Toya Corbett, Ph.D., is an educator, womanist, historian of all things Black, and chief genius behind Black Genius Apparel. Concurrently serving as Dean of Students at North Carolina Central University, Dr. Corbett has shaped Black Genius Apparel into a brand that empowers and affirms Black thought, Black pride, and Black intelligence. Dr. Corbett spoke with me about the inspiration behind her brand, the importance of staying true to your mission, and the challenges of working your side hustle with as much vigor as your 9-5.

  1. What was the inspiration behind starting Black Genius apparel?

The inspiration for starting Black Genius Apparel really came about approximately five years ago when I was working at Morgan State University in Baltimore. I noticed students would wear shirts with derogatory images as a way to be cool or noticed. It disturbed me that college students would have the audacity to wear something that fed into the negative stereotype of African Americans in urban cities and that the message that they carried on their chests was insulting to the legacy of HBCUs.

2. You’ve had the privilege of attending both a PWI and HBCU. Can you talk about the differences, if any, of affirming Blackness in both environments?

As an undergraduate, I attended the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and had an amazing experience. Though there was not a lot of faculty and staff members who looked like me, but those who were there, took a keen interest in the Black student population by empowering us to have a voice on campus by obtaining leadership positions in various organizations. They affirmed our Blackness through intentional events and activities that were culturally relevant and impactful mentoring programs that provided a sense of community in a predominately white space.

While attending Morgan State University, I became more immersed academically due to the expectations set by the professors and because I thoroughly enjoyed the classroom environment. I was intellectually challenged and stimulated by my fellow cohort members and instructors. I embraced the sense of family and the traditions found at Morgan. I also fell in love with the rich history of Morgan that is intertwined throughout Baltimore and the state of Maryland. The HBCU experience is truly unique in that Morgan not only affirmed my Blackness, it exemplified the caliber of graduates that Black colleges produced that are unfortunately rarely acknowledged. In summary, UNC Charlotte made me a leader whereas Morgan State made me a scholar.

3. There are critics who wrongly argue that there is no longer a need for HBCUs or historically black sororities and fraternities. Is that the reason why you have a line specifically with the HBCU Genius moniker, to silence those opponents or facilitate a dialogue around this thought?

I created HBCU Genius to dispel the myths about the educational standards at Black colleges. Most people believe that PWIs reign supreme though HBCUs are consistently producing more African American graduates at all levels of educational attainment. I also wanted HBCU graduates to feel proud and have pride in their degrees from historically black colleges.    

4. Can you talk about the importance of Black Genius’s mission in this current political climate?

Today’s political climate is such that people of color are continually being marginalized, oppressed and socially and economically disenfranchised. While I could share my thoughts and sentiments regarding the tension surrounding race relations in the country, I choose to empower Black people and boldly proclaim that Black Geniuses do exist though folks in the White House believe otherwise.

5. What marketing efforts do you attribute to the success of your brand?

When I began Black Genius Apparel, one of my strategies was to post photos on Facebook of people wearing one of the shirts. As a result, all of my customers started sending me their photos to post. So I accidentally created this frenzy of folks wanting to make it onto my Facebook page, “Wearing their Genius proudly.” This still continues and provides an excellent source of free marketing in the social media world. I also advertise on my personal Instagram page, @toya_corbett and the business page @blackgeniustees.

6. With your career experience being in education, what have been some of the challenges in shifting gears and starting an apparel company?

I have to be extremely organized and focused. The major shift was instead of going home to relax after my day at North Carolina Central University, I went home to fill orders. So there have been many late nights spent working in what I call the Genius Lab to keep up with the demand for Black Genius tees.

7. What advice and inspiration can you share with those who are looking to start brands that solely promote Black pride and affirming Black culture?

My advice is to believe in your product and have a purpose for your brand. Anyone can print a shirt but not everyone can genuinely promote a spirit of Black pride. I don’t do this for money, I do it to affirm the Black Genius in all of us.

Check out Black Genius’s line and wear your genius proudly!