Name: Kimberlee West
Business: Kids Swag
Industry: Retail/Children’s Goods
Tanya: Let’s get right to business: what was your path/journey to entrepreneurship?
Kimberlee: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t think people have asked me that. I would say that the seed was planted early in high school, to be honest. My dad lost his job and instead of looking for another one, he decided to start his own business just doing telecommunication and he hired me as his bookkeeper at 13.
It was cool because being the bookkeeper meant then I was going to be exposed to what it even meant to run a business. Because I thought running a business was just, you get to wear cool suits. Then you get to be in cool meetings, et cetera. But I got to see the backroom operations and I was like, oh no, you need to have really good structures and operations in place.
The path took me out of my comfort zone and my country (did my masters in the UK), which expanded my circle, knowledge and thinking. Kids Swag specifically started because when I was pregnant, I went to my favorite bookstore, and there weren’t any books in the children’s section that had little Black images on them. And if I did find a book that was supposed to be for kids and had Black images, it had stuff like slavery or the civil rights movement.
Once I started seeking the things I wanted, and posted about it – others would ask where I got it from and it wasn’t until I was talking to a friend about all the requests when she said: “You know what you’re doing is a business right?
Tanya: And the rest, as they say, is history. You found a problem, and came up with a solution. What would you say has been your boldest business move?
Kimberlee: I started the business in December 2016. In April of 2017, I came across an article online about this amazing swim cap product. And that was in South Africa. I had no experience at all with working with people in South Africa. I just blindly sent an email to the woman that owned the company and she actually responded. And then I placed an order. That was my largest wholesale order.
Before, up to that point, I was placing orders for five or 10 caps. That was the first time where I had to place an order for, I think it was 50 caps at the time, which doesn’t sound crazy. But for me it was just, what is this money that I have to spend? With that, it sold out within two days, I was like, okay, there’s something here.
I followed up that bold move with another: I immediately emailed the woman and said, I not only want to be your retailer, but I want to be your exclusive retailer and wholesaler of swimming caps in Canada. She responded back and she’s like, “I’ll give you a six month contract. You can be our sole dedicated retailer of swim caps. You can be the wholesaler of it. We’re going to decrease the prices. In order for you to do this though, you have to purchase a minimum of 200 caps.” It’s not crazy now when I tell you what I just ordered, but back then…
Tanya: That’s a pretty big deal for a business in its infancy! Sometimes it’s just the audacity of asking. So the next question is how or has the lens of being a woman in your industry helped you?
Kimberlee: The idea of being a woman, of being a mother is what offers authenticity, is what offers the ability to connect, to empathize, to recognize the gaps. I grew up feeling like I wasn’t good enough, like I didn’t belong. My Blackness, my womanhood was a disadvantage and I was going to always have to try to overcome that. It’s very different with Kids Swag. And what I love, what I do, how I show up in the world is because this business allows me to empower, not only myself, but all of the brands that I carry in my store. The majority are actually Black women-owned brands.
Tanya: What do you see has the future for women in your industry?
Kimberlee: Oh, just endless possibilities. The idea that whatever you think is a gap in the marketplace to now see these other businesses that are doing things that you haven’t even seen. So for people to even see Kids Swag and see how it’s grown, plants the seed for other women, other entrepreneurs, to build something. The idea of Black women no longer feeling any sort of box or limitation to their ability to create. And whether that’s being an entrepreneur within their own companies or building something as a side-hustle while they work – we’re doing it and doing it better,
Tanya: What is your business’s biggest challenge?
Kimberlee: The biggest challenge, I would say, is getting through that message of this is not just a Black store, this is not just a Black cause, this is a store for all kids, all people, and we all need to be active in acknowledging the need to have diverse environments. We can’t just rely on the mainstream media to help in educating our kids on how to engage.
Tanya: Amen! How has the global health and racial pandemics affected your business?
Kimberlee: If anything, the pause with COVID, and working from home, and all that transition, made me ask myself, am I spending my time on the right things? In terms of the racial unrest, it reinforced the need for my business. It reinforced the need for people to actively, proactively take action and really want to embrace this idea of representation, embrace this idea that we do have a systematic issue with racism, not only in the U.S. but in Canada.
Tanya: Absolutely. What do you wish people would know about being a Black entrepreneur?
Kimberlee: That you are judged through a different lens. Even the fact that you have to say Black entrepreneur sort of qualifies that because you’re no longer just an entrepreneur, someone that’s trying to start a business. Immediately as a Black entrepreneur, you are judged with the same lens of just being a Black person. And so there’s this idea of, “Oh, your business is probably this small hobby-type of business that it’s not actually generating any revenue, that it’s not worth the consideration for a broader audience, it doesn’t have mass appeal.
Tanya: Sadly, that’s not stopping any time soon. Last question – how or do you find a balance between your personal and professional life?
Kimberlee: Let me try. I wouldn’t even call it balance. I feel like we like the idea of balance. It’s a beautiful concept. It’s more integration. And the biggest thing I would say for anybody is to get really good at prioritization and project management. I work full time. I am running Kids Swag, I’m also on the speaker circuit within the marketing space, I’m raising two kids, and I’m a wife, and apparently trying to keep a clean household.
Tanya: What is this concept of ‘clean household’ you speak of? LOL.
Kimberlee: Exactly, right? I read an article the other day that was like, “Stop doing laundry if you’re an entrepreneur.” I was like, “I need to show my husband this.”
Tanya: Oh, I’m going to find that and share it for all women EVERYWHERE!
Kimberlee: I take it in stride. I try to organize and prioritize things as best as I can. And then the biggest thing that I definitely learned this year to ask for help. Really look at what you are good at, and then figure out what pieces you can outsource to a certain degree so that your business can actually scale, and you can actually live. My goal, honestly, for Kids Swag, and why I’m now looking for funding, is because I want Kids Swag to survive even if I’ve gotten sick. Because if you think of what the impact of the pandemic, even if I wasn’t able to go on, it would be crushing to know all of this work that I’ve done up until this point just erases because I’m not in a space to be able to work on the company.
Tanya: That’s huge. Any freestyle moment? Anything else that you want me to add?
Kimberlee: Yes. Don’t be afraid to start. I knew nothing even though I did the whole school thing. I was petrified. I was the type of person that needed everything to be written down before I did anything. Kids Swag is the first thing I started and I’m proud of it, that I didn’t have a plan for.
Tanya: Thank you for that. Someone definitely needs to read that exact message. As a side note, when I bought the ‘I Can Do Anything’ bag for the kiddo, I didn’t let him use it for school. I didn’t want it getting dirty. But I decided that was silly, and now when he’s walking to school – I have a deep sense of pride. To him it may just be a backpack, but I know it’s more than that. This little Black boy carrying his backpack with a little Black boy on it that says “I can do anything” is so impactful. And I won’t know what the impact is until who knows when. So thank you for everything that you’re doing in both the small and big ways, both seen and unseen, I think that’s the key.
Kimberlee: I love that. Thank you for sharing that. So it’s not only your child, but the world seeing it. You sum that up, there’ll be an effect. That’s the impact that I want to see, and that’s what the mind shift will occur.
Bold & Black is a monthly interview series conducted by entrepreneur and 2018 Celebrating Women Honouree Tanya Hayles. Tanya is the founder of Black Moms Connection, an online global village of almost 20,000 and non-profit providing financial tools through grant programs generously funded by BMO.