In the midst of a global pandemic and social awakening, Levi & Toonk comes in with a self-published biographical board book series. Their unconventional presentation of combining educational standards, humorous stories, and relevant social themes promotes early literacy and pays special attention to gifted children of color. Bri Smocks is co-owner of Levi & Toonk with her mother, who authors the series. Editor-in-chief and mom to Levi, muse of the brand, Bri founded Levi & Toonk after having been a high school English teacher for three years. As a child of teenage pregnancy and first-generation college student, Bri's upbringing has prompted her to give back in every way. Through Levi & Toonk, she has not only created a safe space for children of color; she has also assured their representation in literacy which is not only rare but extremely important, no matter the social climate we are in today.
Each collection of books is joined by a thematic set of events in Levi's development. Toonk is Levi’s voice of reason who shows up as an imaginary friend but represents his inner consciousness.
We talked to Bri Smocks about 2020 and the challenges this year has brought. As an entrepreneur, it's been a particularly complicated year and Bri can attest to that. During our conversation, we spoke about the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, the ups and downs of being a female entrepreneur as well as her tips to becoming one.
Honne: Why did you decide to start a business?
Bri Smocks: I walked away from a promotion in Texas because we made the decision to move across the country instead. As a result of the relocation, it was very difficult for me to find a job. After conversing with my mother one day, she brought up the idea of writing about my son’s life. As a result of that conversation, we combined my mother’s passion for storytelling and childhood dream of being a writer with my professional expertise and organizational adeptness.
From my experiences as an educator, I was vividly aware of the struggles Black and brown students face. Their schools are disproportionately funded, and they are not always given appropriate or updated learning materials. With Levi &Toonk targeting gifted children of color, we were inspired by the children whose potential is often overlooked due to their geographic location and/or economic status.
What does a typical day look like for you?
A typical day for me is balancing work and home duties. As an entrepreneur working from home and caring for a toddler in this pandemic, I must be meticulous about dividing my time. I focus my sights on finding and applying for grants, fine-tune the social media posts for the week, and post them. I also watch educational videos or free business webinars, many of which strictly come from women of color or minority business owners. The final part of my day may be filled with networking through various platforms or following up on emails.
As a female entrepreneur, what obstacles have you faced since starting Levi & Toonk?
As Black women, we did not initially find a ton of leading information from women business owners, especially women of color. Neither of us possessed traditional business training, so we were forced to get creative with how we would roll out our concept; the research phase was preeminent. In my experiences, I found that to gain the courage and appropriate tools to succeed in an industry, it is always easier to manage the setbacks when you are exposed to someone who represents you. With that in mind, I made an active effort to seek out several culturally relevant resources, webinars, guides, etc, before fully embarking on this journey.
How has COVID-19 impacted you and your business?
Given the unexpected postponement/cancellation of many scheduled events and appearances in 2020, we were unable to earn enough financial latitude to finish expanding our brand as we had originally hoped. As a business just over a year old, those first few months were critical to our growth and were drastically cut short before we had a chance to connect with the community consistently and directly.
COVID-19 blocked our opportunities to go into schools and use our books to teach children to value their identity. The pandemic hit our sales in some of the hardest ways since many of our customers had, and still have, more pressing issues like figuring out childcare and schooling options.
What were some of the biggest difficulties you faced this year?
Seeking funding has been one of the biggest difficulties this year because every business has been hit at the same time. A certain amount of revenue or years in the business almost always disqualifies us from applying for grants. This year has made it a challenge to remain focused and energized amidst not only the pandemic but racial tensions in the United States. These encounters have made for a trying year for both myself and my mother, but we are determined to emerge from these circumstances stronger and wiser.
As you mentioned, racial tensions were high in 2020. This year welcomed a massive recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a business striving to represent children of color in literacy, how has that impacted you and your business?
As Black women entrepreneurs, whom the world would deem double handicapped, we refuse to allow our shortcomings or lack of traditional entrepreneurial training to keep us from transforming our startup into a very important and inspiring force of nature. The Black Lives Matter movement only exacerbated our confidence in our vision and made our mission to uplift and enrich minority children that much more necessary.
I would also venture to say that the BLM movement is a welcome reprieve to our businesses’ growth because there are a variety of barriers that we face as a direct result of our Blackness. Many of our perceived and real deficits are systemic and unfair at the outset, like the requirements for business loans, absence of education on capital as well as difficult access to it, lack of minority representation in publishing, etc. Thankfully, BLM has given us hope that our business can help bring about some semblance of equity within our nation.
What mindset have you had since the beginning of the pandemic? Has it changed throughout the year?
My mindset at the beginning of the pandemic was to remain calm and practice flexibility in every aspect of our business. This way of thinking has largely stayed the same, but a few realities made that a little harder. As a new entrepreneur working from home, full-time, as I juggled caring for my toddler 24/7 while my husband worked outside the home, having no outlet for play or outdoor adventures, I grew slightly overwhelmed dividing my obligations. My ability to give uninterrupted hours to the business was nonexistent. These days I have a better handle on scheduling business around my son and finding ways to incorporate time for self-care and relaxation.
What has helped you get through this year?
The possibility of more opportunities is what keeps me moving full steam ahead in optimism. I think about the enormous number of people who faced devastating conditions throughout history, yet they found a way to thrive. I am also actively involved with community efforts which gives me a sense of comfort knowing that I am contributing in some way to improve our current plight. Most importantly, my spirituality is at the core of my perspective while conversations with my husband keep me grounded.
What does the future look like for Levi & Toonk? Any plans?
In 2021, we plan to release our second collection, The Terrible Two’s. The series is currently in creative development and will be sent off to production as soon as we have the financial means to do so. A few years from now, sooner if given the opportunity, we intend to make our books into an animated series which hopefully be produced by a major network. Our characters are so full of life that we want them translated into a medium that is sometimes more accessible than physical books, given the digital age we live in.
Brand expansion is a part of our long-term goals, so the first non-literary product we plan to add to our offerings are Levi &Toonk t-shirts. In the coming years, we would also like to add bags, growth charts, and other kid-friendly items to match the themes of each collection. This would make our startup more well-rounded and diversify our sales for longevity.
What advice would you give to someone looking to become an entrepreneur?
The advice I would give to anyone wanting to become an entrepreneur is that they must remember their worth and value. I would want them to understand that a traditional background is not needed to make strides toward a dream. Many times, the risks will be worth it if your passion is unshakeable, and if you are willing to learn, network, and keep trying regardless of the hurdles. Nothing impactful or long-lasting is built overnight, but the time one spends waiting for the tide to turn should not be spent in vain. Every opportunity is a moment to evaluate your mission, reestablish your goals, and improve upon your skillset.