Client Spotlight: Tulani Thomas, Tutu’s Green World
When Tulani Thomas started Tutu’s Green World, it was like coming home. When she was a child, she remembers everyone called her the “green” one, and now she spends her days connecting youth to nature and sustainability. Tulani also has some great advice on preparing if you want to change your career path midstream.
Tell us a little bit about how TuTu’s Green World started
It definitely was a change in my path. My background is four years as a CPA auditor and four years as a corporate attorney. Then family happened. I had my son and then my daughter. But the seed for TuTu was planted when I had my son.
I’ was raised in a family where health and nutrition were paramount. When I had my son—naturally (we always go a step above what we are taught)—I realized that raising a healthy baby couldn’t exclude a healthy environment because it’s all intertwined. When I was looking for literature to reinforce this ethos—at that time, they called it “being a granola mom” (I don’t know if they still use that term)—but when I was looking for literature to reinforce it, it was challenging to find. The books didn’t reflect how my child looked. So the lack of diversity was very evident.
I’ve always been creative. I was a dancer from the time I was eight years old. I considered majoring in dance, but coming from a very strict Caribbean home, using a full college scholarship for a dance major was not going to happen. That’s how accounting came into play. I’ve always written, and I decided why not start TuTu’s Green World. I decided to start it with a children’s book. It began in 2010—when I had my first published children’s book. Very different from law at the time that I was practicing.
We love everything about your story. More diversity in eco-movement is so importanT
It’s so ironic that communities of color are the most adversely affected by climate change; however, you don’t see us as much on the frontlines fighting. I don’t think it’s because of a lack of passion. I think it’s because there are just so many adversities and inequities that we’re fighting. In the long list, the environment tends not to be on top. It’s not only in our communities; it’s really across the board. When we think about environmental change or advocacy or justice, it’s never really up there with racial justice or gender justice. You can’t have all those injustices if you don’t have a world to fight on.
That’s honestly one of the main reasons that propelled me to go into this space. I grew up in the Bronx and Harlem—an area that is one of the worst for air quality. Unfortunately, when we decided to have children, we had to move out of our home. Out of a place that I grew up in from the time I was one to eighteen years old, before moving to North Carolina for college. My husband and I were just not willing to reside in Harlem when starting our family because of that factor. Harlem has one of the highest asthmatic rates in the country.
I was compelled to do something. Not to be corny, but the future lies in our children. They always say, “revolution starts with the children.” My parents planted a seed in me all my life. Everyone who knows me always jokes, “Tulani, you were green before it was even a term.” I was the kid bringing in the healthy sandwiches and fruits, healthy lunches that nobody wanted to trade with. I stayed with it all my life. That’s my foundation.
My thinking with TuTu’s green world is starting a young generation with a foundation where going green is the norm, and that’s all they know. In time, we’ll see a great change with these small acts that they can do.
What do you love about what you do?
There are so many things I do love about it. I love when I present to little people how their eyes light up, and they immediately grasp the concepts. That’s the feedback that I’ve received from so many parents. Their children start correcting them around the home to turn off the water, turn off the lights, not use a plastic bag, or “Don’t forget your tote bag, Mommy, when we go to the grocery store.” The kids get it right away. That’s just so telling about how much impact we have on children. We can either feed them the good stuff or the bad stuff. Whatever you feed them, they’re going to absorb.
When I present TuTu’s Green world, I love how their eyes light up. I love how they get that they have agency. They get that, “I can make a difference, I can do this, We can do this.” It’s refreshing. It’s refreshing because it gives me hope as a mother. I’m raising young men and women—they’re teenagers. When I see the little ones, the K through 3rd graders, and how excited they are, it’s really encouraging, empowering, and hopeful. I would have to say that’s my favorite part, to present to children.
You’re creating more “green kids,” like you were. What do you find that is challenging about this work?
