Issue No. 54
Brooklyn, New York
Words: Judith Ohikuare
Visuals: J. Quazi King
Everyone in Jodie Patterson’s home has places to go, things to do, and people to see. Though her family spends their weekends in a house in Pennsylvania equipped with limited Internet access, plenty of outdoor space, and many bottles of wine for the adults, weekdays are all about the daily grind. Everyone’s up at 6:30 and out of the house by 8. After-school activities and sports run from 3:30 to 6, and dinner and free time start shortly after. By 8:30, the family’s youngest members have meditated and are on their way to sleep.
“Pretty much like clockwork,” Patterson says of their busy schedules.
(Clockwise: Jodie Patterson and Penel, Cassius, and Othello Ghartey.)
Anyone familiar with Patterson—an entrepreneur and co-founder of the Oprah-approved e-commerce beauty site Doobop, wife to education and technology entrepreneur Joseph Ghartey, and mother of Nain Gill (a 22 year old the family informally adopted when he was 19), Georgia Becker (16), and Cassius (9), Penel (7), and Othello (6) Ghartey—would marvel at how she gets so much done in the 24 hours the rest of us have. Chalk it up to practice: Patterson has always had a packed schedule driven by her passions and family.
After graduating from Spelman College, she worked in book publishing as a junior editor for two years before deciding that a career in music seemed more appealing. “My coworkers were great and very, very smart,” she says now, “but I didn’t really have a social life that mixed with my professional life.”
Patterson entered the field of music management, working with a number of artists including Tricky, Meshell Ndegeocello, Jewel, and D’Angelo before they were household names. She eventually expanded her reach from supporting artists on the management side to providing a space for them to perform. She launched New York City nightclub and arts venue Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater with her first husband in 1998—all while she was pregnant with her first child, Georgia.
“It was an interesting time because I was starting the rather large family that I have now in a club environment that’s not necessarily family-oriented,” Patterson says. “Even though I had all this [desire] to be a mom, when I found out that it was going to happen, I had all these reasons why I shouldn’t be. Oh, I have a job, so I shouldn’t be a mom. Oh, I live in a five-story walk-up, so I can’t have a baby.
“Then I realized that many of those things could be changed,” she continues. “I moved out of the walk-up and into a building with an elevator. Having a job was a good thing, not a bad thing. I was about to psych myself out because I was so nervous, but I got past that.”
She also got over the hurdle of working in the less-than-childproof club world by starting her first business, a PR agency called Jodie Becker Media. Launching her own business gave Patterson the flexibility to work from home and the power to choose her own clients.
Patterson spent three years running the firm before accepting a position at Vibe magazine as its director of fashion in sales. However, sensing that her real strengths were in public relations, she left Vibe after a year to lead the PR team for fashion designer Zac Posen. It was as glamorous as it was grueling—she was in charge of creating the front-row seating arrangements for Fashion Week, dressing celebrities in Zac Posen pieces, and traveling with the designer himself, working weekends and late nights. Pregnant with her son Cassius, Patterson left the company after her doctor told her to go on bed rest.
But even while she was on bed rest, Patterson stayed productive. She even found inspiration for her next big venture.
While resting at home one day, she watched a documentary on the business of Black haircare that focused on Madame C.J. Walker. “I liked how she took her own needs and desires and made them into a business that [serviced] her own community,” Patterson says.
Inspired by Walker’s insight and drive, Patterson and her sister-in-law Kiara Ellozy started their own store and beauty line, Georgia by Jodie Patterson, in 2007. What the pair lacked in experience, they made up for with passion. The Manhattan brick-and-mortar store had an immediate cult following among lovers of high-end beauty products, including their own line of natural skincare and haircare products. People from all over the world—some from as far away as Japan—were flocking to the store.
Georgia’s instant success faltered when the 2008 financial crisis hit consumers and businesses.
“Everyone around me advised me to close because the economy and shopping habits had changed, so all of the predictions we had made for the store weren’t [possible] anymore,” Patterson says. “It was very hard to grow the business and everything was coming out of pocket.”
After four years of being in business—and giving birth to her last two children Penel and Othello—Patterson and Ellozy decided to close Georgia in 2011. But the experience helped Patterson set the stage for her next move in the beauty industry: launching Doobop, an e-commerce site selling upmarket, handpicked items that cater to Black, Latina, and Asian women.
“I was scared to close and didn't think I could do well in a digital space,” she says now. “It was intimidating when I was conceiving it. But in reality it's very similar to brick and mortar: You have to get personal with customers. You have to use conversation, a.k.a. content, to engage people. You have to care about the details and hand-choose your product.”
By the time 2013 rolled around, Patterson had five children and she was ready to share Doobop, her newest baby, with the world. When the company debuted in November 2013, it received the ultimate coup right from the jump: the Oprah touch.
