Up

A child refines her motor skills while playing in a set of O'Rings developed by recent alumni Maeve Jopson 13 ID and Cynthia Poon 13 ID.

Yelitsa Jean-Charles 16 IL remembers wriggling uncomfortably in her chair as her Haitian mother tugged and twisted her wiry dark hair into perfect braids. As a child she wasn’t allowed to leave the house before her voluminous hair had been tamed using chemical perms, flattening irons and elaborate hair-dos.

“In the community I grew up in, black girls had to conform to Eurocentric ideals of beauty—which made me feel like my natural hair wasn’t good enough,” Jean-Charles explains. “Young ladies around the globe struggle with this internalized racism instead of just loving what they’ve been given.”

To address the issue, Jean-Charles dreamed up Healthy Roots, a collection of African-American, Haitian, Nigerian, Pacific Islander and Afro-Brazilian dolls designed to combat racism and racial stereotypes by encouraging black females to embrace their natural hair. “It’s tragic that young black girls aren’t taught to care for and nurture their natural hair,” she says, noting that she hopes to reach them before they adopt negative attitudes about their hair and looks in general.

Jean-Charles is especially optimistic now that her project has been accepted into the highly competitive MassChallenge Accelerator program, which helps Boston-area entrepreneurs reach their full potential through mentorship, legal advice, access to exclusive networking events and shared resources. The four-month summer program awards top teams as much as $100,000 each to sustain and expand their ventures.

“I’m over the moon about being accepted into this program,” says Jean-Charles. “It’s like business boot camp for young entrepreneurs. There will be a lot of sleepless summer nights, but I’ll learn so much about how to grow my business.”

To help build a sustainable business plan, Jean-Charles invited Nitashia Johnson MAT 15, Ingrid Nelson 17 GD and Anisa Holmes BRDD 16—a Brown|RISD Dual Degree student majoring in both Graphic Design and Economics—to join the team. The friends are thrilled to continue working on the project, which was originally developed in 3D Illustration, a fall course taught by Professor Jean Blackburn 79 PT. In the class, Jean-Charles reimagined Rapunzel—the fair-haired damsel in the well-known Grimm’s fairytale—as a woman of African heritage with long dark hair. Now that she’s further developing the project as Healthy Roots, she’s “excited to do some social good using the visual arts skills I cultivated at RISD.”

Increment, another startup intended to serve the greater good, has also been accepted into the MassChallenge Accelerator program. Like Jean-Charles’ venture, it focuses on toys to improve the lives of children—in this case, those who are visually impaired.

The brainchild of recent alumni Maeve Jopson 13 ID and Cynthia Poon 13 ID, who initially started the project as part of their senior theses in Industrial Design, Increment is developing a series of soft, tactile toys that help all children develop fine motor skills and build spatial awareness – including those with disabilities. Working with educators, therapists and students, the designers are now testing O’Rings—colorful, stackable rings of different sizes, weights and textures—at the inclusive Meeting Street School in Providence, among other institutions.

“Toys in the special needs market often highlight disabilities,” explains Poon. “For physically challenged students, this creates a stigma of being different or sick—and isolates them from their peers. Our goal is to bring inclusion to the heart of the toy market.”

The ambitious duo plans to fully capitalize on the educational opportunities available to entrepreneurs accepted to the MassChallenge program. For the next few months, they’ll be commuting up to Boston from Providence to refine their business plan and make vital connections. “This time is so exciting,” notes Jopson. “We can’t wait to tap into this new network and see where the journey takes us!”

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