A $5,000 stipend from Glamour will allow Koonce to expand the efforts of BeautyGap.
BeautyGap is a nonprofit organization which supplies dolls of color to children of color abroad.
"When I grew up, I was going to do everything I could to make sure children knew they didn’t have to be marginalized or left behind," Koonce says.
Koonce visited Ghana for her first Morehead-Cain summer experience. The children she met had no dolls that looked like them or reflected their culture.
Amber Koonce was named one of 2011's Top 10 College Women by Glamour magazine.
Magazine recognizes a role model
A savvy entrepreneur and social advocate, Amber Koonce is now known as one of America’s top ten college role models.
Dubbed “The Social Entrepreneur” in Glamour magazine’s October issue and online, Koonce is the founder of BeautyGap, a nonprofit startup that collects and ships dolls of color to children of color around the world, and a tireless advocate for incarcerated and at-risk youth.
“I grew up in a predominately white environment,” Koonce says. “I experienced many situations in which I felt left out, or like an outcast. Those early things shaped my adolescence.”
Those negative experiences, she says, can change the course of a childhood, but for her, they were a call to action. With an ever-growing interest in social justice, she turned to advocacy and service.
“Those experiences put something in my subconscious. When I grew up, I was going to do everything I could to make sure children knew they didn’t have to be marginalized or left behind.”
The summer after her first year at UNC, Koonce, a Morehead-Cain scholar, traveled to Ghana to teach at a prison school for incarcerated women. There, she noticed children carrying baby dolls that looked nothing like them.
“They would ask me questions, like, why did I look like them if I was American? Many of them were frustrated by their skin and hair color. And they all had only white dolls.”
Back at UNC, a documentary studies class led her to interview black men and women about standards of beauty in black culture, and a turn as Lady in Red in Lab! Theatre’s production of the Tony-award winning play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf deepened her interest in black womanhood and self-acceptance.
“In Africa, a gap between a woman’s two front teeth is considered the standard of beauty, often called the beauty gap. I learned that you have to be careful not to project your ideas and experiences on a different culture.”
This idea of a “beauty gap” offered a name for a new idea and startup business. “I started collecting dolls, receiving donations from people and feedback from girls, and I knew this was my chance to do my part.” A JNO Award in Entrepreneurial Studies for the minor in entrepreneurship helped push her business forward. BeautyGap recently reached full 501(c)(3) status, and has distributed more than 150 dolls.
Since her freshman year, Koonce has been active in Criminal Justice Action and Awareness (CJAA), a campus organization that works to enhance student awareness of the problems affecting the criminal justice system. Through CJAA, Koonce volunteers for Durham Youth Home, a home for incarcerated youth, and as co-chair, she inspires other students to do the same.
Koonce will graduate with degrees in public policy and African and Afro-American studies, as well as a minor in entrepreneurship, in May 2012. A return to Ghana and a continued mission to advocate for at-risk youth are at the top of her post-grad to-do list.
A Pearson Prize for Higher Education will help with law school in the coming years, but she’s in no hurry. Before studying to become a juvenile defense attorney, she will first take a year and learn more about what she’s fighting for.
“So much can happen in a year,” she says. “I went to Ghana for two months, such a short amount of time, and it changed everything. It shaped my life.”
October 17, 2011