Black Owned: Alisha Lestrade, founder of inclusive doll company Thimble & Doll

Black Owned: Alisha Lestrade, founder of inclusive doll company Thimble & Doll

Welcome to Black Owned, a series that celebrates the brilliant Black entrepreneurs doing bits in the UK.

Despite the challenges, the community continues to create important and brilliant work – and we’re here to make sure that you know about it.

This week, we’ve got Alisha Lestrade, founder of Thimble & Doll – a company specialising in soft-bodied dolls that come in all shapes and colours.

At a time when representation has never been more important – particularly for your children – there’s never been a better time to talk about leveling the pitch via creativity.

What made you decide to start Thimble & Doll?

I started Thimble & Doll under the name Sugacandipop in 2009, because my nieces wanted soft-bodied dolls that looked like them. I searched everywhere but I could only find plastic dolls; it was impossible to find any that were soft or dark-skinned.

As I was a maker and liked to sew, I decided that I would make them one each. I drew out a design, gave it a go and they came out really well.  After making them, I realised that I couldn’t be the only person out there trying to find a doll that looked like my family, so I started looking for as many skin tones as I could.

I wanted to make dolls for children who were unable to find one that represented them. When I started out, I only had four skin tones. 

I put my business on pause when I had my son, but I kept researching and sourcing fabrics and planned to re-open my business once my son had started nursery. I rebranded, renamed and relaunched my business in 2017 – when Thimble & Doll was born.

What impact do you think the lack of representation in children’s literature/toys/TV has on pride and personal development?

Representation and diversity are the core values of my brand and I think there’s truth in the saying that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’.

I think that a lack of representation, added to misrepresentation and stereotyping, can lead to problems further down the line in terms of self-image, self-esteem and confidence. 

If children aren’t able to see people who look like them in varied and positive roles, it can lead to them thinking and believing that those roles and spaces aren’t accessible to people that look like them. I think it is extremely important to have representation in literary characters, toys and TV shows so that children are enabled to aspire to greatness. 

How long does each doll take you to make? What’s the process?

I stitch each of my dolls by hand and they can take anything from three hours for an 8-inch doll, to eight hours for a 22-inch doll. I love hand sewing and really enjoy putting that extra special touch on a doll, especially when I’m personalising them.

For the customer, designing a doll is a really easy process and can be done on my website in four steps:

Before lockdown, my customers were able to find me on a stall at one of many the makers’ markets in and around London. They could either order a bespoke design from me or buy one of the pre-made dolls I created for market sales. I love selling at markets because I love meeting and interacting with my customers; it’s amazing to have a child come up and find a doll that looks like them or to meet a parent who has struggled to find a doll that looks like their child and be able to give them the opportunity to design their perfect doll.

Has being a Black business owner impacted your success in any way?

I don’t think my identity has impacted my success with my doll business, but I did have a negative experience when applying to a very well-known charity for business funding when I was younger.  

I had plans to open a haircare shop specifically for afro hair care products and supplies. I had to pitch my business idea to a panel and one member scoffed at the idea, telling me that he ‘didn’t know there was a difference in products for coloured people’s hair’. There wasn’t a single non-white member of that panel and I think that maybe if there had been, there might have been a bit more of an awareness and less ignorance. 

I do think that there are certain industries where it would be much harder for a non-white entrepreneur to get their business off the ground – especially in the funding stage.

Is the Black Lives Matter movement making it easier for Black businesses to thrive?

I don’t know if it’s making it easier for Black businesses to thrive, but I would say it is helping a lot of businesses to gain visibility.

I’ve seen new business networking and support groups for Black business owners open up on social media, Black business directories have grown their members and it feels like there are people actively seeking out Black-owned businesses to support.

On Instagram, there have been quite a few ‘tag a Black-owned business’ posts, which is great and has meant that people have been able to signpost others to a business they might not have known about before.

It’s too early to tell whether it’s going to make a material difference, however. A few new followers don’t necessarily convert to sales, but the noise online is definitely helping to put a spotlight on the skills and talents out there that historically have been overlooked.

What advice do you have for other women looking to set up their own business?

Go for it, trust your gut, don’t overthink things and keep good records! That’s all the advice I wish I had taken when I was starting out! 

Putting systems and processes in place is key as it’s easy to get yourself in a mess (as I often do). Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it, or to take help when it is offered!  Learn how to use the online scheduling tools – any apps or programs that can take the workload off your hands is worth looking into.   

Make time for yourself where you are not working, set aside some downtime and get a cleaner! No, really – get a cleaner!

What plans do you have for Thimble & Doll going forwards?

Lockdown has given me a lot of time to think about what is next. I have been working on new designs, I have new products in the pipeline and in mid-July, I’ll be adding a new collection of dolls to my online shop.

I’ve also been working on plans for a new arm of my business which is really exciting – but I can’t say too much about that yet!

I’m really looking forward to getting back out there at makers’ markets. I miss the interaction with my customers face-to-face so I plan on attending as many as I can when the world opens back up for business and indoor markets are back on.

You can check out Alisha’s beautiful dolls on her website, her Facebook page and Instagram.

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