How One Mom's Mission To Rebuild Her Daughter's Confidence Sparked a Revolution for The Doll Industry Melissa Orijin noticed a gap in the toy aisle: diversity. The mother of three struggled to find dolls that had the same curls and complexion as her eldest daughter. After tirelessly searching to no avail, she set out to create them herself.
The first Barbie doll, launched in 1959 by toy manufacturer Mattel, was 11 inches tall with blonde, straight hair. She was thin, with long legs and a Zebra-striped swimsuit. She was marketed as a "Teenage Fashion Model." As for variation, the choices were blonde or brunette.
It wasn't until 1968 that Mattel released the first Black Barbie. However, "Christie" was far from progressive. She was made from the same mold as her white counterparts — possessing the same distinctly white features and hair texture, just with a different skin tone — an attempt at diversity that fell short. Christie's skin could have been dipped in the color blue, or red, or green, and she'd still look like a white woman.
Although Mattel has come a long way and continually works on integrating diversity in its dolls, there's something it just can't seem to get right: the nuance of diversity, the minute details that set one human apart from another.
So one mom from Rhode Island set out to change that — and set a new standard for the toy aisle.
When Melissa Orijin moved with her family from their part-time residence in Ghana to Philadelphia, her eldest daughter Esi was confident — so confident Orijin was "nervous," she jokes.
"I was like, is this girl too confident?" she laughs.
But when Esi started preschool in Philadelphia, she was the only Black girl in her class, and that confidence slowly turned from boldness to a quiet desire to assimilate with her classmates.
"Within a few weeks, she didn't like her curly hair anymore. She didn't like her brown skin anymore," Orijin recalls. "And we really struggled in the toy aisle with dolls."
Prior to that year in preschool, Orijin says Esi had dolls of all colors, but she never considered one to be more beautiful than the other. However, that year, all she wanted to play with was a white doll with blonde, straight hair.
"My heart would break every time, and I felt like I was failing her," she says.
"If you don't see the dolls, just create them."
When Barbie first debuted on the market, what set her apart was that she was a child's toy with adult features. She's beautiful, poised and well-dressed. For many children, dolls represent an ideal of beauty and adulthood. Orijin searched relentlessly for a doll that looked like Esi — to show her that she was beautiful and original and that there was a model who looked like her. But her efforts were in vain.
During a conversation with her husband about the situation, she broke down in tears. That's when he calmly told her, "If you don't see the dolls, just create them." It was that simple, she says.
From there, she started researching and planning. While everyone was sleeping, she says, she'd be working away to make that doll for Esi.
The most important thing Orijin wanted to focus on was hair. "I noticed this gap where not only was it hard to find curly-haired dolls, but it was hard to find dolls with different types of curly hair," she says. "They aren't realistic. There are so many different curl patterns, and I thought that was really important."
Orijin dedicated countless hours to getting the hair right, finally creating doll samples with curl types ranging from 3A to 4C.
"I wanted to know that if it didn't work, I did everything possible to make it happen."
Esi Orijin | Courtesy of Orijin Bees
Orijin starts tearing up when she talks about how the dolls went from her midnight passion project to a real business.
"I was so scared," she says. "I'm not a risky person at all. But I wanted to know that if it didn't work, I did everything possible to make it happen."
Orijin quit her job in the financial industry in the summer of 2020 and dedicated her time to launching what is now Orijin Bees.
"When I left my firm, someone asked me, 'Is this practical?'" she says. "[The answer] just came out of my mouth before I could even think about it. I said, 'At the end of the day, I have my kids to answer to, and even if I fail, I think they'll still be proud of me for the decision.'"
She worked tirelessly during a global pandemic that brought supply chain issues among other delays, but she didn't stop, and she told her story to anyone who would listen.
During Orijin's process of building the samples, she'd bring Esi in for feedback, and the two began to collaborate and make the dolls they'd been looking for but couldn't find.
In the early days, Orijin brought samples to a local church and gave dolls to the girls. The room was electric with excitement and gratitude. Amid the cheers and tears, Esi turned to Orijin and said: "Mom, I actually really like my curly hair."
Baby Bee Collection by Orijin Bees | Courtesy of Orijin Bees
Orijin pitched Target in October 2020, and the business took off once the dolls were stocked in stores across the country.
Orijin Bees has had revenue growth of more than 500% since 2020. The brand has also received global recognition and celebrity endorsements from the likes of Kandi Burruss and Keke Palmer and was named one of Oprah's Favorite Things in 2021.
When asked how it feels, the kind of surreal success she never imagined and was afraid to take the leap for, Orijin says she truly can't believe it. But who can?
"My mom," she laughs. "Every time I tell her an exciting thing that's happening or I'm like, 'Can you believe it?' She doesn't blink an eye and says, 'Of course I can believe it.'"
"Everyone should feel included, should feel valued and feel like they count."
Perhaps that's the key to Orijin's success both as a mother and a businesswoman: motherhood.
"We see our children as perfect exactly as they are," she says, "and you hope that they can see themselves in that way too."
Because if Orijin hadn't dedicated her energy to creating a doll that showed her own daughter how beautiful she is, Orijin Bees wouldn't be here today.
Orijin Bees is an acrostic for Our Representation Is Just Inclusion Normalized, Beautifully Empowering Every Soul. It came to Orijin at the very beginning of the process, because she knew what values she wanted to instill in her brand, her family and in society as a whole.
"To me, it's simple, because that's just the way the world should be. It shouldn't be this complicated thing," she says. "The world is a diverse place and everything around us should represent that. Everyone should feel included, feel valued and feel like they count."