“She loved one of the products we were selling—a body butter from a little-known Italian brand called Comfort Zone. She ordered multiple boxes of it and put it in all of her homes,” Patterson says. “We launched with that in O, the Oprah Magazine and sales were phenomenal. We’ve been featured in the magazine multiple times since then; my shampoo was in a recent holiday issue as one of Oprah’s Favorite Things.”
In founding Doobop, Patterson seems to have found the career that makes the most sense for her, her interests, and her family—largely because she’s having meatier conversations about beauty than “this red lipstick is fierce.”
“My career is definitely rooted in beauty, but for me that means really talking about the business around identity,” she explains. “Beauty is often presented as very surface level and the ideals of beauty have been very cookie-cutter. I’m always concerned that my kids understand that what I do is not about vanity and is more about identity. Yes, all these lotions and potions are great because they reflect a feeling that we’re having, but the feeling comes first: Who am I? What do I feel like and what do I have to say? You start with the inside—then mirror that with a product and all its accouterments.”
“Starting with the inside” is also a piece of advice Patterson has found herself calling on as a mother. Her son Penel was born Penelope; he came out as transgender to his mother when he was 2, she says. “Trying to understand Penel’s identity has taken our family on a tempestuous journey,” Patterson wrote last year in Essence magazine, “but it has also brought us closer together.”
“I did not know anybody who was transgender that I knew of,” Patterson says now. “I had never had a conversation around being transgender, and I didn’t even know what the definition of the word was before Penelope. It was an eye-opening experience and a lot of it in the beginning— still even now—involves us observing and letting Penelope lead us, which is strange. As a parent you think you’re going to pave the way for your kids, but that’s not always true.”
Patterson has brought her take-charge attitude to raising a transgender child. Along with sharing educational information with her family, friends, and Penel’s school community, she also serves on the board of an organization called Community of Unity that runs after-school programs for hundreds of at-risk teens in the New York City area. Doobop is one of the organization’s business partners and donates $1 from every sale to the organization. Patterson and her family are also involved with PFLAG, an advocacy-based organization that supports LGBT individuals, families, and allies.
“If it weren’t for the fact that people die over this, if it weren’t for the fact that human rights are at stake, I would probably keep it private,” Patterson says of her decision to speak openly about Penel. “I don’t have a blueprint; this is just what I’m doing right now. If it changes and I no longer think that being public is benefiting us or other families, then I won’t be that anymore. But for now, I’m taking a public role because this is a public conversation.”
Patterson has added advocate to her many responsibilities, which include expanding the Georgia line with new retail partners and seeking new investors in the brown beauty space who can work to make Doobop profitable. As for her family, Patterson says she hopes to continue providing for her kids and to be fully present without getting “caught in the black hole of adulthood.” It’s all part of the constant evolution that is Jodie Patterson’s life.
“I would never go backward in time, only forward,” she says. “I feel really comfortable and confident in my career right now, and the things I like about my body are relevant to where I am. Working on oneself is a ‘forever’ kind of job. Now, I’m looking at myself more from a bird’s eye perspective—more at my aura and less at how perky my boobs are—and at 45, I feel prettier, sexier, and smarter than ever.”
How has being a mom changed your life?
With each kid, I’ve become a better person. Children are like your mirror, so you can’t get away with ignoring your flaws for too long. They will show you exactly where your mistakes are and it’s important to really stop and listen when they do. My kids have gotten me to a point where I actively work on things, if only to avoid embarrassment! I don’t want to be that old-fashioned parent that’s neurotic and set in her ways. I try to be great in my life if only to be great in their eyes.
What do you love about having such a big family?
They have five different personalities so it’s comedy all the time. We haven’t really raised our children to be the most convenient kids. They’re kind of unruly and they’re a bit rude and mouthy sometimes, but our goal is to raise them to be independent thinkers. We don’t want to cover anything up or push anything down. In the process, you get chatty kids and some backtalk, but when we’re all home together it’s like theater. If I have a bad [day] but my kids are around me, nothing seems that bad anymore.
How would you describe your children’s personalities?
Penel wants to be a rock star so he’s constantly playing air guitar and writing lyrics. [Cassius] set a goal to be more scientific in 2015, so he does experiments; he dissected a cow eyeball a few months ago and made volcanoes with crystals in the house.
Our youngest [Othello] is always out to find something naughty to do; he likes to prank people all the time.
My daughter [Georgia] is a newfound feminist, so she always challenges our ideas on gender and equality. And our oldest [Nain] is his own hype-man. He believes that the sky is the limit and that he is the next biggest anything. Each one of them has their own way and I love having all that energy around me. I learn from them and look to each of them for a bit of the goodness that they have.
