The single mother who noticed a gap in the greetings cards market
Jessica Huie was a teenage single mother struggling to start a career in the media. Then she noticed a gap in the greeting cards market – and has never looked back.
Friday 16 November 2007
Jessica Huie was wandering up and down Oxford Street and weaving through the aisles of shops, seeking a card for her daughter. She just could not find what she was looking for. And she wasn't sure why. But then it struck her: cards are made for white people.
That was in May last year. This week, the former teenage mother from a crime-blighted estate was accepting a business award from Gordon Brown, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in London. Her business? Creating a line of greeting cards that properly reflects the ethnic diversity of the people who buy them.
Ms Huie's story is extraordinary and displays how determination and hard work can transform life in the most unpromising of circumstances.
Today, Ms Huie runs what she describes as a "successful business with global potential" selling greeting cards featuring ethnically diverse models, including her daughter Monet, the inspiration behind it all.
The rags to (she hopes) riches story began nine years ago while she was still at school in Westbourne Grove, west London. Growing up with a white mother and a black father was clearly not easy, though she doesn't like to elaborate on the problems that led her into falling pregnant at such a young age. "I don't want to get in to that. I respect my parents so let's just say I had a difficult time growing up."
Her family – though poor – were fiercely ambitious for their children, academically-orientated and determinedly pro-education. The pregnancy and her inability to continue at school came as a big shock to them.
But for her it was the rallying cry to turn her life around. Her daughter, Monet, was "my catalyst," she says. "She is my guardian angel and a veryspecial child."
Rather than allow herself to become enmeshed in a culture of hopelessness and welfare dependency, she returned to college, embarking on a career in journalism and public relations before hitting on the idea of tapping into the market for racially representative congratulatory missives. "I thought, I am smart – there is no reason why I shouldn't achieve my potential."
She did her A-Levels during one intensive year at college, picking up an A and a B before going on to study for a journalism degree at Harlow in Essex, the alma mater of Piers Morgan, she points out. "While I was there, I started doing an internship for Max Clifford so that I got to see both sides of the business."
Education was a salvation. "As soon as I started to study again, my self-esteem grew and I began concentrating on building myself a successful career," she says.
After leaving college, where she made ends meet working two days a week in a shoe shop, she landed a job as a senior staff writer for Pride, the magazine for upwardly mobile black women. Here, she began to live the life she had once only dreamed of – interviewing celebrities and travelling all over the world.
By that time, she was working up to seven days a week to support her young daughter, and took a job as an entertainment reporter for BBC London, before returning to the PR fold to work for Max Clifford Associates, full time, where she remains today.
But it was last year that the inspiration for her venture came out of the blue . "I was looking for a card for Monet which had a picture of someone like her, someone she could relate to. I looked in John Lewis and Clinton Cards but couldn't find anything."
ColorBlind was born. "When I was a child, successful mixed-race models other than Sade and Mariah Carey were few and far between. Two decades later, that has changed but, in 2007, I see absolutely no reason that my daughter can't walk into a high street store and find an image on a card that she can relate to."
However, she is adamant that her company is not a vehicle for political correctness – it is a business plain and simple. "I don't want to cause controversy," she says, insisting that mainstream media images of black people are generally positive. "Colorblind doesn't focus on race. I just spotted what looked like a very promising gap in the market." The "unsuspecting, unoriginal" greeting card market had just not woken up to the fact, she says.
According to Ms Huie's research, mixed race is the fastest growing ethnic group in Britain, and represents a powerful and potentially lucrative market. To get the venture off the ground, she scratched together £10,000 of her own money, teaming up with friend and colleague AnnMarie Thomson. The women commissioned photographer Nina Duncan, whose portfolio included portraits of the Queen and fashion shoots for Vogue, to begin producing images for sale over the internet.
Underlying the business venture, she says was "an important statement made to children globally about self love, with the ethos that beauty lies in our individuality, intrinsic to the brand's core".
It was an ideal that found appeal in the hard-headed world of business. After pitching at Clinton Cards, which controls nearly a quarter of the UK greeting cards market and announced profits last month that more than doubled to £17m, the company agreed to stock her product. Trials in 10 stores outperformed expectations and now they are being rolled out in 100 shops.
Deals are being struck with US retailers to go live next year and the product range is set to expand to include a range of giftware from mugs to fridge magnets. Colorblind has worked with professional football, creating two specially commissioned cards for the Kick Racism Out of Football campaign. The company also received the backing of the hip-hop artist Ms Dynamite, whose son was featured on one card. "There are issues at the moment particularly with young black men so it is nice to put some positive balance back out there in terms of ethnic minorities. What I particularly love is that retailers thought that only a black person would buy a card with another black person on it. But white people love them too. Beautiful images and inspirational words cross cultures regardless of race," she says.
Now 60 per cent of her customers are white and if the big retailers don't diversify soon they will be in danger of missing out, she adds.
Ms Huie brings the same qualities of drive and ambition to her work as an ambassador with Make Your Mark, a national campaign to promote entrepreneurship among young people.
"My message is that it doesn't matter what background you come from, with hard work and self-belief you can achieve anything." She says she is inundated with letters from children she has spoken to who are inspired by her success. "It is all very well getting multimillionaires to talk to them but they can relate to someone like me. I'm not a millionaire but I am on my way. By the end of next year we will have an international presence. It is just going so well.
"Our lives are a million miles from where they could have been. I wouldn't recommend young girls go out and have a baby but it is all about working to achieve what you want – using what you have to achieve what you want.
"The problem with teenage mums is that, when they are in that situation, there is no point beating them up about it. Being a teenager with a baby in a pram motivated me to get approval from society and from my parents." It has clearly worked.
Her 77-year-old father, Ernest, a retired minicab driver who came to Britain from Jamaica, has now become something of a celebrity in his own right after posing on two for his daughter's cards. They are among the most popular in the range.
As for Monet's father, he is still around, she says. "He is still very much part of her life but not part of mine. What you are looking for when you are 17 is very different from what you want later in life. He is very supportive for her." She says that she is "taking my time" when it comes to finding a new partner.
Looking back, the past nine years have been an incredible journey. "It was very important for me to move away from benefit dependency and I did this before Monet was even one year old. Then I thought I could hold my head up. It gave me a sense of purpose.
"Everyone needs a role, something to contribute to, something to look forward to. What success brings is a vigour and a passion for life. That is the real prize, not money, though I cannot wait until we are rich."
She adds: "If you had said to me back then I would be having these experiences and meeting the people I have, I would not have believed you. It was only a few years ago actually but it feels like a million."
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