In a single season of playing altruistic attorney Alicia Johnson on ABC’s Mixed-ish, Tika Sumpter has quickly joined the ranks of television’s black moms—a role that followed star turns in The Haves and Have Nots, opposite Tiffany Haddish in Nobody’s Fool, and her endearing portrayal of a pre-White House (and pre-marriage, Malia, and Sasha) iteration of forever first lady and “Mom in Chief” Michelle Obama (née Robinson) in 2016's Southside With You.
But when Sumpter made the real-world decision to pursue motherhood in her mid-30s—in the midst of her still-rising, high-profile career—she found a lack of broadband support and celebration of black mothers online.
“Three years ago, when I was pregnant with my daughter Ella, I just felt like there was a hole—there wasn’t a go-to spot for black women to commune with pregnancy when I felt like there were a million parenting magazines or major sites for non-women of color to have everything answered for them,” Sumpter told The Glow Up.
The frustration of having to “piecemeal together” the content of the few who were doing the work of inclusion inspired the actress-producer to create a more cohesive solution. “I just felt like I wanted to figure out a way to connect commerce, content, and community, all together—and how to be a hub for that,” she says. On March 23, while much of America was beginning to shelter-in-place, Sumpter and business partner, friend and fellow mom Thai Randolph introduced another new life to the world: Sugaberry, a lifestyle brand and digital platform devoted to helping black and brown mothers live “the sweet life.”
“I just felt like there wasn’t a space of indulgence,” Sumpter explains as we connect by phone at the start of Black Maternal Health Week 2020, a time when we are rightly reminded of the tremendous dangers black women face just to become mothers. It’s a necessary warning, but also one that threatens to shroud the prospect of black motherhood in “death, doom and destruction” says Sumpter, especially for women navigating the information online.
“It was more of a space of just surviving motherhood, and even if you were undecided [about parenting], there wasn’t anywhere to really go...because I was looking for it. I was looking for a place to go, and I just didn’t see myself. And that’s why we decided to create Sugaberry.”
As one of those aforementioned “undecided”—albeit late in her reproductive years—I was both professionally and personally compelled to see what Sugaberry has to offer. (“It never hurts to explore your options!” urges Sumpter when I disclose this.) Refreshingly, while the platform’s focus may be maternal, the content is equally welcoming to us non-moms and avowed aunties, too. After all, in these self-quarantined times, who can’t benefit from learning to turn a neglected corner into a stylish office nook—or better yet, the best sex toys to have discreetly delivered to your door? On Sugaberry, this vital content peacefully coexists alongside articles on babymoons, drugstore fertility finds and parenting hacks—all packaged and delivered with us in mind.
Sumpter’s vision was to create a space that reflected not only the responsibilities of motherhood but its endless possibilities—because, spoiler alert: womanhood doesn’t stop when motherhood begins; neither does professional ambition, personal vanity or sex. But for black women, the inequities we face in becoming secure enough to start a family often set our biological clocks back further than we’d expected.
“I feel like black women, the way we move forward—the disparity in pay, the disparity in how long it takes for us to actually ‘make it’...our paths are not aligned with the world for various reasons,” says Sumpter, adding, “that doesn’t mean that we don’t want the same things.”
Sugaberry’s co-founder Thai Randolph, also Executive Vice President and General Manager of Kevin Hart’s Laugh Out Loud Network, agrees. By all appearances, the marketing maven did everything “right” to build a life that would sustain a family—but family planning didn’t go according to plan. Diagnosed as perimenopausal while still in her mid-30s due to low ovarian reserve, Randolph found herself frequenting fertility clinics at an age many of her contemporaries had already started families.
“It was a very lonely place,” she recalls.
“It was very crushing for me because I prided myself on checking boxes—you go to college, get a good job, find a good man, move to a big city, all those things,” she continues. “To get to the point where it’s like, ‘OK, it’s time for the next phase, and I feel like I’ve been doing things in order’—and then completely outside of your control, this thing happens.”
