Flint, MI—Rhonda Willingham is driven by what she doesn’t see in America’s greeting card shops: representation of Black women.
“It’s been said I fill a void,” the entrepreneur said, sitting down for coffee at the Flint Institute of Arts. “And I take that. I own that.”
Willingham is the founder of Culturally Yours Inc., the company under which she designs and produces Sista Girl Greeting Cards.
Her signature design features the face of a Black woman with her eyes closed and lashes fanned.
From there, Willingham adorns the woman’s face with three-dimensional elements (sometimes fashioned from scrap material from local automotive plants), different hats, hairstyles, and accessories—but one thing is always the same.
“They’re always blank on the inside,” said Willingham. “So you can personalize the message. (The card) can be for whatever it is you need it to say.”.
Willingham never intended to go into greeting cards.
She began by experimenting with t-shirt appliqué in the mid-90s after learning the technique for a summer job in Flint.
“We were making aprons for summer programs in the city,” she said. “But they were all plain.”
Willingham said the aprons arrived in a sort of kit with extra fabric for appliqué. Even though the aprons didn’t require it, Willingham asked her supervisor to show her how to do the sewing technique.
She then started designing and making t-shirts using the technique after heading to Central Michigan University for a master’s degree in business administration and management.
It wasn’t until Willingham was working on her thesis that she realized the lack of representation for Black women in the greeting card industry.
“I was doing my research on black women in corporate America,” said Willingham, sipping her drip coffee with cream and three sugars. “My question was ‘what drives your ambition as a Black woman to break through the glass ceiling—to even think you can—when society labels us with stereotypes?”
Willingham found herself reaching out to Black female CEOs, founders, and hospital directors to ask this question. She said she was surprised and overwhelmed by the support and candor she received in reply from such impressive women, who she started calling her “Sista Girl Circle.”
But when the time came to say thank you, she couldn’t find cards that looked and felt appropriate to give to the women who had helped her through her thesis.
“I ended up buying some little bookmark or something and just writing a note,” she said. “But I said, ‘You know when I get done with this whole school thing, I gotta come up with something.'”
So after completing her degree—and with three kids and a full-time job as a therapist at Hurley Medical Center—Willingham began using her appliqué skills to craft greeting cards featuring the faces of Black women.
She realized she was on to something in 2004 when she joined the Pantene Total Tour.
“I’d been doing little shows at churches,” she said. “But that? That was my breaking out moment.”
Willingham sold out almost every tour stop she joined.
As word of her cards spread, she was invited to create the gift bags for actress Vivica A. Fox’s Jolie Magazine launch party in Detroit, and to partner with the now-defunct Sister Soldier Project which sent haircare packages to female service members of color through April 2012.
Willingham retired from her therapist role earlier this year and said she plans to devote her extra time to building up Sista Girl Greeting Cards again.
Willingham said she signed on with a company that will help her produce cards more efficiently. Until now, she had been handcrafting each card individually. She’s also hired an assistant, and expanded her products to include journals, calendars, coloring books, pins, and glassware.
And that’s just the beginning.
“I’ve got lists of Black-owned bookstores all across the U.S.,” she said. “It is my goal to get Sista Girl to grow into each and every one of those first. Then we’ll go from there.”
Currently, Sista Girl Greeting Cards are available on Willingham’s website, at Comma Bookstore, the Flint Institute of Arts, and Oliver T’s Market.