Building Confidence in Children of Color - How Blended Designs Built Their Business

Just as there are many different types of small businesses, there are many different paths to deciding to open one. Some entrepreneurs dreamed of owning a business for a long time and spent years planning for it, while some launched businesses based upon an idea born out of need or an opportunity in the marketplace. Others, like Casey and Harvey Kelley, found the spark of entrepreneurialism when they least expected it, while they were already in the midst of other careers. In their case, a comment from their child ignited the concept for Blended Designs, the business that would soon change the course of their own lives as well as change the way children of color express themselves through the backpacks and bags they carry to school each day.

With professional backgrounds that spanned a wide range of fields and strengths – Casey specialized in insights and analytics and Harvey focused on the non-profit sector in behavioral health with youth programs – the couple’s combined expertise seemed tailor-made for developing a meaningful brand that would have a positive impact on children.

Sometimes you are searching for ideas...but sometimes, the idea finds you.

The Big Idea started with a seemingly simple request from their eight-year-old son, Carter. Casey recalled, “He came to me and said he wanted a bag with his picture on it for school.” After looking through hundreds of character backpacks, Casey realized that less than 2% of them on the market reflect children of color. “I immediately realized that there was a void we could fill,” said Casey.

Finding that market niche was only part of the equation – Harvey’s experience with behavioral health was the missing piece.  He champions the importance of a person’s emotional quotient (the emotional equivalent of IQ), including self-confidence, and its effects on how you learn and grow as a person. With that mindset, what a key opportunity it was to hear what Carter said and realize how creating something as important as backpacks for children of color could impact so many children.

Boy holding backpack

Building a successful business takes more than just a great idea.

So how did they transform a simple yet brilliant idea into an actual business? At first, the Kelleys put together a prototyped bag and posted it on social media, which gave them immediate feedback on their idea and design. Based on the positive responses they got, they had the confidence they needed to take a chance. Using money that they had saved, plus a small loan, they were in business. On an average day in the early years, they had 30 orders, and from there, the orders grew right along with growing brand awareness of Blended Designs. Like many other entrepreneurs, the Kelleys learned how to run their business through trial and error, including realizing that funding options to meet the rising product demand were needed. Early on, sustaining that growth was enabled by a venture capital firm that agreed to back Blended Designs.

Winning a FedEx Small Business Grant Made a Difference

Woman and man standing in shipping room next to backpack display

Finding out about the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest was pure luck. In fact, they submitted their entry on the last day that applications could be submitted. They had a very strong social media following, and, once they posted about their contest entry online, votes poured in. When the Kelleys learned that they were chosen to be in the Top 100, their excitement – as well as the excitement of their loyal following -- further fueled the voting momentum.  Blended Designs quickly upped their game by posting a video with existing footage to gain additional votes for their entry. As Casey explained, “For it to resonate on such a large scale outside of the community to try to reach… for me, it made it so much more than just simply winning. Having FedEx validation is big.”

Of course, winning a grant is cause for celebration, but it also called for strategizing about how to make the best use of the money. For Blended Designs, winnings were spent on inventory as well as warehouse furnishing items that were needed for both short-term and long-term growth. Seeing the immediate benefits of the grant money led Casey and Harvey into planning the future with confidence, realizing they had a successful business on their hands.

Since winning in 2018, Blended Designs continues to flourish in new ways. For instance, their product line has grown to include a variety of bags, such as backpacks, luggage, duffle bags, totes and family packs, as well as apparel (t-shirts, hoodies, hats) and blankets. Not surprisingly, Casey and Harvey’s forward-thinking vision has evolved along with the product offering, and, just as they had each poured their passion into their previous careers, their commitment to empowering children and making a positive impact on the world is evident in all that they do. A great example is their “1954” collection of backpacks, named for the year that the Supreme Court declared that separating children based on their skin color is unconstitutional. As described in an interview, this was their chance to “desegregate the back-to-school category”. To help remind us of that important historical moment, the collection is focused on the theme, “I Can Do Anything”.

Do you believe you can do anything? If you’re inspired to follow the entrepreneurial path and need a little help, think about the Kelleys and how far they have come already – and enter the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest.

Who knows? You could be the next entrepreneur to make a difference.