When we left James Roland around this time last year, he was doing well with his new creation, a black doll called "Sugar Pudd'n," which looked like him. As you may recall, Roland had been laid off from his federal government job and was trying to make it as an entrepreneur in Washington.
It is with good cheer that I report that Roland is doing even better this year, having expanded his doll market globally. But this is not to say that it has been all smooth sailing.
At 37, he has learned that getting a business started was just the start of his problems. Consider these developments:
First came the telephone calls from investors, some of them shysters, who had little or, more often, no money. Then came the Wall Street types, urging him to go public with his company called Mind Designs. He could be chairman, they said, and they would be president, which sounded good until he learned that the chairman would have no power.
Roland wanted to expand, believing that there is no standing still in capitalism. And wouldn't you know it: A real live offer on a $500,000 deal came his way. The only problem was that it was from South Africa. Oh, woe with Roland. He wanted that money so bad.
Why, he struggled for a reason to accept the deal, should black children be killed with white dolls in their hands? But his friends warned him that if he took that blood money he could kiss his black American market goodbye.
Roland conceded: Win some, lose some.
Maybe, he figured, the District government would reward him for such a magnanimous sacrifice and cut him a special deal through the Office of Business and Economic Development. Several months, and several boxes of bureaucratic forms, later, the answer arrived: no.
But Roland continued to use his creative skills and instead of sulking developed a new line of products, such as "the tennis ball belt," which holds six tennis balls, a Redskins "hog caller" whistle and a series of sports clocks, which feature balls from each sport with the face of a clock on which a sportsman figure either kicks, bats or shoots a ball from one number to the next until the clock's alarm sounds -- or in this case, applauds.
But then came the shock of his life: Two researchers from Hofstra University had updated Kenneth Clark's landmark 1947 study and showed black children still preferred white dolls. As a result, some retail toy store owners were openly debating where to stop selling black dolls.
The researchers had asked 412 children -- 296 blacks and 116 whites -- to choose between a black and a white Cabbage Patch doll. Because 65 percent of the children picked the white Cabbage Patch doll, that was supposed to be proof that black children preferred white dolls.
Roland put his other ideas on hold as he set out to save Sugar Pudd'n. That doll was too dear to him, having been conceived two years ago for his 9-year-old goddaughter.
Roland began hitting the international trade shows, demonstrating how the dolls could be made to wear clothes from different countries and be just as popular -- as a black doll.
He showed toy store retailers his sales figures in Georgia, where Sugar Pudd'n dolls were being snatched up like hot cats in the black community. Soon, deals were struck with outlets in the Caribbean and the United Kingdom, which has a large West Indian population.
Locally, the Sun Gallery in Adams-Morgan and the Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast Washington registered steady sales of Sugar Pudd'n dolls. In all, it was enough for Roland to keep his business ties with K mart and the king of toy stores, Toys "R" Us.
Roland breathed a sigh of relief. To be sure, he was still looking for capital to expand his business. He is sure that his sports clock creation will one day "be in every kid's bedroom and in every bar in the country."
But for now he was content to savor the moral of his business story so far: It's not enough just to get a business off the ground. Indeed, it takes even more work to keep it airborne.