Last week, each student in a first-grade classroom at Tuskegee Airman Global (TAG) Academy, a school on Atlanta’s Westside, received aerospace-themed boxes filled with books, activities, and interactive toys. The box contents included items provided by NASA, in their effort to inspire the kids in this Title I school to pursue an interest in space as a potential career.
The project is facilitated by Brown Toy Box, a STEAM-focused subscription toy box startup aimed specifically at children of color. The subscription service produces a wide array of boxes with themes like astronomy, coding, marine biology, and engineering, all including culturally-relevant products that empower kids to pursue careers in science and technology.
“The whole idea is to expose and introduce black children to high-paying careers and hobbies that they simply would not be exposed to,” says founder Terri-Nichelle Bradley, who has two decades of experience in multicultural marketing, mostly catering towards mothers and families of color.
Bradley explains that, growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, there was not a high density of African-Americans for her to look to as role models. “It was really important to my mom that she had strongly-representative art and books and things around us that made us feel good about ourselves,” she says.
“As I became an adult and I had my own family, that was also very important to me — that my daughters had dolls that looked like them, that all of my kids were exposed to STEM in a way that they could say, I can see myself in that role. I can see myself as a scientist, as an artist, I can see myself as a lot of different things.”
For the first year, Bradley focused on the direct-to-consumer version of her boxes. Just as you might order a meal subscription box, families could receive a different themed box for their kids each month.
They have reached about a thousand customers for that side of the business, but Bradley had her sights set on a loftier goal.
“I have always known that the kids that probably could benefit from our boxes the most would be those that could afford it the least. The consumer boxes, those are more affluent, college-educated, higher disposable income families. But I want to make sure that there was no kid left behind,” she says.
Bradley focused her efforts on Title I schools, those with a large percentage of low-income students, and on cementing partnerships with organizations and corporations that could help bring boxes to these underserved areas. She reached out to NASA and found them eager to get onboard.
“[NASA] knows that the people who will be on the next frontier of exploration are still in school. They’re excited about trying to help us cultivate that and about having a space program that actually reflects the population of the United States,” she says.
This first NASA box, geared towards first graders, includes stickers, toys, and a book celebrating Catherine Johnson, the scientist whose life was chronicled in the film Hidden Figures.
“A key component of NASA’s mission is to inspire and cultivate the next generation of explorers, said Dwayne Brown, a NASA Senior Communications Officer for Science, in a statement. “The first footprint on Mars will be from a student in school today.”
Bradley says they will collect feedback and data from this pilot to inform the school program through the next school year. Within the next few months she hopes to scale the program to K-8th grade classrooms and at multiple schools in the Atlanta area, eventually expanding nationwide.
“We’re trying to get a lot of good metrics on how we can do this where it is the most effective for both the classroom teacher, as well as for the families.”
Brown Toy Box is a participant in both the 2018 Center for Civic Innovation (CCI) fellowship cohort as well as the City of Atlanta’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative incubator. She’s self-funded the business and her team of four women thus far but is now seeking seed funding to scale the school program and get more boxes in the hands of students.
“One of the things that we hear a lot is, I didn’t know black people did that. Success to me is making sure that I never hear a black kid say, black people don’t do that,” says Bradley.