November 13, 2003



Gail Littlejohn, right, founder of Our Own Image, a new direct-sales business within The Antioch Company, with Edie Calloway, left, product manager, and Florence Randolph, sales support specialist.

Antioch Co. invests in African-American culture

When Gail Littlejohn’s children were young, she tried over and over to find books and toys that reflected her children’s African-American heritage. But mainly she found in those books and toys only white children’s faces, so she got out a brown crayon and began coloring.

By the time Littlejohn’s oldest daughter was grown and having children of her own, things were a little better, but not much. When she looked for baby shower accessories with images of African-American babies, Littlejohn once again turned up empty-handed.

Energized by those years of fruitless searches and stories of friends’ similar frustrations, Littlejohn and her daughter Erica Littlejohn Burnette took matters into their own hands. Recently, in conjunction with The Antioch Company, the two women founded Our Own Image, a company that produces products to honor celebrations and family events in the lives of African-Americans.

“African-Americans have been looking for these products for years,” Littlejohn said in an interview Monday. “The products currently on the market don’t offend us but they don’t include us either. We’re creating new products to help inspire African-Americans.”

Since the company was launched in August, the new product line has met with enthusiasm, according to Littlejohn, and in two months the company has already signed up 54 consultants from across the country. A direct-sales company, Our Own Image sells its products through consultants, the women (and a few men) who host product parties in their homes, then receive a percentage of sales.

Our Own Image’s mission, according to its sales literature, involves “women helping women celebrate life events and preserve a rich history of family and friends.” That mission seems reflected in the tables full of more than 50 products at company headquarters inside The Antioch Company’s Dayton Street facility, products that would accompany most family or holiday celebrations.

For Christmas, the company offers stockings and tree skirts decorated with African-American Santas and angels, along with holiday cards, ornaments and giftbags. Products for baby showers include invitations, cups, plates, napkins and cutlery decorated with an African-American infant. Party supplies include plates, cups and ceramic hors d’oeuvre plates painted with images of dancing African-American couples. And family reunions can be remembered in a keepsake journal whose front cover is a print of original art by Clifford Darrett.

The company also offers a teapot and cups decorated with a group of African-American female friends and several home decor products, including canisters, potholders, dish towels, aprons and cutting boards, all decorated with an image of an African-American chef.

While some other companies do offer specialized items for the African-American community, such as art prints or decorations, “no one has put them together to focus on life events and help us celebrate,” said Littlejohn, who researched existing businesses before creating her company.

Our Own Image used focus groups to help choose its product lines, she said, and those groups helped the company refine its approach.

“We found that African-Americans were very sensitive to caricatures,” said Littlejohn, who is also the president of the Dayton school board. “They want real images” that could portray their own mothers, fathers or children in a positive way. Consequently, many of the products are decorated with original artwork by African-American painters such as Ronnie Williams of Dayton or Clifford Darrett.

While the company offers more than 50 products now, its product line will continually expand, said Product Manager Edie Calloway, who’s responsible for coming up with ideas as well as finding ways to implement those ideas. Each quarter the company will produce seasonal products, such as black history products for the winter quarter, graduation and wedding shower products for the spring, home decor for summer and holiday products for the fall.

When Littlejohn and Burnett first envisioned their company, they expected to create products to retail in stores. But while marketing their venture, they met Yellow Springs resident Evan Scott, who works for a Dayton public relations firm. Scott encouraged the women to explore collaborating with The Antioch Company, which includes the direct-sales business, Creative Memories.

After meeting with The Antioch Company CEO Lee Morgan, Littlejohn visited the Creative Memories headquarters in St. Cloud, Minn., to get a close look at how direct-sales businesses work. When she realized that the direct-sales approach means that her company’s profits would benefit women in the African-American community rather than multinational corporations, she decided to sign on.

“It made sense to me that profits wouldn’t go to Wal-Mart but into the pockets of African-Americans,” she said.

In addition to financial gain, Our Own Image consultants will find themselves part of a network of like-minded women who want them to succeed and will help them do so, said Littlejohn. The company offers extensive training and support to its consultants, she said, and next August will host a three-day “Jubilee” to bring consultants together from all over the country.

The direct-sales industry is watching the new venture closely, Morgan said, explaining that in recent decades direct sales has not done well in the African-American community, perhaps because historically such businesses often exploited people of color with “get-rich-quick” schemes and other scams. But he forecasts a different outcome for Our Own Image.

“I’m betting on Gail and Erica,” he said. “We have some talented people with a passion for their mission.”

—Diane Chiddister