Starling Portrait Series – Imagine Me Stories: Representing the unrepresented

More often than not, business is about looking at how things have been done before and having the courage and imagination to reinvent the rules. That’s what Anne Boden did when she created Starling Bank, a digital bank for personal and business current accounts. Starling was born out of her determination to give customers control over their money, and provide a real alternative to the banks of the past. Starling strives to be fast, friendly and supportive – just like a murmuration of starling birds.

In this series, we’ll be shining a light on other Great British entrepreneurs who, just like Anne, are pioneers of change.

Our next entrepreneur is Starling customer Keisha Ehigie, founder of Imagine Me Stories, an award-winning monthly subscription service and online bookstore that provides a diverse collection of children’s literature focusing on the  under-represented .

The world and society is in a constant state of change, developments in a variety of areas shape the way we live and sometimes even the way we think. While more and more rights are finally being provided to underrepresented groups, there’s still a long way to go.

With many striving to fight for more rights, one area that has remained largely untouched by those aiming to represent and uplift groups that are underrepresented is children’s literature. In the 2021 Reflecting Realities report released by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, we discover that only 2.2% of children’s books published in the UK in 2020 featured a black main character. 

The lack of diverse characters in such a genre is a huge issue, not just because of representation, but because of the mental wellbeing of black and minority children. A lack of exposure to positive role-models in literature, or any other form of media can be severely detrimental to a child’s confidence, a problem that is sadly prevalent and something that is only in the early stages of being addressed.

Thirty-eight year old Keisha Ehigie, founder of Imagine Me Stories and Nigerian-Jamaican mother decided that if no one else was going to do it, she would solve the problem herself. Keisha says that initially, her journey to fight for positive representation of black characters in children’s literature “began as a passion project, but it quickly grew into a rewarding and life changing business.”

Knowing all too well the impact underrepresentation can have on a child, Keisha one day found that her daughter had begun developing low self-esteem due to not seeing any characters like herself in media. Keisha launched Imagine Me Stories’ online subscription box in 2019, alongside the online bookstore in 2020. Working not just to improve the lives of her own children, but other black children too, Keisha has made a profitable business out of passionately addressing a very personal problem.

An untold story

Keisha admits that prior to having children, she “had never given much thought to children’s diversity books,” however, that all changed when she had her daughter. Even early on at the age of three, Keisha noticed something was wrong, an otherwise healthy and active child, her daughter had begun making passing comments about how she wanted “to be pink”, or how she wanted her “hair down”.

Upon closer inspection, Keisha realised that her daughter had begun internalising what she had seen in the media, “Everything in children’s media from books, to toys, to

cartoons, to superheroes, even to birthday cards represented a reality that was very different from hers. She was only presented with one version of beauty and goodness and naturally she wanted to fit into that,” recounts Keisha.

Following an unsuccessful shopping trip where she sought after black characters in children’s books to instill her daughter with the confidence she deserved, Keisha went home and did some research. What she found was shocking, realising the sheer size of the issue faced not only by her daughter, but other minority children across the UK. “I discovered that only 1% of children’s books published in the UK had a black main character,” she says.

Pregnant with her second child, Keisha realised that many parents, no matter their background, were aware of the problematic lack of diversity in the books that their children were reading. Already seeing the impact it had on her daughter, Keisha aimed to change the world she was bringing her soon to be born child into and started Imagine Me Stories, an online bookshop and subscription service that seeks to provide black children with fun and engaging black main characters in literature along with entertaining, educational insights into African and black history.

Changing direction

Despite a successful career as a chartered Company Secretary and Corporate Governance Consultant, Keisha says that after the passing of her father in 2015, “I started to think more about the importance of making an impact on people’s lives and how I could use my time to serve people and make a difference.”

After the birth of her daughter, Keisha began struggling with balancing her work and home life, “shortly after she turned two I decided to take a career break to re-evaluate my priorities and life choices,” she says, eventually moving on to create her business.

Small start big impact

With struggle being no stranger to Keisha, she’s had no problem not only starting the business solo, but with an initial investment of only £1,000 also growing it into a profitable and admirable enterprise.

With such a socially conscious business model, Keisha has been reaping the rewards of happy customers whose testimonies about her business she says have led her “to tears”.

Discussing the significant growth seen by the business since its initial start, Keisha says:

“Our year to date revenue for 2021 has seen a 151% increase from that of the same period in 2020 and this growth is mainly down to word of mouth and passionate recommendations from our subscribers.

Our average revenue per subscriber is over £150 and growing and we retain roughly 95% of our subscribers each month. “

Reading ahead

Keisha’s professional approach to a problematic trend has brought her and her business an astounding level of success. With plans to hire a larger team to help continue championing diversity and inclusion in children’s literature, there’s still a long and exciting tale ahead for Keisha and Imagine Me Stories. 

Catching up with Keisha, we asked her about how she and Imagine Me Stories fared during the pandemic, and her plans for the future:

How have you and the business fared since the start of the pandemic?

“Interestingly enough there was no major shift in the dynamics of the business once COVID hit, in part because we have always been an e-commerce business.

 However there was a massive shift following the murder of George Floyd and the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Overnight our business turned from one that was mainly only supported by the black community to one with a more mainstream reach. The growth really helped to pivot Imagine Me Stories.”

What has been the biggest factor in your success?

“I would say being my own customer. By that I mean, by being a black mother of two young children,  I am experiencing the problem that the business is trying to solve so I fully understand the needs of the parents and children that are using our services. 

This helps me to provide relevant and appropriate books and anticipate their needs in advance so that they gain the most value from our subscription boxes.”

What are your immediate and long-term plans for the business?

“Currently, I still do most of the operational activities associated with Imagine Me Stories, although as we continue to grow it is becoming increasingly challenging. 

My immediate goal is to get a team to assist in running the business. In the long term, I would love to explore other areas of providing representation for children, such as publishing our own books, and creating diverse merchandise.”

Writing Wrongs

With so much on the horizon for Keisha and her groundbreaking business, the future’s looking bright. Many children have already been positively affected by Imagine Me Stories and without a doubt many more will be in the future. 

The systematic deconstruction of underrepresentation in any medium is a daunting task, and while Keisha is carrying the torch in a category that has had even less help than many others, she’s making great strides with her tenacious attitude and community oriented mindset that’s sure to reflect in the books she hopes to eventually publish.