Business owner and mum of five uses art to celebrate diversity and empower kids to dream big.
Last year, we interviewed the amazing Chi Opara, owner and founder of Dinky Mix, which champions representation, diversity and ambition through art prints designed especially for children of all ages.
Chi is now a mum of five, and her business is thriving throughout the pandemic.
We caught up with her recently, to chat about the latest developments for Dinky Mix, and the benefits it has been to the self-esteem of children, and empowering them to celebrate their racial and cultural identity. Chi has so many of these stories, but there are a few that definitely stand out…
“A woman ordered a picture of a ballerina for her daughter aged about seven. Her daughter has dark skin, and she has not been able to find any toys, books, or anything with characters that look like her. Within the black community, colorise can be a problem, whereby people with darker skin are stigmatised. It meant so much to this little girl to see a ballerina who looks like her. She cried when she saw it, and kept saying ‘that’s me, that looks like me!’ That almost broke me when I saw that review, because this kind of thing is still happening, and is affecting children to the extent that when she saw that picture, she cried because it looked like her. This really stood out to me, and took me back to my own experiences as a child, and the feeling of being an outsider, because of something I have no control over, but really, doesn’t matter!
What Dinky Mix does for children in this way is powerful, because it encourages children to believe that they are beautiful, and that they can be exactly who they want to be. This makes the work Chi does feel highly meaningful, and it is a huge motivating factor in what she does. She has had parents send her many more videos of their children opening up her products, and jumping up and down, dancing around the room. This is beautiful to see, and reaffirms to her again and again that her art is needed.
With the profits of Dinky Mix, Chi sponsors two children, one in Burundi and another in Rwanda. She hopes to move further towards turning her business into more of a social enterprise than a business. Money is not the only outcome she is working towards.
“So many people are told you have to be ruthless in business - it’s almost like you can’t have a heart if you are an entrepreneur. That is not me, and I refuse to operate that way. I give away a lot of free stuff, and many people say that this is not the way to go. I find that the more I give, more comes back to me”.
Chi gave an example of a lady who really wanted some of the drawings for herself, but she became ill, and could no longer work, so could not afford to buy any. Chi sent them to her for free! This lady was delighted, and immediately started telling her friends and people she was connected to, and this resulted in sales. “If I had taken the ruthless approach of ‘oh well, if you can’t afford it you can’t have it’, I would have missed those other sales”. Chi believes that what you give comes back around to you. She loves to make other people happy. There is a purpose behind what she does that greatly outweighs any monetary value. The reward from seeing the self-esteem of that little girl built up, who cried after seeing the ballerina who looked like her does more for her than getting money in the bank. Money can be spent, and it doesn’t last forever, but that little girl’s confidence will last a lifetime.
“It won’t stop with her,” Chi says. “She will pass down that self-love to the next generation, and it is something that I hope will be perpetuated for generations to come”.
Around the start of lockdown, business had been slow for Dinky Mix, but in the aftermath of the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, which highlighted systemic racism across the world, and the collective and individual struggles of black communities, the need for positive affirmation and rebuilding was brought to the forefront. As a result, almost overnight, orders started to skyrocket. Clearly, Chi was in the right place at the right time…
Before this surge of demand came through, Chi was pregnant with her fifth son. She knew that once the baby arrived, looking after all aspects of the business as she had been doing was not going to be practical, and efficiency would not be as high with the demands of looking after a newborn. She decided to outsource the fulfilment side of the business to another company, so by the time all the orders came in, this infrastructure was put in place, meaning that everything ran smoothly. This company looks after all the printing, packing, posting and shipping.
With the logistical side of things taken care of, Chi has more time and space to focus on her growth strategy, and the research and development that goes with it. She has also hired a social media manager, and someone to manage and keep the website up to date. When you are just one person doing everything, something has to fall by the wayside. For Chi, that tended to be social media and marketing that would get left for weeks at a time. The person she has hired to do this is excellent at what she does, and this has taken a weight off of Chi.
As well as all this, she has been getting busy making new art…
“I have a few new ranges coming out, including the dinosaur range, which has been really popular. I will be extending the ballet range, and in 2021, promoting the ‘I Can Be’ range, which is not quite finished yet. This range is all about drawing kids in different occupations, and doing different activities - I am going with the mantra ‘if you can see it, you can be it’. If they see themselves as the doctor or the marine biologist, rock climber or whatever, their imagination takes over the rest and they start to think that maybe they can, and if it turns out to be a passion, they are likely to follow it.
“I am starting to look at making educational packs and art and craft packs looking at black history - African history particularly - in a bid to educate kids as to where they have come from. History education in the UK tends to start from the Atlantic slave trade, and makes it seem like this was our starting point. But it’s not! There are decades, centuries and millennia of history that goes back long before this. Knowing where I came from really cemented my sense of who I am, and I want to do that for others. I want to empower kids to see all the great things their ancestors were capable of, and achieved. There was so much greatness before slavery”.
In part 2 of this interview series, Chi will tell us more about the reasons behind her plans for education packs on black history, and her personal and community-focused way of doing customer service.