Grammy award-winning singer, actress, poet, author, and philanthropist Jill Scott is perhaps best known for her inspirational and seductive lyrics. But she’s also an entrepreneur, unveiling the Butterfly Collection Inspired by Jill Scott for Ashley Stewart, a bra line for plus-size women. Proceeds from the collection benefit Scott’s Blues Babe Foundation based in North Philadelphia, which encourages young people to excel artistically and academically.
Black Enterprise recently caught-up with the 37-year-old Philadelphia native about her foray into entrepreneurship, the importance of diversifying her revenue stream, and her recent role as series heroine Precious Ramotswe in the new HBO show The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency filmed in Botswana. Scott is the first African American woman to star in a series on the network and is set to be honored by the country with her own postage stamp.
How did the Ashley Stewart joint venture come about?
I never understood why department stores and boutiques don’t pay attention to this market. They are homeowners, they pay taxes, and they have money to spend. So it didn’t seem farfetched or odd to want to go into an area where I see that the need is great.
Every woman in my family is pretty voluptuous. They all have these dark marks and have suffered shoulder pain from bras. I spoke with my business partner and told him that I wanted to create a bra line and that Ashley Stewart would be a great place for it. We met with the company and I brought in bras, fabrics, and materials that I thought would work well. I explained the need and gave them my designs.
What were some of the challenges you faced creating the line?
It’s hard to find a bra that will give both support and shape. We went back to the drawing board many times. There’s a specific plate to make each cup. We went from foam to gel to a type of padding. It’s very intricate and specific. I would go into Ashley Stewart and say, “OK, this is good. This isn’t going to work. Let’s try this.” There was lots of starting over. There’s a science to it all. Making a bra is difficult.
The line faced some criticism because the sizes weren’t expansive enough for some women. Are you looking to expand the line?
Right now it’s a great bra, but it’s not for everybody. I’m going to do my best to take it from a 60th percentile to at least the 90th percentile in terms of meeting the needs of more women. So I’ll need to do bigger and smaller sizes, more colors and styles, as well as maternity bras and girdles.
What you’re doing is a reflection of artists diversifying their income streams. How important is that for artists?
You have to diversify because nothing is guaranteed. I learned this from my mother. She can sew, lay down hardwood floors, perform acupressure, and is also a dental hygienist. All of those things make her happy. That’s how I’ve wanted to live my life. If it happens to become something financially beneficial, then great. I sing, write, and act because I can’t help myself. I love being creative. Of course I want to make money to take care of my family and myself, but I want a livelihood that gives me internal pleasure.
In addition to redesigning bras, you’re also reshaping the mold for leading actresses. How did your new HBO series come about, and why is it important to see plus-size women on TV?
The more roles, the more diverse we can be, the better. The character I’m playing is a traditionally built woman. There are no hang-ups about her size in Africa because there’s a different mentality in terms of standards of beauty. She’s normal. She’s beautiful.
This story originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.