“Every toy we make is built on the belief that every child deserves to feel loved, included and celebrated”: Ritesha Thomas, winner of the Winter 2021 Be.Build.Brand. Pitch Contest
This past December, Toronto Community Housing announced the top finalists of the sixth edition of its Be.Build.Brand. (B3) business start-up contest. Sponsored by Scotiabank, the bi-annual pitch contest is the culmination of a 10-week entrepreneurship program offered to TCHC tenants between the ages of 18 and 29.
At this year's Pitch Night, seven finalists presented their ideas to a panel of judges for the chance to win start-up funding. Emerging on top at the end of the night was Ritesha Thomas, a resident of TCHC's Eatonville Community (West Region).
"I'm very grateful to have been named the winner of the B3 Pitch Contest," said Thomas, 29, a TCHC resident since March 2021 and proud single-mother to her eight-year-old daughter. "The program gave me confidence that my business is not only viable, but can be a huge success."
Thomas received a Scotiabank Pitch Prize of $2,500 for her company, Carefully Crafted Toys (CC Toys). CC Toys is about providing a range of toys – including dolls, action figures, and plushies – inclusive for children born with rare medical conditions. Its products will enable children to see themselves reflected in the world around them.
"Our mission is to empower differently-abled children who have medical conditions and look different from others," said Thomas. "Through my business, we want to promote self-love and acceptance in differently-abled children by matching them with dolls that have their specific medical conditions."
CC Toys will soon offer soft customizable plushies coming in different genders and skin tones that can be fit with conditions of symbrachydactyly, vitiligo, amputations, and cleft lips.
Why these four particular conditions?
"These four medical conditions are not well represented in the toy market for children," said Thomas. "I'm also confident that these customizable products can be easily produced and sold. At the end of the day, this is a business and I have to consider the marketability of my toys."
There's also another reason why Thomas chose these particular medical conditions to be reflected in her toys: she was born with one of them. Symbrachydactyly is a rare congenital condition resulting in short fingers that may be webbed or joined. Some or all of the fingers may be underdeveloped or not developed at all.
"I didn't have an easy childhood growing up in different foster homes in the GTA," Thomas recalled. "Being born with a physical condition like symbrachydactyly, I really struggled with self-confidence and self-love. I became depressed at six years old. I was always hiding my hand in my sleeves so that others wouldn't notice. I even had suicidal thoughts growing up. It was difficult."
Ultimately, Thomas was moved to do something. She came up with CC Toys in 2020 because she wanted to prevent other children from feeling the same way. She wanted to be a voice for them. She wanted to make a difference.
"My main motivation to start this business was to help children see that they are not alone," said Thomas. "I was officially diagnosed by a doctor only when I turned 18. And upon more research, I realized there were other people born with this condition like me. But to this day, I don't know anyone and have never met anyone with it."
While there are more conversations happening around diversity and inclusion in the children's toys market, there's been no significant progress, according to Thomas. The market is wide open – especially when it comes to toys that represent common medical conditions.
"There are more than 93 million children in the world with physical disabilities," said Thomas. "These toys can make a huge difference in how differently-abled children are loved and celebrated."
How has the Be.Build.Brand. (B3) program helped accelerate her business forward?
"B3 was tremendous in getting me started," said Thomas. "I had a good idea of what I wanted to do, but not a clear path on how to do it."
Thomas said the program helped her to break down CC Toy's value proposition, business model, marketing strategy and competitive analysis, and to fine tune and expand her vision.
In addition to the seed funding, Thomas will receive mentoring and support from entrepreneurs, including free branding and marketing services from independent creative agency trevor//peter and access to Digital Main Street for website development.
Thomas is currently working with a manufacturer to produce and purchase inventory to customize her toys. She is also creating a website and social media accounts to build brand awareness.
While she is just getting started on executing her business plan, Thomas has big dreams for her company.
"I want CC Toys to be a global corporation," she said. "I want factories dedicated just for my inventory. I want to walk into a Walmart or Target one day and see a whole section of CC Toys for the 93 million plus children looking for differently-abled toys."
About Toronto Community Housing (TCHC)
Toronto Community Housing (www.torontohousing.ca) is Canada's largest social housing provider. We are owned by the City of Toronto and provide homes for nearly 60,000 low- and moderate-income households in more than 100 of the city's neighbourhoods. Our buildings represent a $10-billion public asset.