(A drawing of Georgia Becker taped up in Patterson's office.)
What is the best advice your mother, or the mother figures in your life, have given you?
A couple of years ago, my mom said, “The more yeses you say to your children, the better, so find a way to say yes.” I don’t think she meant “yes” like, Yes, you can have more money and television and gadgets, but “yes” as a euphemism for being open and happy in life, whereas “no” would be a euphemism for being negative and closed. I try to think of that as creating moments where I can say “yes” a lot in our home. Of course, I fall short all the time because I always want to say “no” to gadgets, “no” to staying up late, and “no” to running through my house, but the ideal life is to have a home where they can be engaged. I try to use that as a guiding philosophy.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced being a mother?
Being in the moment. My personality is that I’m constantly running a marathon. I’m constantly moving when I’m at work and when I’m at home, I’m always cleaning, organizing, or creating. Stopping to actually sit and touch and talk and just be still with people is a battle that I don’t always win… And of course, paying tuition for a bunch of kids is always a challenge!
Your son Penel coming out as transgender was probably very challenging as well. What was that like for you as a mom not having that blueprint and learning how to support him?
Penelope very clearly said, “Mommy, everybody thinks I’m a girl and I’m not.” At the time I said, “Well, however you feel is fine,” but then Penelope replied, “I don’t feel like a boy. I am a boy.”
Those words were really powerful and, in the beginning, really scary. Your mind goes to the worst-case scenario, and there are so many-worst case scenarios when it comes to being transgender. Suicide rates are very high for transgender children, gender bullying takes place, and there are laws that don’t make life very easy for transgender kids. You think, Who’s going to love my kid the way I do? Who’s going to understand him the way I do? Who’s going to try to out him and hurt him? Those are the first things we thought about, but when you get past that and just try to be active—and you get some definitions and are around other people who are experiencing it—you understand that it’s just another aspect of life. Ultimately, being transgender is just one thing that describes a person. Brown hair. Five-foot-seven. Transgender. Gay. These are just descriptors.
Right now things aren’t very difficult. I checked in with him one morning a few months ago and I asked him, “How is it being a transgender kid?” I use the word around him a lot so it’s not a big deal. He was like, “I don’t know mom, I guess it’s fine.” So I said, “How do you feel about your body? Very good or not so good?” And he said, “Very good.” That’s a big thing because there were several years when he hated his body. Today, he’s not consumed with being transgender.
I think we’re in a stage where everyone at home understands, all of his friends and the school administration understand, and his after-school programs understand. All the places where he functions are good with it. In my mind I like to think that we’ve lost not one friend along this journey. It may not be true, but that’s how it feels. The next steps are puberty, hormones, and high school, which are very daunting aspects for me.
What advice would you give to other parents who are learning things about their children that feel difficult to deal with?
Be quiet. Listen. Be in the moment. Everything good comes from the inside of each of us. All you have to do is look out for the signs; kids give them to us all the time. Encourage them to be authentic.
Also, decisions are not irreversible. If a child says, “I am identifying as a boy,” many parents are scared to make that a reality because what if the person changes their mind? Then, okay, they changed their mind! You flow with the child wherever they are. The best thing about our identities is that they are fluid and we can change them if they change. How I see myself today might be totally different [from] how I see myself when I’m 50, and that’s my choice. I would tell parents not to be nervous about being engaged with their child at where they are [any] given moment because each moment is unique and there’s room for change and interpretation.
[And] read a lot. There are books on pretty much everything and parents can learn more about the things they don’t know anything about. Go outside of your communities and find smaller communities that tell you something about your kid’s [situation], whether it’s mental illness or musical genius or gender variance or scientific excellence or feminism. Find science groups, theater groups, gender groups, mental illness groups, feminist groups—whatever those unique things that you see in your children [are]. Take them on with pride so that you own it and it’s not so overwhelming. Nurture the things you get nervous about the same way you’d nurture something you’re typically proud of. It should be embraced with the same kind of love and care.
What kind of people do you hope your children become?
My biggest goal is that each of my children lives a life that is unique to their journey. I don’t know if there’s a destination that you reach by the time you’re 40, for example, but I want them to be explorers. I want them to nurture their intellect and to be smart and engaged. I want them to love and be loved, and to be happy—not necessarily experiencing happiness as their only emotion, but as their dominant one.
Issue No. 54
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK
Many beauty aficionados are focused on turning back the clock or staying frozen in time, but Jodie Patterson, 45, is all about celebrating evolution and change.
Patterson, the founder of Doobop, a brand that has become one of Oprah’s Favorite Things and mother of five children, ages 6 to 22, spoke with mater mea about what drives her: creating a new definition of beauty, supporting her family, and championing a cause that hits close to home: transgender rights.