By Alysha Conner
Blended Designs, LLC is the leading Black-owned family business to provide school gear that produces positive images and messages for students in the African-American community. Casey and Harvey Kelley, Blended Designs CEOs, launched their 1954® initiative in 2017 to further promote and advocate for equal treatment and advantages amongst African-American students. Once Casey discovered that only two percent of all backpacks represent people of color, she decided it was necessary to fill the void.
The Kelley’s chose the name 1954® to commemorate the legendary Brown versus Board of Education Topeka ruling on May 17, 1954. It declared racial segregation of children in public schools as unconstitutional. 1954® is of a collection of uniquely designed backpacks, lunch boxes, and pencil cases. Each item highlights the diverse characteristics of African-Americans to uplift and empower students of color.
There are currently a total of 10 different male and female BDSquad™ characters choices, all of which resemble the likeness of children that Casey personally knows. All of the BDSquad™ character designs possess a specialized name and biography, along with natural ethic features like baby hairs and broad noses. Many of the 1954® products also include the iconic Philippians 4:13 bible verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Several of the BDSquad™ characters are pictured wearing “I can do anything” t-shirts, to further inspire children of color to be their best.
“The theme that we created with the characters was to make sure that they’re all educationally bound. Like they’re bound to go to college and have goals beyond just hanging out. They’re athletes, road scholars, or very musically inclined. They’re involved in things that kids in our communities are not even aware of. It’s about putting these things out there, and starting to build conversations by using these characters,” Casey declared.
Casey and Harvey got married on July 3, 2014, just a few days before initially joining forces as business partners. While the couple embraced their newlywed lifestyle, they also worked on strengthening their new family dynamic as a blended family. Harvey had five daughters as a result of his first marriage, while Casey had two sons. Blended Designs was founded on July 16, 2014, following Casey’s initial success with creating uniquely designed invitations for her and Harvey’s wedding. As a result of Casey’s newfound creative talents and the Kelley family’s new blended union, she went on to birth Blended Designs.
Further detailing the start-up creation process for Blended Designs, Casey stated, “One of the themes of our wedding was that we were a blended family. So everything that was at the wedding was around us, blending our family together. Our oldest daughter, Jordan, came up with the name. We wanted to have blended in the name some how so we could celebrate that we were a blended family. It symbolizes that it was born from us, blending our families together.”
“We started making these puzzles on ETSY. They were 12 piece puzzles that would say, ‘Will you be my flower girl, or will you be my bridesmaid?’ It would depend because they were customized. At the time, we were the only people on ETSY doing it. So we really made a lot of money considering the volume that we did. However, it wasn’t something that would allow us to quit our jobs and be able to retire from.”
In 2016, Casey attended The Massachusetts Conference for Women. The highly anticipated annual conference has succeeded with motivating, inspiring, and impacting the lives of thousands of women since 2004. Dozens of expert speakers conduct workshops and seminars discussing topics like personal finance, business, entrepreneurship, health, work-life balance, and more. Following a stimulating symposium given by the bestselling author, businesswoman, media personality, and minister Sarah Jakes-Roberts, Casey realized her growing desire for a career change.
At the time, Casey was pursuing a career in consumer insights. Her job duties consisted of tracking data analytics for companies like Coca-Cola and Hershey to increase company sales, and help with marketing strategies. Although Casey excelled in her field and enjoyed the security of financial stability, her job, unfortunately, caused her to have clinical depression and anxiety. Casey eventually felt compelled to take a 12-week medical leave of absence from work in 2017, and seek treatment from a behavioral therapist.
During the finals days of her medical leave, Casey partook in a three-day fast from food, beverages, TV, and social media. Her pastor encouraged her to fast so she could receive spiritual guidance for her next career decisions. Furthermore, it was during her fast when Casey had a fruitful conversation with her son, Carter, which fundamentally changed the trajectory of her career. Carter asked Casey if she could make a bag with his face on it. Casey continued to talk through the creative process with her son, and then had an epiphany about designing backpacks with images of African-American children. When it was time for Casey to return to work, she conclusively decided it was time for her to focus on expanding Blended Designs instead.
Explaining her work transition from corporate America to running Blended Designs full-time, Casey confessed, “I was having really bad migraines and stress from work. During my time off of work, I said, ‘Let me just focus on Blended Designs and see if we can come up with something.’ I was happier than I had ever been before, and I didn’t have the stress headaches. It was kind of like an ‘aha!’ moment. My husband and I realized it was time for me to go back to work. We didn’t know if I should go back, just for the sake of my mental health.”
“We talked to our pastor, and he told us to fast for three days. During those three days, Carter, our then eight-year-old son, came to us and asked me to create a bag with his face on it. Thanks to my insights background, I did some research and found that less than two percent of the character backpacks in the market included children of color. We knew then that we could fill the void. I believed that God was saying this is it. So I walked away from my six-figure job.”
In 2017, Blended Designs managed to produce a quarter-million dollars in sales. However, due to their product demand exceeding their supply, Casey and Harvey did not make a profit. The pair then decided to proceed with seeking support from PS27 Ventures, an accelerator and venture capital firm. Since obtaining financial assistance and business guidance from PS27 Ventures, Blended Designs has been able to rebrand into a profitable business successfully.
Casey and Harvey remain devoted to employing, collaborating, and supporting African-American businesses, organizations, and independent contractors. Furthermore, an African-American teenager developed a majority of the 1954®character designs. The couple has also donated a significant amount of their Blended Designs profit and products to various 501(c)(3) organizations that benefit the African-American community. In doing so, Blended Designs has gained notoriety from many public figures like Regina King, actress and television director, and James Harden Jr., a professional basketball player for the Houston Rockets.
“We are very deliberate with who we choose to work with, especially the artists. There are some cultural nuances that other artists just can’t understand. The artists who drew Carter and Zoë were a white couple. When we asked them to do the Joy backpack, they could not comprehend the concept of baby hair. It helped me understand that we could not have an artist that doesn’t understand the little cultural nuances that are important to us,” Casey conveyed.
The Kelley’s intend to create additional 1954® platforms such as children’s books based on the BDSquad™ characters. Along with 1954® merchandise, other Blended Designs items include apparel, fanny packs totes, compact mirrors, and more. Distribution is currently available in 48 states and 15 countries. All Blended Designs products are available on the company’s website, blendeddesigns.com.