We’re thrilled to announce the $10,000 May Amber Grant recipient. Congratulations to Tiye Harris, Founder of The Sweetberry Company.
Tiye is the sixth qualifier for the 2021 year-end Amber Grant ($25,000).
Recently, WomensNet Advisory Board member Marcia Layton Turner sat down with Tiye for an exclusive interview. You can listen to their conversation and view the transcript below.
WomensNet: Welcome everyone to a chat with our latest WomensNet winner of the Amber Grant. Today, we’re speaking with Tiye Harris of The Sweetberry Company, formerly Sweetberry Books. And she is our Amber Grant winner for May, 2021.
I’m Marcia Layton Turner. And I’m just one of the members of the WomensNet Advisory Board. So Tiye, welcome. So glad that you’re able to chat with us. Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us about your business. Why did you start it? What do you sell?
Tiye: Sure, absolutely. Well first thank you, Marcia, for being a part of a group that has afforded women like myself to have the opportunity to be a recipient of the Amber Grant. So thank you so much. So excited to be a May recipient of the Amber Grant.
The Sweetberry Company really got started from one eventful exchange from one of my very young students. So about 13 years ago, I left a career in pharmaceutical sales to join the Teach for America Corps. It was kind of a passion of mine to teach inner city youth. So it was my first class with Teach for America — a kindergarten class in Philadelphia — and we were having a lesson where the kids had to draw what they wanted to be.
And we were going to make a comic book of what we’re going to be when we grow up. And half of the students were having trouble thinking about what they want it to be. And the other half got really busy drawing athletes, entertainers… but the other half — it wasn’t that they were spoiled for choice. It was almost as if they didn’t know what they could be. So in the drawings that had already been drawn, I noticed that no careers like teacher, police officer, a fireman, a doctor, had been drawn. So I said, ‘Hey guys, who wants to be a doctor,’? And before the students could even answer, one of my little, most bubbly students — his name is Celine — he laughed and he said
“Mrs. Harris, we can’t be doctors, were black.” And it stopped me in my tracks. And the whole class started laughing. Now this is a class of five and six year olds, and it was inner city Philly, a 100% black and about 90% low income. And I don’t say that to say that this demographic doesn’t think they can become anything; not at all. But later, statistics will show when I start The Sweetberry company, exactly why that was very important. But it just blew me away that that was the thought. And of course, while I was with those students, we did so much around black history and lessons where we can integrate that in. And I started to think, how can I help change the narrative? Because at the end of the day, you can’t be what you don’t see and you can’t achieve what you don’t believe.
And the thing was, you just need exposure. And it starting so young. This was years ago when this first started. So I thought about it over the course of years, of course, and decided that my contribution would be to use some of my creativity skills, my teaching skills, to start with the books. There have been studies that show that children are more susceptible to like reading if they see characters that look that like them, or if they see characters that have a community like theirs. But aside from that, there was a study that showed that nearly 60% of low income homes have no books in their home for the kids.
As I was teaching, I found that there were little, if any books, that my students could see themselves represented in. And I was an early elementary school teacher. So we’re talking kindergarten to third or fourth grade. And there were hardly any books where the students could see themselves. And also in these communities, in this community, there’s usually one book per 300 students. This is statistically speaking. Now this was in 2014 and we hope these demographics and these statistics have changed. But nonetheless this really fueled me to want to do something different, to help shape the narrative. So the first book was, Look What Brown Can Do, for Sweetberry Books. It is like a little kid version of a black history book. It’s made for little eyes and little fingers. It’s illustrated, it’s written in ways they can read it and understand.
And we’re not just talking about black history champions that we all kind of know about. Many of them we don’t know about. And it just caused Sweetberry Books (now The Sweetberry Company) to blossom to more books. We now have products that have characters on them because the point is, you know, “representation matters” is so much more than a hashtag. And we want every child to be able to see themselves as a hero and as a main character. And while these books are perfect for any household, it means so much to me that I’m able to put them in hands of kids that look like me and look like I did. I didn’t have that when I was a kid either.
WomensNet: That’s awesome. And what are the other two titles that you have in front of you?
Tiye: In front of us, I have Kayleigh Bailey. We often see books that have black characters and they are centered around either black culture — our hair, maybe black history — but I wanted there to be a book series where it’s just a character doing little kid stuff. So this is just Kayleigh. She’s just Kayleigh. She tends to take things very, very literally. So this is called Scaredy Cat, and she thinks when she gets scared, she turns into a cat. So it’s pretty cute. And this book here, it’s a coloring book, and it was birthed in our quarantine. Beautiful, beautiful illustrations using quotes from black champions. Just a beautiful, beautiful book, and we have others and other products on the website as well.
