In the heart of Brooklyn’s beautiful Prospect-Lefferts Gardens neighborhood, Janai Nelson, 39, and Crystal Granderson-Reid, 38, became fast friends. Married to men who were also buddies, the two had children of similar ages: Nelson is the mother of a 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, while Granderson-Reid has three daughters, ages 5, 7 and 10. The two families bonded over brunches, mommy and baby group meetings and “the socially conscious way we wanted to raise our children,” says Nelson. But as much as they both valued global diversity, they noticed that it was missing from the toys their children loved. “Together we chose to create a brand that celebrates diversity and fosters cross-cultural understanding in children,” says Granderson-Reid, who in 2006 joined with Nelson to start the very successful Brownstone Babies, LLC.

The company designs children’s products with an educational focus. Its premier offering is Brownstone Buddies, a line of multicultural dolls that include an African-American math whiz, a Spanish book lover and an Indian dancer. With their creations now selling briskly at FAO Schwarz ( and other outlets, the duo talk about lessons learned and what it really takes to form a successful enterprise.

ON SETTING UP THE BUSINESS: From inception they were determined to keep efficient records for business and legal purposes. Before taking their concepts and images public, they made sure their business plan, partnership agreement, copyrights, trademarks, nondisclosure agreements and legal team were all in place to protect their intellectual property and help them gain access to their chosen industries.

ON DEFINING A NICHE: The two friends had scoured retail stores and Web sites and found that none of the products truly reflected the diverse nature of their community. From market research and their own experience, they knew that when young children are exposed to positive cultural images, those messages leave a lasting impression. So they targeted the preschool set, providing them with toys that closely resembled the diversity of the real world. Brownstone Buddies resonated with kids, caregivers, collectors and other consumers.

ON FAILING UP: In 2006 the Brownstone Buddies brand was the top pick of more than 200 entries in the FAO Toy Auditions. Winning a chance to launch their line at the legendary toy store was a game changer, but the rollout was stalled by an internal reorganization at FAO Schwarz and its subsequent acquisition by Toys “R” Us. It made the two designers wonder: Would their start-up survive? In 2009 FAO Schwarz launched their line. It was a difficult time, but hurdling over each challenge was an incentive for them to work harder for success.


Make sure partnership agreements, copyrights and trademarks are already in place.