As one parent in a two-mom household, Alli Harper wasn’t seeing enough of families like hers nor many other kids and families in the children’s books she finding. A long-time book lover, she would regularly read picture books to her daughter, but the families in the stories didn’t match the experiences of their family and other families in their community. The books that did exist were difficult to find.
Talking to other families confirmed Alli’s feelings that there was a desire for more diverse books – not just LGBTQ, but of different races, religions, ethnicities, and gender identities and expressions, among other odenitities that are often missing in our books – and she assumed the market would catch up. Five years later, however, Alli and her wife, Jenn, welcomed their second child, and the accessibility of diverse children’s books hadn’t seemed to catch up to the need. Someone would need to take action, and that someone was her.
Like many entrepreneurs, Alli Harper saw a problem and had an idea for a solution – start a business that would connect families with diverse books and help prove there was market demand, generating more interest from publishers in making them. Alli’s background in social justice law and organizing meant she was well-versed in advocacy, but she’d never started a business before.
Enter the CEI Women’s Business Center. In the planning stages, Alli connected with business advisor Sarah Guerette, who introduced her to the world of starting up a business and helped guide her to launch. In Alli’s words:
“The breadth of all the ways Sarah has been supportive is astonishing. She has been a thought partner, she’s addressed basic logistical questions, taught me her Excel tricks, and connected me to resources when something fell out of her area of expertise. As a startup business you can’t pay someone every time you have a question. What the Women’s Business Center offers, for free, is really extraordinary.”Alli Harper, Owner, OurShelves
In particular, Alli cites the Women’s Business Center’s support in helping determine the best business model to support her dual connection/advocacy goals. In 2018, Alli launched OurShelves as a quarterly subscription for ages 0-8, with the thought that an ongoing subscription would best demonstrate that the desire for diverse books was continuous. The launch confirmed Alli’s hypothesis – 87% of initial subscribers chose to become members (versus purchasing a single one-time box) and of those 87%, 76% pre-paid for a full year. Having just completed its first full year of business, OurShelves is now shipping subscriptions to 44 states and Washington, D.C.
The logistics of the business are impressive. Alli is deeply passionate about finding high-quality diverse books, particularly those that come from “#ownvoices,” a hashtag created by Corinne Duyvis referring to books “about diverse characters written by authors [and illustrators] from that same diverse group.” To that end, she pulled together a cross-country curation team to review and select books, and developed relationships with numerous small, micro and international publishers who make the kinds of books OurShelves and their customers want to see. This means a subscription box may contain a book about a family with two mommies from Canada, an English/Cree bilingual board book from a First Nations author, the newest book from a Caldecott-winning author/illustrator right on its release, or a sweet story of a young boy playing with his favorite dolls.
As the subscriptions go out, Alli continues to collect data about the types of books her subscribers want to read, which she passes along to her publishing contacts. Her hope is that, with the business case made, diverse children’s books become so abundant that no one will have to search for them like she did. As it continues to grow, OurShelves serves as an exciting example of how to combine business and advocacy and how a little support can bridge the gap between idea and reality.
Learn More About OurShelves
LOOKING TO START OR GROW YOUR WOMAN-OWNED BUSINESS?
CEI’s Women’s Business center offers business advising, workshops and events for women in business. Our experienced, knowledgeable business specialists can help you at any stage of your business, from start-up to expansion. To learn more, visit https://www.ceimaine.org/women