After unsuccessfully attempting IVF and effectively “throwing up [her] hands” in defeat, Randolph was exploring alternative, non-medical, and even non-biological routes to parenthood when she “miraculously” conceived her now 2-year-old son. While her fertility struggle—and the stigma often attached to it—compelled her to speak about it openly “so it doesn’t seem like some big intimidating thing to talk about it,” Randolph equally acknowledges her eventual privilege, however hard-fought. “I understand that I’m a lot freer talking about it because I ended up with a baby,” she says.
Still, she maintains, “what I never wanted to do, knowing how I felt at that time, was to develop what felt like an exclusive club that you needed a baby to get into. [Sugaberry] is as much for women who are at that decision point that I was as it is for women who are where I am now, with a toddler who’s losing his mind downstairs,” she chuckles.
Relatable moments like this are ones Randolph hopes to capitalize on with Sugaberry. “We started to think about ‘Where are moms like us? Where are these women who are contemplating motherhood, undecided, or maybe decided this is not for them—but at this intersection of personal and family and professional development? Where are they, what are they doing, and how do we speak to them in a way that’s impactful and relevant?’”
When, for lack of a better term, I suggest the two women are creating an “empathy hub,” Randolph enthusiastically agrees. In fact, it was empathy that led her to partner with Sumpter when “at first, I was prepared to say ‘don’t do it,’” she admits, citing the myriad obstacles in launching a digital publishing platform and filling a need that can be monetized. (As a former member of Facebook’s Marketing Solutions team, she would know.)
“When I talked to her, though, I think before even connecting at the business level, the concept really resonated with me deeply on a personal level,” says Randolph. “[Tika] was talking about this space for and by and about black mothers and celebrating black motherhood with all these nuances and this concept of motherhood being something that we too should enjoy, and not just endure…I could see myself in the idea that she was building—I could see myself reflected in her as a businesswoman, as a mom, and I was like, ‘Yes.’”
“So the concept of being an empathy hub, where it’s like, ‘I see you, and not only do I see you, but I’m like you’…those are things that I think just make a difference,” she continues. “I think the delivery and the messenger—when someone looks like you and can identify with your experience is very important for us.” To that end, Sugaberry intends to both cultivate community and cull feedback to tailor content and product offerings to the needs of its growing audience.
In addition to bubbly lifestyle content and product placements specifically catering to black mothers and families, the platform will also explore issues pertinent to but too rarely openly discussed in our communities—issues like fertility, freezing eggs and embryos, surrogacy, miscarriages, breastfeeding, fibroids, and preeclampsia (also known as toxemia). The last of these is yet another condition that disproportionately affects and endangers black mothers (including Beyoncé)—and made Sumpter’s own birthing experience particularly difficult. All are loaded and occasionally triggering topics—but Sugaberry plans to explore each with a deliberately casual yet deeply compassionate approach.
“The narrative is always going to be about [black women]; it’s always from our perspective,” says Sumpter. “You have black women at the forefront of a company who actually deal with this stuff, and so, I want to be a go-to for that.”
”We want to make sure that we’re having those conversations that are making your day sweeter, that are keeping you informed,” Randolph offers.
Those conversations began in earnest with the March launch of Sugaberry’s podcast, The Suga, co-hosted by its founders. Conceived to provide ideal on-the-go content for “Sugamamas” and “Undecideds” alike, the format has ironically found eager ears during a phase that gives new meaning to the phrase “stay-at-home mom.”
“Even stay-at-home moms don’t stay home the whole day!” Sumpter jokes in protest before sharing that she’s getting to know 3-year-old Ella “better than ever.”
Oh—and why “Sugaberry”? Sumpter says it’s equally an homage to her Southern great-grandmother’s well-known refrain to “give me some suga,” and Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up,” in which he rhymes the old adage “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”
Sumpter recites the lyric before sharing her hope that Sugaberry will be “something you want to come back to again and again.” Randolph echoes the invitation: “It’s a call to action to live a sweeter life.”