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As we continue to honor Women’s History Month, I had the privilege of interviewing a Black woman founder dedicated to the intersection of art, activism and business. Daneille Coke, also known as Happy Dani, is a Black woman illustrator and content creator centering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in her work. She’s partnered with well-known brands like Toms, Adobe and Comcast to translate their DEI values and initiatives into social-justice art with big impact.
Here are excerpts from our conversation about her unique business model and how brands can elevate Black content creators with DEI in mind.
Tell us about who you are, your journey and what lens you use to show up for equity, inclusion and belonging?
I describe myself as an illustrator and activist. I like to use art and words to encourage faith, inspire justice and help people become better neighbors. It all started with my first piece in 2020. I posted an illustration on social media for Martin Luther King Day. I talked about why Dr. King was not a passive peacekeeper, but rather a radical disruptor who challenged the status quo. When I posted that, I was surprised to see that people who I didn’t know were sharing it. Before my art took off, I was a social media manager and graphic designer working with positive mission-based brands. After Martin Luther King Day, I told myself that I was going to keep making art for the rest of the month and talk about what it means to be a Black woman in America. That’s when my art started to circulate and I had my first piece go semi-viral on Facebook. In the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter took center stage in our society. That’s when all of my work went viral at the same time. In one week, I gained about 300,000 followers on Instagram. It’s been exciting to see how my art inspired, inspired and challenged people by sparkling intentional conversations about DEI.
Who or what else inspires your work?
I’m inspired by the poetry of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison’s writings about the intersection of blackness and creativity. Also, in 2019, I was working in a predominantly white small business. I was the only Black woman there. I remember going to my boss and saying, “I’m experiencing a lot of microaggressions and outright racism from people who mean well but just don’t know how to treat me. I would love it if we could invest in DEI initiatives, bring in a speaker and try something new in this area.” My boss said he wasn’t passionate about that and couldn’t see why he would invest company money and time into DEI. I came to the realization that this space wasn’t for me and I couldn’t see how I could thrive here. That’s what encouraged me to quit, pursue my own graphic design business, and intentionally work with justice-focused, mission-based brands who do care about DEI. That was my small way of using my passion for justice and equity.
I love that your website’s name is Happy Dani. Why is it important for women of color founders to lead with joy in their work?
For me, you see the name Happy Dani and my joyful disposition, and you might think: She’s happy all the time. But it’s absolutely not true. While my joy may come natural to me, it’s followed by a lot of intentional self-care, like investing in therapy and recognizing the racial trauma has on my day-to-day life. I’ve allowed myself to be on a journey of healing. What’s important for Black women founders to know is that we can’t divorce who we are from what we do. The fact that I’m a Black woman infiltrates every aspect of my life. There may be times as a content creator on social media that people ask me to talk about the difficult topics of the day, but it’s not common for Black women content creators to get the same kind of engagement when we talk about love, happiness or joy. I had to make the decision for my well-being to no longer divorce who I am online from my holistic self in real life. I’m a person, not a resource.
In your stickers, you use a wide variety of skin tones. Why is it important to show skin-color diversity in your work?
Danielle: When I first made the sticker that says “worthy” with all of the different colored arms, that was a piece I made during Black History Month 2020 about colorism. All of those arms represent different tones of blackness and speak to the issue of being worthy and valuable no matter your skin tone. In the summer of 2020, the piece resurfaced and was amplified by those who thought the message included more than just Black people. Although the original intention of the piece has been lost in translation, it’s been neat to see how it’s taken on a life of its own to encourage all people from all walks of life to embrace worthiness. Worthiness isn’t something to be noted and said, rather it’s something to be fought for in all places and spaces in our spheres of influence.
Who typically buys your art? What impact do you hope it has on them?
I create art and words for the heart and home. I want families to buy this art and spark conversations with their children and guests who come over. I also want the more inspiring pieces to encourage people to stay motivated in the work they’re doing. It’s hard to start out with such a niched focus with mission-based brands and then have my audience expand to everyone. It’s not ideal when deciding who I want to talk to, but it’s a blessing, too. I like how I can inspire the DEI consultant and the stay-at-home mom.
What are the challenges, hurdles and obstacles you experience as a Black woman founder?
One of the first things that I struggled with was making sure I was getting paid my worth. When I was just starting out, I was brand new and there were opportunities that I said yes to that could have paid me more. I had opportunities that I thought would amplify my voice and message but turned out to be capitalizing on the popularity of the current justice issue. I had to remind myself that I am doing this for the greater good and I want us all to achieve equality, but I am also a small-business owner with employees and bills to pay. It’s not selfish to say, “I’d love to do this, and this is my rate.” It’s tough to walk into spaces and be paid less than my white counterparts or be offered to do something for free that others were paid significantly to do. It was a hurdle to be here about justice and equity taking only to find out I was working in spaces where injustice was place. I needed to know my worth and ask for it. It’s common to say I want a seat at someone else’s table, but I also find value in building tables of my own.
What’s your current business structure, and where do you see your brand going in the future?
Currently, I have one full-time employee and two interns. We have an office in Atlanta where we fulfill our shop orders and sell prints, stickers, posters, flags and other artwork for the home. I do a lot of brand collaboration, too, and work with brands like Comcast, Coach, Adobe and Toms to help them deliver their message with joy and truth and amplify voices that need to be heard.
How do large brands typically engage with you and your work?
Brands reach out when they want to amplify Black voices and creators in a positive light and show that they see us and acknowledge us. For example, they may want to communicate Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by asking me to illustrate something and then share it on social media. Brands might also reach out when they’re making a decision that changes their corporate social responsibility initiatives. For example, how Tom’s changed their buy a pair, give a pair initiative and transitioned to donating to Black-led grassroots organizations instead. I work with brands that want to share their internal commitment to justice and diversity with their customers and investors. It’s great for brands to intentionally seek out creators of color, ask them to interpret their messaging in their unique style and voice and then amplify their work.
Art activism is a rising field. How do you think art can push the envelope of DEI as we know it?
Sometimes art and activism are pitted against each other where activism involves taking action while art is more about emotion. When you put the two together, you have a really powerful tool because you’re inspiring action by evoking emotion. Art is also accessible. DEI conversations are nuanced, weighty and complex. Oftentimes, there’s a critique that art oversimplifies DEI, but what’s the harm in taking an idea that doesn’t dumb down a topic, but makes it more digestible and accessible to the average person?
What do you wish you knew before starting your business?
I wasn’t asking for help enough. I would seek out resources and invest in the business, yet I found myself needing help and not asking for it. I also wish I would have known more about inventory and how much to buy for my business. I feel that I’m growing with the business through trial and error. I wish I had known that criticism and critique are not an indicator of my worthiness as a person. I’m also working through perfectionism and wish I would have been easier on myself.
How do women of color break the glass ceiling in this work?
Danielle: I would say don’t let the absence of other Black women in this space stop you from bringing your full self and making the art you’re inclined to make. If you don’t see it from other women of color, you have permission to do it anyway. I didn’t see Black women doing illustrative infographics on social media. I thought to myself, I have something to say and I have a voice, so I’ll do it.