The Inspiration: Classmates called Kheris Rogers a dead roach. They told her she’d been left in the oven too long. Ever since first grade, Kheris, now 13, was bullied because of her skin color, even by kids of the same race. Adults also made her selfconscious of her appearance. “My teacher gave me a black crayon to color a self-portrait instead of a brown one,” she says. “It made me uncomfortable.”
The type of bullying Kheris experienced is known as colorism—prejudice based on skin tone—and it can happen to people of all races. “I didn’t even know what colorism was,” Kheris says. “I just wondered, why am I being bullied by people who are the same race as me?”
Kheris’s family noticed her distress. Her sister Taylor Pollard, 24, posted a photo of Kheris on Twitter with the hashtag #FlexinInHerComplexion, their grandmother’s favorite encouraging phrase. The post went viral, with more than 30,000 retweets in a month. People shared their own experiences of colorism. “So many people told me they went through the same thing,” says Kheris. “That’s when I knew this was bigger than me.”
The Action: To spread her message of empowerment, Kheris decided to make shirts with the phrase “Flexin’ in My Complexion” on them. “I wanted to create something that would help others love their skin color and love themselves,” she says.
With the help of her sister and a $100 investment from her mom, Kheris hired a T-shirt designer to print two dozen shirts with her catchphrase, then set up a website selling the shirts for $20 each. They sold out in 15 minutes. Kheris bought a T-shirt press with the profits and got to work making more shirts in the family garage.
The Outcome: The T-shirts gained the attention of celebrities such as actress Lupita Nyong’o, who posted a photo of herself wearing one on Instagram. In the first year, Kheris sold 10,000 shirts.
Kheris used the profits from her sales to set up a foundation that works with the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services to help youth living in foster homes. She also speaks about colorism and bullying at youth conferences and on college campuses and stays active on social media. “I get messages every day from people telling me I saved their lives,” she says.
Her advice to those going through similar experiences? “It isn’t about your skin color. Your beauty is in how you view yourself.”