There are a lot of challenges. The main one that I constantly encounter is that it’s such a daunting issue. Often, parents and teachers don’t know where to start. Unlike children, as adults, we always jump to the actual result. Whereas children, because life hasn’t consumed them yet, they’ll just take a little bit by bit. They’ll just do the little bit by bit. Then at the end of the day, they learn over the years, “Wow, I can accomplish this goal.”
When I speak with caregivers, parents, and teachers, they almost don’t believe that change can come because the problem just seems so great. Convincing them their small acts will make a big impact; recycling, reusing that glass jar for every little thing, taking their reusable tote bag to the grocery store instead of using a plastic bag that will sit in our landfills for generations, thousands of years—that’s the hurdle, convincing them that. With children, their naïveté comes in handy. Whereas with adults, our realistic vision doesn’t. It’s typical and difficult.
Another challenge that I face, too, is they don’t know what to do. They don’t know where to start. They say, “Oh my goodness, composting. How do I start with that?” “I’m not crafty; how do I reuse?” You don’t have to be crafty. Every little thing you do, take your tote bag. I have a cabinet full of glass jars. My children always say, “Do you think we have enough?” We never have enough. And guess what, if we have enough, there may be someone who needs glass jars. I take them to the donations. You can repurpose them for flowers. My daughter uses her clothes for her dolls now. Children get it. That creative mind that we’re all born with just skyrockets.
Adults look at the problem as daunting. They often don’t know where to start. While TuTu’s Green World was written for children, it helps parents. They find it helpful because it’s given them a starting point.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of the same kind of transition or even just working in that creative book publishing environment?
At the time, I had a very supportive partner. I was able to stop working in corporate America and focus on my creative and entrepreneurial endeavors. It doesn’t have to be that way. I recognize that that was a privilege, and not everyone is afforded that privilege. We did plan for it. Initially, when I had my son, I had to go back to the law firm. When I went back, we cut down because we knew my plan, which was to walk away and pursue TuTu’s Green World full-time. During that year, we had to cut down, cut debt, cut back on expenses, and make that shift.
That’s something that I would recommend to anyone looking to pursue an entrepreneurial goal—whether in the creative space or not. You have to be very realistic with your finances and understand that most businesses are not profitable during the first five years. You do have those outliers. I’m not saying it cannot be profitable, but it’s a lot of work, and you have to account for that. Go in accounting for that, so if it’s not that way, it’s a windfall, a pleasant surprise.
Be very honest and clear about the financial impact and requirements of going into the entrepreneurial space and plan accordingly. Just because you may not be able to walk away and do it one hundred percent doesn’t mean that you can’t do it at all. You absolutely can. I was writing when I was at the law firm. I was looking for my editors and illustrators while practicing law. There are 24 hours in a day—I know we wish there were 34—but you still find time to do what you want. Do something every day towards that goal. Don’t let a day go by where you haven’t done something towards your entrepreneurial goal.
Like the message we’re preaching to the children, small acts make a big impact. That’s what will happen with your entrepreneurial goals. If it’s writing or dancing or creating a product, work on that every single day, and you will have your finished product, your finished service, your finished book. Then you can pursue it maybe fifty percent, or you can go to a part-time job. Then ultimately, quit altogether, and you can do it one hundred percent. As long as you work towards it, you can accomplish it.
We imagine you had to expand your network for the kind of people you had to find to start TuTu’s Green World. How did you get connected with the people you needed to meet?
I initially connected by going on freelance websites, but my years of business experience helped because I was an auditor for Essence Magazine and then Latina Magazine. I was in the publishing space. Some of the technical skills that I learned there and some of the contacts that I made there, I was able to call on and ask those questions, do informational interviews, and ask for advice. That’s where I got advice on the paper stock and the ink and the questions to ask printers. Don’t discount your business and your previous life experience because those network connections will come in handy.
I also called on my business school alum. I went to Duke Business School. My alumni network has done everything, from dancing on Broadway to working at the White House. I called on them and said, “Listen, this is what I’m trying to do.” No one is ever surprised in business school about people making pivots because it happens all the time. That was helpful. They gave me different connections or people I could reach out to for questions.
