ryan harris imagery Lil Dee with his dolls
A 9-year-old boy and his mom are on a mission to change the world — and they're doing it one doll at a time.
Demetrius Maurice Davis, Jr., who is lovingly referred to as "Lil Dee," is the CEO of Our Brown Boy Joy, a plush doll line for young Black boys.
Lil Dee runs the successful brand alongside his mom, Luciana Gilmore, with a mission of promoting representation and changing the narrative about Black youth in the United States.
"It is important to me because I want the world to think good things about Brown boys," Lil Dee tells PEOPLE. "We aren't bad, or mean, or trouble; we are smart, fun, and creative."
Adds Gilmore: "Our boys are often depicted negatively in the media. On store shelves, the representation is minimal. And within the toys category, there is almost none for our boys. We must have opportunities for our boys to see themselves positively everywhere. Representation matters."
Ryan Harris Imagery Demetrius Maurice Davis, Jr. a.k.a. "Lil Dee"
The Twinsburg-based duo launched the business in June 2020, right after Gilmore planned a weekend conference with a group of young girls she was mentoring, according to Cleveland.com.
"My mother had a mentoring business for girls, and I felt like there wasn't anything for me," Lil Dee tells PEOPLE. "I begged my mother to [create something with a] focus on boys."
Around that same time, Gilmore, who is a former principal in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, says she was feeling disheartened following the murder of George Floyd.
"During the pandemic, with so much going on in the media that children had a front seat to view, our boys needed to be reminded how special they are," she says. "Dee and I spoke a lot about George Floyd during this time and he was visually sad."
"Over the course of a few days, I began to share stories about young boys with similar stories, because I needed it to connect with him," she continues. "We talked about Trayvon Martin and [my former student] Tamir Rice, and I could see the pain he felt."
After speaking with her son, Gilmore got to work, developing a company focused on young Black boys to present to her son as a surprise on his 8th birthday. Our Brown Boy Joy was born soon after.
Ryan Harris Imagery Lil Dee with his dolls
The company initially started off with subscription boxes, each month focused on a different theme, "to remind our boys of their greatness," Gilmore says.
But then the Ohio mom started thinking of how she could make an even bigger impact on their audience and came up with the "My Friend" doll.
" 'My Friend' doll came to me in a dream," Gilmore explains. "I took Lil Dee to the toy store and saw that there were no play figures that looked like him. This started the planning of 'My Friend.' "
"I knew then we were on the right track and began all the legalities of starting a business," she added to Cleveland.com
The mother-son pair decided to design the doll so that it resembles Lil Dee. The youngster also opted to dress the dolls in white hoodies and Timberland boots to honor Martin, who was wearing a similar outfit on the night he was fatally shot, according to Cleveland.com.
Ryan Harris Imagery Lil Dee with his dolls
In February 2021, the first dolls were officially released — marking the start of what has been an unforgettable experience for Lil Dee and Gilmore.
"My mom wants everything perfect," Lil Dee says. "She makes me inspect each doll, labels have to be straight. She just wants everything to be presented nicely. She tells me that each doll is my way of saying hello in each house they are delivered to."
Adds Gilmore: "It has been amazing seeing him grow into this role as a CEO. He inquires about his orders daily. He asks if he has any press meetings. To see him grow leaps and bounds from a year ago impresses me daily because I truly get to witness my 'Brown Boy Joy' understanding his impact, and he wants to ensure we do it right."
In the time since the launch, Lil Dee and Gilmore have expanded their doll line to include various skin tones and wardrobe offerings. The brand has been incredibly successful, with Gilmore noting to Cleveland.com that their biggest challenge is maintaining enough inventory.
"The response has been awesome!" Lil Dee says of the dolls, which sell for $49 to $59 each. "Having people send pictures, email me, or walk up to me and say thank you has made me so happy. I think people really like the affirmations the dolls say, and they are in my voice."
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As more and more children buy the dolls, Lil Dee and Gilmore say they hope their creation "sends the message of joy."
"We want readers and consumers to understand 'Our Brown Boy' and 'My Friend' is about inclusivity," Gilmore explains. "Every child should be able to see and have representative play."
Though he's only been in his CEO role for less than a year, Lil Dee has one piece of advice for other kids looking to follow in his footsteps: "It takes a lot of work, plus school, but to see people smiling and happy about what you do makes it fun."
"Oh yeah, and get a mom like mine," he sweetly adds. "That's probably the best advice."
Those interested in purchasing a "My Friend" doll can do so here.