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Female Founder Spotlight: Bri Smocks & Kia Montgomery, Levi & Toonk

Tiller’s founder, Kathleen Sheppard, sat down with mother-daughter duo Kia Montgomery & Bri Smocks to continue our Female Founders/Creators spotlight. Started in November of 2019, Levi & Toonk is a children's book series that highlights the life & lessons of Bri's son (and Kia's grandson) Levi, also known by the family as Toonk. Through this series, Bri & Kia are creating a resource for gifted students of colors to see themselves represented through stories and images. They promote diversity, inclusion and academic excellence in under-represented groups. 
Tiller: Tell us about yourself!

Bri: My name is Briantria (Bri) Smocks and I am the Editor in Chief of Levi&Toonk LLC. I have three degrees, two Masters of Education, a host of Texas teacher certifications, and my Texas principal credential. I taught high school English for three years before moving to California to advance my son’s acting and modeling career. I am a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. where I participate in and plan community projects. Additionally, I am an advocate for environmental equity, a recent interest of mine. In my spare time, I enjoy reading autobiographies, listening to audiobooks, binge-watching my favorite shows, cooking from scratch, and engaging in deep conversation with my husband of six years.

I grew up the child of teenage parents/a single mother. As a part of my upbringing, I was taught to be responsible, self-sufficient, and generous to others. Although we did not possess material wealth, my needs were always met. My mother was supportive of my endeavors and my huge family indirectly gave me lessons on how to cooperate with people of all types and personalities. The teachers from my childhood encouraged me to seek a career in education because they invested in me far beyond what was required of them. Throughout the rest of my schooling, I aimed to make them proud and prove that I could achieve any goal I set for myself. As an overachieving student, I became very involved in service and academic organizations, and that same activism has followed me into adulthood.

Kia: My name is Kia Montgomery, I am the 3rd oldest of 11 children, second daughter...I didn't attend formal college and worked in a corporate setting for 22 years doing finance and medical. I love cooking, reading and of course writing (lol)!

T: What sparked your interest in starting something of your own and what was the inspiration that led you to start Levi&Toonk? 

B: 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 at the same level I was in the process of attaining. There were several hoops to jump through and many time-consuming prerequisites to consider. After conversing with my mother one day, she brought up the idea of writing about my son and documenting his life. I then thought about my ambitious spirit and love for education. We combined my mother’s passion for storytelling and childhood dream of being a writer with my professional expertise and organizational adeptness. As women of color, we knew that we could be an inspiration to our community and that we could take on whatever challenges lay ahead. 

From my experiences as an educator and several years of training, 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 because of their geographic location and/or economic status.

K: I knew I didn't want to work for someone else for the rest of my life. I needed to leave a legacy! My inspiration is my grandson. He's the main character the book is written for.

T: Tell us about Levi & Toonk - when did you start the business and how did the process go? 

B: Our website and online store launched in November 2019, and it has not been an easy journey. There have been several discoveries, trials, setbacks, and tough decisions involved. But most importantly, there has also been a sense of fulfillment, joy, flexibility, and an awakened dream brought to life. We came up with the idea in August 2019 and filed the DBA within the week of our discussion to turn this concept into a fully-fledged company. We transitioned to an LLC that October. We began shipping products approximately two months after our website reveal.

On the matter of the process, everything was on an expedient turnaround given our proposed timeline. Knowing little to nothing about publishing and creating books from start to finish, our initial goals were a bit lofty and misguided. In a matter of three months, our original illustrator had to work within a three-month timeframe to illustrate six books. We continued to push back our publishing deadline with our New York factory because of the time it took to properly prepare each book for print. As it pertains to funding, we were only able to secure two friends as investors. They were the only people in our network/circle who not only had the willingness but the means to support us in a massive way. At first we were discouraged by all the rejection and hitting what seemed like brick walls, but after thinking back on how quickly we brought all the parts together, I am proud that we accomplished so many impossible tasks in such a short amount of time. We have since learned from our early missteps and have become wiser about every part of the production process.

K: Levi and Toonk is a fun loving book series written in poetry style about a young black male that navigates life with his (imaginary friend) who teaches him lessons. As he grows he realizes he's been seeing himself at different stages becoming a man! We started the business in November of 2019... I had very little prep work or research prior! Me and my daughter were fortunate enough to get two private investors in the beginning. By trial and error she's educated herself on grant writing. She had our paperwork done for our publishing so that process was a tad bit tedious.

T: What does your brand stand for? What is your inspiration and mission?