Now it’s so much easier because everything is at your fingertips on the Internet. At that time, there was a website called Guru.com. That was one of the first freelance websites where you could go on and view different portfolios. Now you have Fiverr and Upwork. There’s a lot more competition. You have a lot more access to more artists and editors. I wanted to self-publish, so I went with a company called Self Publishing, which is now no longer in existence. It was a one-stop shop for self-publishers, which was very helpful. They also had an educational component. They wanted to educate you on the process of self-publishing.
I also picked a lot of authors’ brains before I jumped into it. With traditional education, you’re taught that you only do this, and you’re apprehensive about trying anything new. I’ve also been of the mindset that if someone else did it, I could do it, too. I spoke to so many authors, and they gave great advice. Those would be the tips I have: tap your network, do informational interviews, and ask a lot of questions.
How is working with VaVa?
VaVa is nothing short of amazing. I’m not just saying that because I’m being interviewed. This is another tip for entrepreneurs: you cannot do it all. Sometimes, quite frankly, you may not be profitable in the first five years. Sometimes on paper, it looks like you can’t afford help. I’m here to tell you you cannot afford not to have it. Since I hired VaVa, I have accounting books. I’m a CPA, but I couldn’t do it all. The books were not complete. Now I have complete accounting books. I just applied for a grant, and I was able to quickly pull up my income statement or my cost of goods sold and send it.
They have helped me with my accounting books and helped me launch my newsletter. I do a monthly newsletter now that’s free to all subscribers, and it’s chock full of green information. I now know exactly what my cost of goods sold is and my inventory. I’ve established an online store for sustainable products and my children’s book, which helps us with some of the costs.
My social media following has doubled since I’ve had VaVa because I have assistance with posting. These are all things that all companies should have. It’s nothing earth-shattering. When you’re running a one-woman shop—I’m a widow, I have two children, running a home, caring for aging parents—life doesn’t stop because you want to run a business. VaVa has assisted me tremendously. With all of that, last year, I had the most sales that I’ve had since I started my company. And I know VaVa has contributed to that.
You find it to be an investment?
Yes. You invest in yourself.
Tell us a fun fact about yourself
My lifelong dream was to be a professional dancer. I did have the opportunity to dance on the stage with Alvin Ailey one year on Mother’s Day. They invited me on the stage to dance. That was the highlight of my life! I went up there and danced, and it was so funny because afterward, a couple of the audience members came up and asked if I was a plant because they thought I was a dancer. My head could not get any bigger! My mom was with me, and she said, “Well, I guess all those years of dance class paid off.”
That’s adorable! We understand you have a new book coming out and a line of sustainable products. Tell us more!
Yes, we’re trying to expand and support the green mission. We did launch the e-Store, where we are selling reusable TuTu tote bags and water bottles, and t-shirts so we can have people promote the green living mission. It’s definitely to promote living green and the organization’s overall goals.
There’s a second book coming out, and this one will be a little bit different. I’ll be introducing two more characters. There’s going to be a green crew with TuTu. We’re going to see the character TuTu implement these small acts. TuTu Goes Green was an introduction about who she is and what she’s about. This series of books will tackle the different areas of climate change and what TuTu proposes. It’s going to be done through a problem-solving type of adventure.
The first one I’m hoping to get done before August will address composting as a solution for the town that TuTu lives in. That’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re also looking to do an animation series. That’s the lifelong dream—for TuTu to have an animation series. We applied for a grant. This foundation is looking to fund companies that have green initiatives. I proposed the animation series, and they loved it. I made it to the final round, so fingers crossed. I will hear soon. With that grant, I’ll be able to produce an animation series that I can launch on YouTube. And we’ll see where that goes.
Just one more little question: What are your hopes for the world?
I have so many hopes for the world. In this context, my hope is the next generation, the younger generation, grows with an eco-conscious heart, kindness, empathy, passion, and agency for change.
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