By Mary Worrell
Nia Tillett-McAdoo was the associate director of student activities at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte when she was walking through the mall one day and read a young girl’s T-shirt. Like many graphic tees with images and sayings, it was a typical sight, except the T-shirt read “Idaho. No, you da ho.” For Tillett-McAdoo that was the last straw. She was fed up reading T-shirts worn by young girls that did nothing to empower these budding women and that, in many cases, exploited them.
Out of her frustration came Cocoa Babies, a home-based T-shirt and “onesies” business that the Buffalo, New York native launched in 2005 and is now a full-time gig for this education graduate.
“I started it because I would see young ladies in shirts that were inappropriate or sexually suggestive,” she said. “I took a trip to the mall to see what was out there that was cute and positive, but there was nothing catering to children of color.”
She came up with a few designs and did some tests and found a demand for the product. At the time, she was working full-time at UNC Charlotte, planning student events and supporting student organizations. This was just a small, home-based business at the outset. Tillet-McAdoo’s company started printing T-shirts and onesies with slogans like “College-bound,” “Destined for Greatness,” “Pretty little brown girl,” and “Strong black man in the making.”
“I started just making onesies and two T-shirt designs. It was very much a friend thing,” the 32-year-old said. “But once people started to see it, they started asking for my web sites and I began to look at a wider range of designs. I never thought Cocoa Babies would grow into my full-time job, but once you start to make sales you realize this is something bigger than you initially thought.”
But as is often the case with accidental entrepreneurs, the business became a business before Tillett-McAdoo’s very eyes and she made decisions that, if she were given a chance to do it all over again, she might do differently. Hindsight since 2005 has given her some perspective on Cocoa Babies’s growth.
“The major challenge was getting into an industry I really didn’t know about,” she said. “In order to get prices and understand it, I wound up going to a community college and taking a screen printing course so I could physically learn the business. If I’d done that initially, I would have had a stronger foundation.”
Without a mentor or someone to advise Tillett-McAdoo on negotiating with vendors, she initally ended up paying higher prices than she might have had to.
“Now when I go to meet with different vendors, I know if something they say isn’t right. I can get competitive rates,” she said. “At one point I had purchased all of this screenprinting material and was doing everything from home, including printing. I realized in order for me to have more time for marketing I needed to outsource my printing.”
Advice Tillett-McAdoo has for others thinking of starting their own business, however small, includes sitting down with a bookkeeper and talking money and taxes.
“I have a tax person I work with now, but I wish I would have known everything in the beginning,” she said. “A lot of people start their business and know they have an idea. But you don’t know a lot of stuff, like that you need to be paying taxes in other states, for example.”
Tillett-McAdoo’s background is in education, not business, so she has had to meet with people in different industries and learn how to run a business while running a business. However, this doesn’t mean her work in education hasn’t played an assistive role in her transition to business owner.