Purse & Clutch Written by Jasmine Abraham
Many women, including us at Dearly Magazine, carry purses and/or clutches as we go about our daily lives. However, we don’t usually know the story behind these accessories that we hold on to so dearly. It is ridiculously easy to become super excited about a good deal, forgetting that cheap deals equal cheap labor. This means that the wonderful people behind the product, who work incredibly hard are not getting paid to cover the actual cost of our gorgeous (yet budget-friendly) merchandise.
This is where the company Purse and Clutch (P+C) comes in. Although they specialize in handbags, Purse and Clutch is not your average handbag company. They are a socially conscious brand that exists to be “an agent of change in the fashion industry while connecting like-minded women around the world.” P+C works to end the cyclic lifestyle of poverty by connecting their clients to the people that are fashioning their bags in both Guatemala and Ethiopia.
Jen Lewis is the founder of Purse and Clutch and we had the incredible opportunity to chat with her and learn more about her work.
What is your story?
I was born in Dallas, TX & grew up just east of Dallas in Tyler, TX. My dad was born & raised in Jos, Nigeria & several of his siblings returned to West Africa as adults so I grew up hearing about civil wars, lack of access to medical care, & stunning countrysides. I knew I wanted to play a role in connecting needs & resources but really had no idea what that would or could look like.
I went to John Brown University in northwest Arkansas to study Chemistry. Upon graduating, I thought I’d continue my education in the field of nutrition to research the act of fortifying indigenous crops with needed missing nutrients in South America. However, I was offered a job teaching Chemistry at a bilingual High School in Honduras and jumped at the chance to live in Latin America. It became obvious very quickly that I wasn’t cut out to teach high school, so after that year, I returned to John Brown University to get my Master’s of Science in Leadership & Ethics. I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Fellowship with a non-profit leadership training organization called The Soderquist Center that gave me incredible insights into the nonprofit world and access to amazing mentors who taught me to dream big. After grad school, I moved to Austin to be back in Texas and closer to family as I pursued a career in nonprofit humanitarian work. In 2012, I married Jonathan and now we live in a house that I love with a backyard that is shaded by huge 100+ year old pecan trees.
What led you to create Purse & Clutch and what's the heart behind the business?
A dear friend from grad school had moved to Northern India to help start an organization that worked with locals to make handbags designed with their Western customers in mind. The stories she would tell me of the transformation that employment could bring captivated me. She told me there was essentially a line out the door of eager potential workers looking for a job, and that they just needed to sell more bags to be able to expand their workforce. I asked her to ship me a box of bags, and as they were being made, I researched everything I could about how to start an online shop.
Fast forward five years later, and we’ve taken on designing & producing our own label that’s being made by single mothers in Guatemala as well as an incredible group of men and women in Ethiopia where other employment opportunities simply don’t exist.
What drew your hearts to give through your business?
The business is really just a means to give employment opportunities. I never thought of myself as a business woman or an entrepreneur, but a connecter. There seems to be such a large divide between the tangible needs of men and women in low income countries and the insular lives of those of us who have been blessed and want to be generous and give. I get to be that small bridge.
How do you feel that Purse & Clutch has impacted the women in your community and the world?
I believe that by doing product production in a different, human-centric way we are offering opportunities to change the lives of each and every individual who is part of the process. Cata, one of our Guatemalan seamstresses said “That’s what our community needs. It doesn’t help for someone to bring me food because I know it will be gone tomorrow. What I need and what my community needs is the opportunity to work.”
Another of our Guatemalan seamstress, Silvia, said, “This is the first time I was able to buy my son all of his school supplies. He was so proud on the first day of school. I’ll never forget that smile in his face, knowing that I was able to provide for him.”
I also really believe that we are changing the lives of our customers as well. It is empowering to discover that what you chose to buy or not buy has a profound impact on the product’s makers. By doing something as simple as choosing to purchase a handbag that was ethically made instead of the easier, faster, cheaper alternative made in abysmal working conditions, you are acknowledging your role in the production process.
Another area of impact is with the Apprenticeship program I offer twice a year for 2 – 3 individuals to learn the ins and outs of a social business. One of the side benefits that often happens is that someone who was at the beginning only/simply interested in the idea of fair trade becomes incredibly passionate about the empowerment that can happen because of our purchases, and will overhaul their buying habits. As we do a deep dive into the complex and gray areas of fair trade, the ideas begin to really sink in. They are then equipped to bring the conversation to their friends and families to help increase awareness.
Do you feel that it’s important for women to know that they can have a voice and a purpose?
Absolutely. The messages women hear are subtle ranging from what examples and case studies are highlighted in business schools, to maternity leave policies that often force women to choose between career and family.
What would be your advice to women who are looking to start a business?
Learn the difference between being busy & being productive.
Test every assumption.
Surround yourself with a stellar team / support group.
Make a list of what needs to be done and just do the next thing. Every day.
How would you encourage women to live a meaningful, impactful life?
Find out what makes you feel energized and incorporate that everywhere you can. Taking a less traveled path to living an impactful life is hard and can be lonely and discouraging. Know yourself well enough to be able to infuse life back into your day. For me, I’m learning that I like to make things beautiful – that encourages me to keep going, and it’s when new ideas start to flow. When I’m having a rough day, doing a small project like arranging some branches from the backyard on my desk or even just organizing a drawer can get me back on track. Find out what that is for you and incorporate that into your day as often as needed.
Looking back now what is one thing you learned about taking a chance and growing a business.
Starting a business is a humbling experience. From setting up taxes (government websites – agh!) to playing the role of the stylist, photographer, editor for the very first time – then putting yourself out there even as you are figuring out what the heck you’re doing. It’s incredibly vulnerable. Then having friends and family support you by purchasing again and again from the shop because they believe in what you’re doing puts you in a place of dependence. It’s really a beautiful part of a community that I didn’t expect.
Written by Jasmine Abraham
Photography by Water and Grace