A Gift for Design

Madia Willis ’04 celebrates the joy of Black culture.

Madia Willis Headshot
Ask designer and entrepreneur Madia Willis ’04 to talk about her work and it doesn’t take long before the pattern emerges — literally. From the vibrant Ghanaian prints that inspired her first fashion line, to the joyful Black characters that adorn the gift wrap sold by her fast-growing company, Black Paper Party, Willis has made a career out of being visually bold.

“It never ever gets old,” she says. “It makes me so happy to help create something beautiful that makes people smile.”

Willis has been in product design and development for nearly 20 years, with some of the biggest names in business. At Target, she was part of the leadership group that created the store’s now-blockbuster Black History Month collection; at Walmart, her team launched a $1 billion children’s brand. Along the way her roles also expanded into sourcing and licensing, which “opened up a whole new level of knowledge” (think supply chain, cost negotiation and importing).

Today, the Philadelphia-based Willis is putting all of her experience to use as the CEO of Black Paper Party. Launched in 2020 with partners J’Aaron “Jae” Merchant and Jasmine Hudson, the company sells wrapping paper, ornaments, and other seasonal and special-occasion products. Significantly, by focusing on imagery that celebrates Black culture and reflects the African diaspora, Black Paper Party serves a community that is largely underrepresented during the holidays.

BPP Headshot

Willis, center, with J’Aaron “Jae” Merchant (left) and Jasmine Hudson.

For Willis, who has long prioritized issues of diversity and inclusion in her professional life, Black Paper Party has been an ideal way to combine creativity with mission. She recalls an early brainstorm session among the three women, then just friends playing around with ideas for merging their skill sets: Hudson was a retail buyer with a “keen financial mind,” Merchant an illustrator who specialized in “authentic and rich portrayals” of Black characters for books and animation. Add Willis’ expertise with turning individual images into patterns that pop, and the result was, as they say, a wrap.

The holiday focus was also meaningful for them on a deeper level. “Christmas is a huge tradition in our homes,” Willis says, “and we talked about how it was hard to find items with Black Santas or Black elves — things that speak to the Black family experience.” Their subsequent research was promising: “African Americans actually spend 15 percent more than other demographics during the holidays, and they research holiday purchases earlier than other demographics. But there was a real dearth of visual representation in the market.”

Willis didn’t always think she was destined for design. As a College student, she planned to become a lawyer before studying abroad in Ghana catalyzed a new passion. “My family is Liberian, but it was my first time living in living in West Africa,” she says. “I fell in love with the textiles — the textures, the colors, the patterns, the prints.”

She came home with a suitcase full of clothing she’d had specially made by local tailors and artisans, and later used them to participate in a Black Student Association fashion show. “I got such a great response, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this could be a business idea.’” After deferring NYU Law, she moved back to Ghana to develop a 100-piece clothing line. “My family was like, ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!’” she says with a laugh. Willis eventually pursued design studies at London’s Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design, as well as at Drexel University and Philadelphia University.

In the two and half years since its inception as an e-commerce site run out of Merchant and Hudson’s garage, Black Paper Party has scaled fast; it now sells products through both of Willis’ former employers, Target and Walmart, along with Macy’s, Marshall’s, Home Goods and others. Earlier this year, the company received a boost through Macy’s’ prestigious retail accelerator program, which for the first time included a Shark Tank-like pitch competition. Twenty-five companies competed for the first-place prize of a $100,000 business grant; Black Paper Party took the honors.

“Honestly, it was life-saving,” Willis says. “I quit my job in September 2021 to run the business full time, and we didn’t have any money — we’ve been bootstrapping, using personal savings, applying for grants like there’s no tomorrow. We were so grateful for that experience.”

As for the future, Willis describes their dream without missing a beat: “We want people to be able to buy Black Paper Party at multiple retailers for every occasion and season. To be a household name like Hallmark.”