Written by: Phindile Le Bris Sithole-Spong
If you have read our blog for some time now, then you probably have seen the numerous articles I have written about being a new mom (#sorrynotsorry). With all that new motherhood entails, one of the biggest things I had to consider early on was what kinds of toys I wanted my daughter to interact with. As a mixed-race girl (half French, half South African), one of the key asks for me was that whatever she played with somehow reflected herself to her.
And whilst it’s pretty hard to get that specific. It was important for her to have dolls that looked somewhat like her. This is why I was thrilled when I came across Imibongo Kamakhulu Dolls on Instagram before going back home to South Africa for some work obligations. What struck me first about the brand was how inclusive it was in its skin colour offerings. But also how beautifully crafted each doll was. As a lover of detail and an advocate of small businesses and black female-led businesses as a whole. The brand hit all the marks for what I wanted to see and spend my money on.
From the impeccable craftsmanship to the outstanding service, I bought a few more items for my sister-in-law and friend who recently had children.
I was privileged to interview, or rather have a conversation with the owner and founder of Imibongo Kamakhulu Dolls and here is how our conversation went:
I am so glad I came across your company and intend to return as often as possible to purchase your wide selection of dolls, bibs, blankies, and baby products. Can you start by telling our readers what inspired you to start Imibongo Kamakhulu Dolls and what the name of your brand means?
My business was inspired by the birth of my daughter back in 2017. When I was still pregnant, I was excited to be responsible for instilling positive core values in this little human. One of the first things I wanted to do was get her something soft and precious that symbolized and reinforced that her being is valid, that she is enough, and that she matters so much that she deserves to see herself in the toys she cherishes, like having a doll that looks like her when she is playing. I struggled to find such dolls in shops, but I knew I could make her one because I have a background in fashion design. So I did – she loved that one, and so did my peers – who had the same complaints about the lack of black dolls on the market, so I knew I had to put it out there and see if other parents shared frustrations with the lack of diversity in the toy space.
As a mother, I have always believed that representation matters, and what I love about your dolls is that they cater to many children of varying skin tones and several needs with your selection of female and male dolls. So why did you decide to have all this variety instead of making one colour of brown skin doll?
I aimed to reflect what I know in play, and what I know is that people of colour do not just come in just one colour or skin tone. If I am to say I am offering representation, I wanted to include more than one shade. As I learned more about the importance of doll play and its benefits on the child, I realized boys could not miss out on such an opportunity. And in the future, I would love to have many more shades available, which will come with time and capacity.
As you have previously mentioned, you have a daughter who seems to drive and inspire your business. What is her reaction to you making the dolls throughout the years?
Her reaction has been an ever-changing one over the years. First, she used to think I make them because I like to play with them, then she was super proud and would bring her little friends over and tell them that I make “obhabha”. At some point, she was simply bored because they are everywhere, but one thing that stays constant is that she wants to be involved and helpful- whether I need it or not 😊, she also makes requests once in a while, which helps me in my creative process as I learn from her…or steal her ideas depending on how you look at it. Whenever I come up with something new, she’s also highly complementary, and kids DO NOT lie, so I trust her praise.
From stalking your Instagram page, I see that you have a background in fashion and art. How has that background helped you on your journey with Imibongo kamakhulu Dolls?
It’s the only reason I have gotten as far as I have with the business. I saw a problem and knew I had the tools to remedy the situation. Fashion is fun, so I am not afraid to play around within the range. And when new problems come up, the approach is similar, an example is learning how to dye fabric myself and applying colour theory in getting the end result correct.
That’s amazing, and as a consumer, it is clear that you put not just a lot of work into each doll but into every aspect of it, which is fantastic to see. This brings me to the clothes of your dolls that seem to change with the seasons. Is this because of your fashion background, or is it to keep things interesting for yourself?
It has more to do with fabric availability, what’s relevant in terms of trends, and definitely to keep things interesting, more for my customer than me. It stopped being just about me when I got my first customer, as I now had to listen and take on feedback. It’s also my love for fashion mixed with being a mom to a baby girl whom I love to dress. I, of course, take into account the suitability of the looks for child’s play and whether it will bring them delight or spark their imagination.
As an entrepreneur working in a creative space, I know how difficult it can be to keep creativity and passion alive. So how do you stay inspired and push yourself ?
I don’t always have motivation, but I literally cannot afford to drop the ball as this is a business and my primary source of income. I have to keep falling in love with my company to show in the collections I put out. I go through funks, and it helps to take a step back and get my energy back to remember that my creativity needs me at my best.
I can totally relate to that feeling, and it is great that you acknowledge the good and challenging parts. I know you recently celebrated your brand’s 3rd anniversary. What was it like to reach such a significant milestone? And what are some lessons you wish you had learned before starting?
I don’t know if it quite registered just yet. When things don’t register, I say them out loud so I can acknowledge them as real and happening 😊. I think I value so much the lessons I’ve learnt while running my business that I can’t think of a thing I wish I knew before. It might have limited my scope of thinking. If anything, I spent two years theoretically putting the business (business plan) together before pursuing it. Had I not stopped preparing and just done it, I may have never arrived here.
What is one unexpected thing that you have learnt or experienced since starting your business?
How important it is to separate your work from your personal life and time. And how simple it can be done, just by having a business contact number, email and hours that are communicated at multiple touch-points for your customer. It was one of the first things I learnt.
That is so important and true and a lesson I am trying to implement myself in my work life, especially with a demanding toddler.
On the subject of business and personal life, I know so many young black women feel like starting a business like yours is not possible like their voices, creativity, and ideas will not be welcomed. What has your experience been of that? Have you found it easy to navigate this, and what are some tools and tricks you have used to ensure your success?
I wouldn’t say I found it easy, I’d say it challenged me. I made my journey about my vision and goals and did not compare myself to those who came before me or after me. I also started from just wanting to share a passionate topic, and that was all that mattered. As awareness and the business’s success grew, my mind opened to more opportunities and other ways to make an impact that is bigger than just me.
November is #BossUp month for us at She evolves, where our team and readers take the challenge to be who they want to be now. It is kind of like New Year’s resolutions but only in November because we believe that there should be no reason to wait to follow your dreams, eat better, or do whatever makes your life better. So, are there ways you #bossUp your life at this time of year?
Right now, I’m looking at the lessons learnt this year and doing a deep dive into how to amplify or turn it around. I hope it’ll bring me closer to achieving some of the goals that have lagged behind this year. So that’s how I plan to #bossUp.
Finally, what does evolution mean to you, and how do you practice it in your life?
Being open to change and seeing which way my business needs to go. So I’d say evolution is about adaptability, and I’ve done so by keeping a close ear on what my customer is saying and inviting those conversations and feedback.