WomensNet: Obviously, you’ve been very successful so far. What do you think has been your secret? What’s gotten you to this point?
Tiye: This is something that I’m extremely passionate about. And when you are starting a business, businesses have challenges. They have major challenges and minor challenges, but what really keeps me going is receiving feedback. I get videos all the time, messages all the time. Just the reviews and the pictures and the videos, is so much bigger than me, that it really has helped on the days you kind of think, ‘do I have anything left in me?’
But when you get a mother to write you and say, ‘my child now wants to be an electrical engineer with a focus on cellular technology,’ ….and they’re eight? That means so much. And you get grown up saying, ‘I didn’t know, I could sing opera.’ I wanted to, when I was a kid, but I didn’t know this was here. I didn’t know this world existed. So those are the types of things that say to me, ‘you’re doing a good job and keep going.’ And that to me is more success than anything.
WomensNet: So take me back. How did you hear about the Amber Grant and what made you decide to apply?
Tiye: The Amber Grant stuck out in a huge way because not only was this centered around women in businesses, but I saw an array of women. I went on the website and I saw that this grant had been given to so many different businesses, doing so many amazing things. And also women of all walks and cultures in life. And that just stuck out to me. I was so grateful to even be able to apply, and now to be a winner, is amazing. Thank you.
WomensNet: Now that you’ve won $10,000 to grow the company, what are some of the first investments that you think you’ll make?
Tiye: So The Sweetberry company has been afforded some pretty great opportunities that haven’t been able to scale as well as I would like due to inventory. Typically, I just keep around 200, 100, books of each copy. And from a publisher’s perspective, that’s a very low amount of inventory. So when I get opportunities to perhaps, put a book in the Smithsonian National African-American Museum or other African-American museums, whether it be one in North Carolina or LA, they’re asking for such large amounts and on a monthly basis. They might say ‘Hey, we need this. This is wonderful. We want to place you here. This is great. We’ll take 550 copies or 1200.’ And so at that point, it’s a matter of timing. It’s a matter of cost.
With the Amber Grant, one of the first things that will happen are getting those numbers, those inventories up right away, so that I can fulfill those orders as well as sell on my own. Once this happens again, go to trade shows and pop-up shops, and be able to interact more with my merchandise. Aside from that, we have some pretty great things in the pipeline for stories, expanding the line for older kids, middle grade(s). One of them I’m really, really excited about, is going to feature black children and children of color with disabilities. And that’s going to take a very different kind of illustrator, because it’s comic book form. And illustrators are costly, as they should be — it takes a lot of expertise. So the Amber Grant is going to help us propel those projects forward.
WomensNet: You gave us a little bit of a taste of what’s to come next, and that was going to be my next question. What are your future plans? So beyond, say, the next six months to a year, what do you see for The Sweetberry Company.
Tiye: We’ve got so many great plans. I’m so excited. So we have planned to partner with charter schools and large organizations that service minority urban low income youth. And typically we do see a lot of children of color there. So, like I said, charter schools like Boys and Girls Club YMCA, and we are planning to start something — tentatively called The Sweetberry Book Club. The purpose of it is to get booklets and magazine type books into the hands of these kids so that they can take something home; something that’s encouraging, something that they can have and keep for themselves. It wouldn’t be a charge, because it’s a partnership with these different entities. But it really means a lot to be able to give a child something that’s going to inspire them and encourage them to look towards the future and show them what they can do.
I’m really excited about that. In addition, probably early next year, I’m currently working on a specialty coloring book that is going to specifically be for jails and prisons for activity time for visiting day. A lot of times kids like this kind of get overlooked, and I’m passionate about that. I don’t want anyone to be overlooked. They’ll still be aligned with our goal to make sure that every child is represented and they get to see themselves as a main character. Those are two of the major things that are coming down the pipeline, in addition to some more books.
WomensNet: Do you have any advice? So many of the women in our community are getting started, trying to find their way to get to where you are. So do you have any advice for them? Anything you’ve learned along the way that might help them?
Tiye: My biggest advice would be to honor your journey. Because sometimes, especially women, we look at everything we have to do. We’re moms, we’re not moms, we’re aunts, we’re working or taking care of responsibilities. We might be caring for other people. And so we keep a lot on our shoulders and we think ‘I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be doing this. I should be this already.’ And it doesn’t help. Sometimes on social media, we see other people with some measure of success that we think we should have maybe gotten there already, but it really is a journey. And so sometimes we have to honor that journey and celebrate what we’ve already done. And that would be my biggest piece of advice.
We hear a lot of stories about how you just got to grind, grind, grind, grind. And sometimes that can feel pretty stressful, especially when you’re building a business. So honor the journey. You don’t have to be anywhere. You’re not right now. You’re in the best place; keep building and celebrate today.