A mom’s search for a doll that looked like her daughter became the successful brand Orijin Bees
February 23, 2023 | By Matt Miller, Sr. Copywriter
This is Buy Black, a series highlighting Black-owned businesses. Here, we feature business owners who share their stories, provide tips for growing a brand, and discuss the importance of supporting the success of Black-owned businesses.
Melissa Orijin never intended to become a business owner—she was just trying to be a good mom. In 2018, Orijin was working in financial services when her daughter Esi started school. “She was the only Black student in her class, and because of the lack of diversity, she started questioning her appearance, her skin tone, her curly hair,” Orijin remembers. “I just wanted to let her know that she’s perfectly made.”
To help reassure Esi, Orijin took her daughter to the toy store. “I was like, ‘I’m going to find a doll that looks just like you,’ but I couldn’t,” Orijin says. “I struggled in that moment. I wanted to make sure she knew that she was beautiful.”
When they returned home, Orijin was upset and unsure how she could help her daughter.
“I felt like I had failed,” she recalls. “I felt lost as a mom.” She discussed the situation with her husband, and he suggested that if she couldn’t find a doll that looked like their daughter, Orijin should make one herself.
In the years since that trip to the toy store, Orijin’s pursuit to help Esi has evolved into a toy company that has inspired consumers across the US. Her brand, Orijin Bees, makes multicultural dolls with different complexions and hair textures, and has been highlighted by celebrities, Forbes, Oprah’s Favorite Things, and Amazon’s Toys We Love. This is how one mom’s desire to inspire her daughter helped break new ground in the toy industry.
Creating a doll with her daughter in mind
Orijin Bees started as a passion project. After working her day job, Orijin would spend her nights doing hours of research into manufacturing dolls. When she spoke to other parents, she learned Esi wasn’t the only child who struggled with finding dolls that looked like them. This underlined her urgency to create dolls that had a variety of skin tones and hair textures. “There are so many curly hair patterns, and I wanted to make sure we tried to represent that as much as possible,” Orijin says.
This kind of representation extends well beyond playtime; it is important for the healthy development of children. “If a child has a certain type of hair but her doll’s hair is different, then maybe she’ll question her own hair,” Orijin says. “But if she is holding a beautiful doll and the hair is exactly like hers, it’s confirmation that she belongs. It’s telling her that she’s beautiful. She’s included. That’s how we can encourage self-love in children during play.”
Getting the doll right—especially the hair—took some time. Orijin remembers the day in 2019 when she knew she’d succeeded in creating the doll that her daughter deserved.
“We had gifted dolls to the church, and all the little girls were so excited and hugging and squeezing the dolls,” Orijin says. “Esi came up to me and said, ‘Mom, I really love these dolls.’ I just started crying. Everything came together in that moment.”
Sharing the Orijin Bees values with customers
In 2020, Orijin left her financial services career to work full time on Orijin Bees.
“We were in the middle of the pandemic, and there was so much happening in the world,” she says. “I was feeling the pull. And one of the things I said was, At the end of the day I have my kids to answer to. And, for me, making that decision, even if I failed, I think my kids will still be proud of me.”
From there, she dedicated herself to running Orijin Bees. At this time, sales were predominantly stemming from the Orijin Bees direct-to-consumer website. Orijin was using social media and other digital marketing to reach consumers, and the brand was growing. “We had a good product that filled a gap,” Orijin says. “We started learning to lean on faith and kept trusting that if you’re walking in your purpose, things will work out.”
That purpose is normalizing inclusion during play. As Orijin explains it, play is a child’s first introduction to the world. “We have to decide how we’re going to show this world to them,” she says. “If they’re not included in the toys they’re playing with, what are we teaching them about their place in the world? If every child feels represented while they’re playing, we’re telling them that they belong. We’re telling them that they’re valued. We’re telling them that they’re perfectly made just as they are.”
Research shows that this type of representation matters to consumers. According to a 2022 report from Amazon Ads and Environics Research, about 67% of consumers say it is important that brands they patronize take action to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). In fact, 7 in 10 consumers say DEI is an important factor when choosing a brand to purchase from, and almost 45% of consumers said they are willing to pay more for a product that reflects and promotes DEI.
Orijin has heard this feedback from her customers too. “I love getting the photos of a kid with their doll in the car or little kids shopping with their doll,” she says. “But we also hear from a lot of parents that it’s like this healing of their own inner child because they didn’t have those dolls growing up.”
In 2021, Orijin Bees hit a new milestone when the brand was selected as one of Oprah’s Favorite Things and soon afterward joined Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator (BBA).
With the help of the BBA, Orijin worked on building up their product pages and leveraging Amazon Ads to reach consumers. “I can’t overstate that having an account manager be so present and accessible, available to answer questions, and help us optimize our products and our Store the right way is what has set us up for success,” she says.
Along with learning best practices for Amazon Ads, Orijin says the BBA helped Orijin Bees get exposure through speaking opportunities—in 2022, she was a panelist at the Black Girl Magic Summit.
Orijin says these types of resources for Black-owned businesses are important to help set these brands up for success. “Initiatives like the BBA help better position us. They provide us with strategic advice. They provide us with resources we may not have already had because we were the underdog for so long,” Orijin says.
Looking ahead, she says Orijin Bees is preparing to expand to the UK and Canada. The brand also has a number of new products set to launch in 2023 that will be available in Amazon’s store.
But, no matter how much the brand grows, Orijin is still a mom first: “I approach this business from a mother’s perspective,” she says. After all, that’s where Orijin Bees began.