'It is important to me because I want the world to think good things about brown boys. We aren't bad, or mean, or trouble; we are smart, fun, and creative,' the young CEO shared.
A 9-year-old boy and his mother are on a mission to let "every young brown boy know just how special they are" through their doll company, Our Brown Boy Joy. Demetrius Maurice Davis Jr., aka "Lil Dee," and his mom, Luciana Gilmore—a former principal in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District—wanted to change the narrative about Black youth in the United States when they launched the business in June 2020. "It is important to me because I want the world to think good things about brown boys," the young boy, who is the CEO of the successful brand, told PEOPLE. "We aren't bad, or mean, or trouble; we are smart, fun, and creative."
"Our boys are often depicted negatively in the media. On store shelves, the representation is minimal. And within the toys category, there is almost none for our boys. We must have opportunities for our boys to see themselves positively everywhere. Representation matters," Gilmore chimed in. Speaking to Cleveland.com, the Twinsburg-based mother-son duo revealed that the idea of for a plush doll line for young Black boys was the result of a realization Lil Dee had while Gilmore planned a weekend conference with a group of young girls she was mentoring.
"I was the only boy at these conferences," the young CEO said. "My mom was also doing these Zoom meetings with them, and I felt left out." Lil Dee begged his mom to develop a project geared toward boys his age. Around the same time, Gilmore—like Black folks across the world—was feeling disheartened following the murder of George Floyd. "During the pandemic, with so much going on in the media that children had a front seat to view, our boys needed to be reminded how special they are," she said. "Dee and I spoke a lot about George Floyd during this time and he was visually sad."
"Over the course of a few days, I began to share stories about young boys with similar stories, because I needed it to connect with him," she continued. "We talked about Trayvon Martin and [my former student] Tamir Rice, and I could see the pain he felt." Gilmore then got to work, developing a company focused on promoting representation for young Black boys to surprise her son in time for his 8th birthday. "I started shopping around for dolls of color and discovered there was nothing that looked like my son," she said. "I knew then we were on the right track and began all the legalities of starting a business."
"He has always liked plush animals and superhero dolls. It never occurred to me to think boys might want dolls that look like them. He has older sisters, and I knew to always look for dolls of color for them," Gilmore added. Although the company initially started off with subscription boxes—each month focusing on a different theme "to remind our boys of their greatness"—the Ohio mom soon started thinking of how she could make an even bigger impact on their audience. "'My Friend' doll came to me in a dream," Gilmore explained. "I took Lil Dee to the toy store and saw that there were no play figures that looked like him. This started the planning of 'My Friend.'"
In June of 2020, the family gathered around Lil Dee as he was handed a folder with documents making him the founder and CEO of Our Little Brown Joy. The young boy's first thought was to figure out a way to pay homage to Trayvon Martin—the Black teen who was fatally shot in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012—and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed by police in Cleveland in 2014. After many redesigns, he mother-son pair decided to design the doll in resemblance of Lil Dee but wearing white hoodies and Timberland boots to honor Martin, who was wearing a similar outfit on the night he was fatally shot.
"My mom wants everything perfect," Lil Dee said. "She makes me inspect each doll, labels have to be straight. She just wants everything to be presented nicely. She tells me that each doll is my way of saying hello in each house they are delivered to." Gilmore revealed that it has been amazing to see her son grow into his role as a CEO. "He inquires about his orders daily. He asks if he has any press meetings," she shared. "To see him grow leaps and bounds from a year ago impresses me daily because I truly get to witness my 'Brown Boy Joy' understanding his impact, and he wants to ensure we do it right."
Since the launch in February 2021, Lil Dee and Gilmore have expanded their doll line to include several other skin tones and wardrobe options. "The response has been awesome!" Lil Dee said of the dolls, which sell for $49 to $59 each. "Having people send pictures, email me, or walk up to me and say thank you has made me so happy. I think people really like the affirmations the dolls say, and they are in my voice." Sharing some advice for other kids looking to follow in his footsteps, he said: "It takes a lot of work, plus school, but to see people smiling and happy about what you do makes it fun. Oh yeah, and get a mom like mine. That's probably the best advice."