From engineering to marketing to professionally dancing alongside the likes of Missy Elliott and Will Smith, businesswoman and entrepreneur Casey Kelley has seemingly done it all and shows no signs of slowing down.
The New Orleans native saw a major void in the fashion industry when her 10-year-old son asked for a back-to-school backpack with an image that looked like him on it. After searching high and low to no avail, Casey tuned into the age-old adage that necessity is the mother of invention and along with her husband Harvey developed Blended Designs.
In an era where African-American designers are still struggling for mainstream appeal, Blended Designs offers an alternative in the accessories department, using African-American inspired artwork, images, and messages to empower and educate a new generation.
Featured in or on The View, Forbes, NPR and ABC News, among other outlets, Kelley continues to empower her children and those of many others with her rise-above-attitude, making Blended Designs one of the most popular resources for school gear specifically designed for people of color.
In 2018, Kelley was awarded a FedEx small business grant, and continues to grow her company to impact the world. Hollywood favorites including Oscar-winner Regina King, Blac-kish star Anthony Anderson, America’s Next Top Model star Miss J, and the incomparable Vivica A. Fox have all been spotted with and supporting Blended Designs bags.
N’DIGO recently caught up with Kelley to learn more about the brand and what she has planned for the future.
N’DIGO: In your own words, please tell us who is Casey Kelley and a little about your background.
Casey Kelley: First and foremost, I am a wife, mother, and daughter. Professionally, I’ve spent my career analyzing data within the consumer insights industry. I am equally creative and analytical – meaning I am split-brain, but it has been incredibly beneficial as an entrepreneur.
As a child, what did you originally envision yourself doing as an adult?
I think as children, we are often “encouraged” to be in certain professions. Growing up, it wasn’t normal for girls, especially a Black girl, to be exceptional in math. But again, being split-brain, I excelled in dance. I wanted to be a dancer, but was told that I should be an engineer.
So I started saying I wanted to be an engineer even though I absolutely had zero idea what that meant. I had a full scholarship to Purdue majoring in engineering. I hated it, most likely because it was a field picked for me and it had limited outlets for me to express myself creatively.
What is Blended Designs and what inspired you to start the brand?
Blended Designs is an e-commerce headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida that specializes in products that empower people of color. My husband Harvey and I started Blended Designs in 2014 after we got married. I created almost everything for our wedding and family and friends encouraged me to open an Etsy store. We named the company Blended Designs because we are a blended family.
It goes without saying that our kids need positive reinforcement, but as a mom and business owner that features positive messages on your product, can you speak to your personal experience about why those positive messages are so vital?
In March 2017, my then eight-year-old son had a friend at school with a backpack that looked like him. It was a cartoon of a boy with red hair. My son wanted one that looked like him. We couldn’t find one anywhere. I did research and found that less than two percent of character backpacks include children of color.
You were recently a winner of a FedEx small business grant. Tell us a little about that experience and what it means to you?
The biggest part of winning for us was not the money. We were a third-place winner, so we won $7,500, which went VERY quickly. But the partnership with FedEx is huge. They have helped us secure a couple of deals. Our relationship with FedEx has placed us in rooms that we would have otherwise not been allowed in. They are key to our B2B growth.
What are some of the unique challenges you’ve faced as an African-American woman establishing your brand?
There are a couple of things. Less than .3 percent of capital is invested into African-American women. So being able to establish ourselves as a brand so we are better positioned for funding is one. Second, there is a stigma with “buying Black” within our community.
If a customer has a bad experience with a Black business, they tend to apply that experience to ALL Black businesses. We are held to a higher standard than our consumers hold Fortune 100 companies.
So I feel that I have to work harder than my white peers to provide messaging around our quality and customer service. I work twice as hard to make sure our team is providing “Nordstrom/Disney-type” customer service.
How do you balance being a mother, wife, and business owner?
Since we are a family-based business, it is pretty easy. A lot of our time together is centered around business related activities. The cool thing is that we do events together as a couple. So to be able to travel on weekends and spend time has really strengthened our marriage.
Our son Carter has his own “seat at the table” in our office. He comes to the office and does homework after school. But he loves being involved in decisions and knowing exactly what is planned.
Do you have a basic rule of business that you always abide by?
Your integrity is the most important characteristic that you have.
What’s something people would be surprised to know about you?
I was a professional dancer before having children. I danced background for Aaliyah, Will Smith and more. Also, I am a card carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild!
Best advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
1) Never compromise your brand.
2) Treat everyone like they are your FIRST customer – meaning, remember the excitement you had with that first customer.
3) You are your only competition because we can all win.
Favorite quote or affirmation?
What God has for you is for you. The next person’s blessings have no bearings on yours, so we root for everyone to win.
When I was going to auditions in L.A., I would talk to other dancers about what other castings were going on. People would overhear and get upset.
One dancer asked me, “Why do you tell people about auditions when they could be taking your job?” My response was, “When God has something planned for me, it doesn’t matter if there is one other person auditioning or 1,000. What’s mine is mine and blocking someone from getting what ISN’T mine doesn’t change that I wasn’t going to get it anyway.”
What’s next for Casey Kelley and Blended Designs?
We are adding a few new categories to our product assortment and we are focused on expanding B2B.
(For more information on the brand, visit their website www.blendeddesigns.com.)