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News@Ivey · Shanthal Perera

Kimberlee West shares how she built a brand that celebrates diversity

Sep 25, 2020

Kimberlee West

Kimberlee West with her daughters

Kimberlee West, a marketing strategist and founder of Kids Swag, an online store that sells children’s products that promote self-love and diversity, joined the New Venture Creation course with Janice Byrne, an Assistant Professor in Entrepreneurship. West spoke virtually with MBA students about her startup journey, the importance of storytelling and building community, and her brand’s goal to provide a visual, representative environment that helps growing children to love themselves and appreciate difference.

Kimberlee West was an accomplished marketing strategist by the time she had her first child. As she was looking through children’s books for her daughter, she noticed a glaring gap: the lack of African American characters. 

The problem was larger than she thought. Only around 10 per cent of children’s books have African American characters in them. They are outnumbered by anthropomorphic characters, and Caucasians are the standard narrative for most children. 

If there is one thing her experience in marketing had informed her, it was the importance of visuals. 

“One of the key things that is consistent in any marketing, whether B2B or B2C, is visuals,” she said. “Visuals are so important, once you have refined the story you are trying to tell, to reinforce that story.”

Creating a representative world

West said people’s inability to see themselves visually in certain situations or professions, can often push them to self-select out of those spaces. She worried that children would question their own self-worth.

“(By giving my daughter these books) I was creating an environment that said that her skin, her hair, wasn’t good enough,” said West.

What started as a personal need to find a process to normalize representation for her child by finding toys, books, t-shirts and more, soon gathered a following that culminated in the launch of Kids Swag, an e-commerce store that promotes diversity and inclusion through character-based swag for kids.

Six tips from Kimberlee West on building a brand

For the past three years, West has been running the company while continuing to work as a full-time Senior Product Marketing Manager at Xactly Corp. Here are some of her key learnings from her entrepreneurial and marketing career, highlighting the importance of brand and team (internal and external).

1. Reinforce your core message – For West, mindful representation is the core philosophy of Kids Swag. This is a term she has derived to articulate the intentional process of showing children a truly representative world through their books, toys, and attire. Her messaging frequently references this philosophy, tying it to the brand and reinforcing it amongst its customer base.

“You know that you are doing a good job when it's not only you articulating what your company does, but anybody who is responding back or engaging with you, is articulating what you are doing quite well,” said West.

2. Build a community that helps share your mission – West said one of the biggest things to do in marketing is to create a community with its own terms, name, and language. This helps a brand to create an environment where people feel connected and a sense of community, and feel there is purpose behind the brand and its community.

3. Rely on existing skills and expertise – Kids Swag has been hugely informed by West’s knowledge of marketing and her business experience. When starting the venture, funding was one of her major obstacles. Having worked primarily in the B2B market, West leveraged that experience to work with third-party suppliers to build her inventory instead of creating her own products, which would have required more capital.

4.  Create a competent and trustworthy team – In 2018, West was doing all the heavy lifting for Kids Swag. After a stint with two hired students, she recognized the need for professional help if Kids Swag was to grow and achieve its potential. After a few struggles with consultants who didn’t always deliver on their promises, West put together a team she can trust.

“I want to know that the business can exist if I walk away, go on vacation, or get sick,” said West.

5. Ask for help – West encouraged students to not be limited by their own expertise and know-how, but to strike partnerships that can be leveraged to fulfill the opportunities that are present.

“If you are feeling that you can’t do it, that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It just means that you must partner with people who can help you do it. That is the same thing we do in business all the time,” she said.

6. Have priorities – Ruthless prioritization has been key for West to balance a growing business, her career, and family life. For West, her two daughters come first. In them is the origin of Kids Swag and a hope that all children from diverse backgrounds will be able to envision a future where they are visible, proud, and accepted.