B: Our startup has a noble mission to support the enrichment of (low-income) gifted children of color while promoting early literacy for all youth. We primarily cater to gifted children of color because there are very few, if any, board book series’ appealing simultaneously to the intelligence, innocence, and unique cultural perspective of this demographic. We understand that Black youth are some of the last to receive enrichment and lack support to deepen their education. This can be detrimental since early literacy is an indicator of future academic and financial success. Thankfully, the beauty of investing in our children, especially through media, is that it builds their confidence and has the potential to break adverse generational cycles. Yes, our books are a form of humorous entertainment, but we aim to play a part in leveling the field so more children may have access to equitable learning that speaks to who they are. We are a small company working to help bridge the national educational gap through e-commerce.

K: Our noble mission is to support the enrichment of gifted children of color while promoting early literacy for all youth.

T: What is the most difficult part of starting your own business, particularly as a Black-Female owned business? What has been the most interesting/rewarding?

B: My mother and myself had NO money to invest in our company, yet we had grit and courage. Beginning a business without capital is a very difficult challenge, but we did not understand just how tough it would be. Neither of us possessed traditional business training, so we had to get creative with how we would roll out our concept. As Black women, we did not initially find a ton of leading information from women business owners, especially women of color. I had to make an active effort to seek out several culturally relevant resources and conduct thorough, intense research. Through my discoveries, I have learned how to market our brand, create our website, seek investors, understand financials, pitch our business, etc. It has been hard work for us to put in long hours with no guarantee of a payout. However, the most rewarding part about starting this business has been sharing our origin story with others. We know we are on the precipice of something groundbreaking, and it has been an honor to share our vision with people from all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life.

T: How have your previous experiences shaped Levi & Toonk and what makes the series so unique?

B: Having worked in a predominately Black and Latinx high school as an English teacher, I noticed firsthand how behind our youth are in the mainstream educational system. For instance, I would proctor the SAT at a private all-boys school, and the work posted around their campus and in their classrooms was far beyond where my students were academically. Even when I enrolled at a predominately white institution for college, I quickly became aware of how my preparation was not up to the same standard as my counterparts. Keeping this in mind as we created our company, we knew it was paramount to fulfill such a space within the children’s book industry.

What makes us unique is that our work defies the status quo through our unconventional presentation. Our combination of advanced educational standards, humorous stories, and social themes are also factors differentiating us from competitors. Furthermore, we have curated downloadable vocabulary lists, which we offer for free, to explain some of the more “challenging” words in each book. And because our muse is a real child with real experiences, we will have authentic content to explore for many years to come.

K: The Levi&Toonk series is unique because Levi has Toonk as an (imaginary friend) while growing up teaching him life lessons! You soon find out they are one in the same...

T: What is your exact role and what does a typical day look like for you?

B: In my role as Editor in Chief, I find myself taking on the responsibilities of a business manager. In addition to overseeing editing, I am accountable for marketing, social media, operations, financials, and all communications. We are a two-woman team with a contracted illustrator, so I am liable for supervising every “non-creative” part of our startup. 

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 accordingly. After making sure my son is settled (and not accounting for errands, community meetings, and entertainment obligations), I focus my sights on finding and applying for grants. I fine-tune the social media posts for the week and post them on our three platforms. I may 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.

K: I am the founder, co-owner & author. A typical day for me is work out, breakfast, daily devotion, writing, answering emails, possible meeting(s).

 

T: What advice would you give other women, especially those in under-represented groups, about following a dream and starting something of their own? 

B: The advice I would give to other women in underrepresented groups is to 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.

K: If you have a dream, make sure it becomes a reality as well. You must be passionate about it!  To start a company on your own isn't always easy, therefore, you should love what you do even if it doesn't yield residuals immediately. 

T: What does the future hold for Levi&Toonk? What are your goals and what's coming next?

B: A few years from now, sooner if given the opportunity, we intend to shop an animated series to major networks which correspond to the books. Our characters are so full of life that we want them translated into a medium which is sometimes more accessible than physical books, given the digital age in which we live. 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.

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. We are still seeking grants and other financial opportunities to aid in our aspirations.

K: I hope to see shelves with teddy bears, action figures, and dolls. Hopefully commercials and t.v. shows. or even jammed packed kid friendly movies. What are your goals and what's coming next? I would like to have my second series completed, printed, published by summer 2021! What's next for Levi&Toonk, hopefully apparel/accessories. 

 

You can find Levi&Toonk on Instagram @leviandtoonk and shop the series on their website.  


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