8-year-old Atlanta girl creates products to inspire, motivate Black children

Zoe Oli, 8, surrounded by several of her dolls, is CEO of Beautiful Curly Me. Courtesy of Evana Oli
Zoe Oli, 8, surrounded by several of her dolls, is CEO of Beautiful Curly Me. Courtesy of Evana Oli

Credit: Courtesy Evana Oli

Credit: Courtesy Evana Oli

On this day, Zoe Oli is sporting an afro. Tomorrow, she might wear her hair in cornrows. Or puffs.

“I love my hair, because I can do different things with it,” said Zoe, 8. “And it feels good.”

It wasn’t always like that.

When she was “little,” she said, she came home from her mostly white elementary school and asked her mother why her hair wasn’t “pretty and straight” like her classmates. The hair of her second-grade classmates cascaded down their backs.

“When I was 6, I had a lot of problems accepting myself, and I didn’t like my hair,” Zoe said. “Their hair grew down. Mine grew out.”

Zoe’s mother went on a quest. She wanted to empower her daughter and to “remind her that she was beautiful.”

She set out to find dolls that looked like Zoe. But, while she could find the skin tone, she couldn’t find hair that wasn’t straight. So, they decided to take matters into their own hands and to make their own dolls.

They studied the market and explored ways that images have historically had a negative impact on the psyche of Black children.

Zoe, with her mother’s help, is the CEO of Beautiful Curly Me. She has created a line of black dolls with curly and braided hair — hair that looks like hers.

Zoe Oli holds two of her Beautiful Curly Me dolls. Courtesy of Evana Oli
Zoe Oli holds two of her Beautiful Curly Me dolls. Courtesy of Evana Oli

Credit: Courtesy Evani Oli

Credit: Courtesy Evani Oli

The two also have created a line of hair care products and apparel. In addition, Zoe has written two books, full of affirmations that tell Black girls how beautiful they are.

“With the business, I am starting to see that my hair is beautiful, and I have started to embrace it,” said Zoe, who also hosts a regular online discussion with other girls. “And I am inspiring other kids who want to start a business. A lot of people look up to me.”

Her company gives 10% back to girl empowerment organizations and recently launched a Gift-A-Doll charity initiative.

For the holidays, she partnered with My Sister’s House at the Atlanta Mission to donate dolls and copies of her book, “Beautiful Curly Me.”

“I really love giving, and I wanted to do something big for the holidays,” Zoe said.

Zoe donated dolls to My Sister’s House at the Atlanta Mission over the holidays. Courtesy of Evana Oli
Zoe donated dolls to My Sister’s House at the Atlanta Mission over the holidays. Courtesy of Evana Oli

Credit: Courtesy Evana Oli

Credit: Courtesy Evana Oli

They shipped out about 50 dolls a day during the holiday season. For the children receiving her creations, “I hope it makes them feel more beautiful and confident in themselves,” Zoe said.

It is safe to say that there are not many fourth-graders who know who Mamie and Kenneth Clark were.

Dr. Kenneth B. Clark (shown here in 1965) and his wife, Mamie Clark, were psychologists who developed the “doll study” to explore self-identification in black children. Associated Press
Dr. Kenneth B. Clark (shown here in 1965) and his wife, Mamie Clark, were psychologists who developed the “doll study” to explore self-identification in black children. Associated Press

But Zoe can recite how the husband-and-wife team of Black social psychologists, years before the 1954 Supreme Court decision that ordered schools desegregated, conducted groundbreaking psychological experiments on children.

Using a set of dolls, the Clarks challenged the legal doctrine of “separate but equal” — which held that racially segregated facilities, if equal, didn’t violate the Constitution — by testing whether Black children were psychologically and emotionally damaged by attending such schools.

Known as “doll tests,” black children were placed in a room with two dolls before them — one black and one white.

The children were asked a series of questions:

In preparing for the Brown case of 1954, black lawyers reached out to psychologists to determine how Black kids felt about themselves. The result was the Doll Test, which was introduced as social science evidence in the lower-court cases that were rolled into Brown, and cited by the Supreme Court in support of its conclusion that segregation harmed the psyches of black children. The test measured kids’ attitudes about what color has to do with being “pretty” or “good” (or “ugly” or “bad”) is still widely used shorthand for the argument that anti-black racism is internalized—and early. (Video by Ryon Horne, Ernie Suggs/AJC)

Which doll is pretty? Which doll is ugly? Which doll is bad? Which doll is good? Which doll do you want to play with? Most Black children showed a preference for the dolls with white skin tones.

Finally, they were asked to identify the doll that looked most like them. Some of the children stormed out of the room and became “emotionally upset at having to identify with the doll that they had rejected,” Kenneth Clark revealed.

Thurgood Marshall eventually cited the tests in his Supreme Court arguments in the case that overturned the separate but equal ruling.

“In measuring children’s attitudes about color, and the thoughts, images and perceptions associated with certain colors, it is very clear: Color plays a certain role, and it is amazing how early kids start to pick up on it,” Sigrid Y. Elston, a licensed psychologist who studied the doll tests while getting her doctorate at the University of Georgia, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this year.

On the day that Zoe came home crying two years ago, in consoling her, her mother also had to come to terms with who she was.

Evana and Zoe Oli developed a line of African American dolls with curly and braided hair.
Evana and Zoe Oli developed a line of African American dolls with curly and braided hair.

Credit: Courtesy Evana Oli

Credit: Courtesy Evana Oli

Although she has spent time in Florida, New Jersey and now Atlanta, there is still a Nigerian lilt in Evana Oli’s voice. A marketing executive before devoting all of her time to Beautiful Curly Me, she regularly wore hair weaves.

“I didn’t know how much the media had infused me. ... Being in corporate America, I used to wear a lot of hair weaves,” she said. “I didn’t realize that this was impacting her.”

She decided she had to set an example. She got rid of the weaves and went natural.

“Zoe has definitely come a long way,” Evana Oli said. “But she has helped me come into my own too.”

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