After noticing a void in women's work-wear fashion, 28 year-old Joanna Lau took matters into her own hands. The designer and mind behind JEMMA handbags is taking a stance for the modern workingwomen. Designed to be highly function, glamorous, and affordable, celebrities like Katherine Shwarzenegger and Maria Shriver are strutting the streets with JEMMA handbags on their arms. In this Q&A, Lau talks with SWAAY about how she developed an idea into a brand.
What was your “ah ha" moment for creating JEMMA?
When I was working in finance, I was looking for a workbag that I could carry to work everyday. I wanted a bag that was presentable, and at the same time, was able to hold everything I needed to carry for work; whether it was a laptop, Ipad, multiple documents or a basic thing like a pen. I looked around, and all the workbags I saw were pretty on the outside, but the inside was just an empty bag with only one zip. For me, I would go to conferences and meetings with a lot of men, and being in a very male dominant industry, I noticed that all of these guys had beautiful leather briefcases. These briefcases had compartments for all the various things they needed to carry with them, and as a woman, going out there and looking for these things was impossible. I either felt like I had to get a men's bag or I had to compromise and carry a women's bag with no functionality. So, while looking around, I couldn't find anything that had the functionality aspect while looking like a designer bag on the outside. I asked my friends and coworkers if they could find something similar to men's briefcase, but a more feminine version of it, but no one really had an answer for me. So, that is when I thought that maybe I should start something within handbags to cater to that need. I decided on handbags because it was something that I always liked and felt was important to women. Handbags really represent who a women is and what she stands for, almost more so than clothes. With clothing, people can change their style from day to day. But with a handbag, it really represents the women in the moment that you see her, and it is a statement of who she is.
What makes JEMMA handbags different from other handbags like Coach?
We cater to a working women's needs, or a more general sense, the modern woman today. She goes around, she's busy, and she always has things to carry. Especially today with all the electronic gadgets, like Ipads, IPhones, Macbooks, and Apple Watches, you are required to carry around multiple chargers and electronics. Women will sometimes want to carry a water bottle too, and a lot of designer purses don't have compartments for that.I think that a lot of designer bags only focus on the exterior and how the design looks, whereas we want to focus on the exterior, create classic designs that people love, but at the same time, we want to focus on the interior and create necessary pockets that the modern day woman is looking for in a handbag. So, our bags are not going to be just a big, black hole.
The modern woman today is smart and savvy, and they don't just want a good looking bag, they want a good looking bag that has the quality they are looking for and be at the right price. So, it is all of these little things that we really try to focus on. It is not just coming out with a bag that looks good, it's coming out with a bag that is functional, at the right price point, and is designer looking.
What inspired the other products you have made, like the gym bag?
When we started, we initially wanted to start with two bags, so the workbag and the life bag. The workbag has been very successful for us because people really like our classic designs that have the functionality and quality they are looking for. On that basis, we built on that momentum and created the wallet crossbody and gym bag, with the knowledge that the modern woman has various needs as well. Women today are very active, so after work they might go travel or go to the gym and workout. So, being that active and busy, they want a bag that is presentable, affordable, and can cater to their active and healthy lifestyle. The gym bag has a hidden compartment to put your shoes in for women who like to switch out their work shoes for their gym shoes. There is also a compartment for women who love to carry a water bottle everyday. The gym bag also comes with a cosmetic purse and a laundry bag as well, so it really caters for women who go to the gym and travel a lot. So, the gym bag is really an extension of the brand, and that's what we want to keep doing.
What was the process of transforming your idea into the product?
When I had the idea, I did some research to get an idea about the type of competitors that were out there. I personally went down to factories in Asia to try and get a sense of how our product would be manufactured. I spoke to manufacturers, tried different prototypes and sample, and got a sense of whom else to work with.
Handbags really represent who a woman is and what she stands for, almost more so than clothes.
I went to Europe as well to get material because I wanted to work with Italian leather. So, it was a lot of flying around and doing research on my own. In terms of designing, I sketched everything out myself and went back to the manufacturer and told them how I wanted everything to be made. For me, the design aspect was a little easier just because I had a background in it, but the manufacturing side was really from the ground up and figuring it out as I go. I would say it took about a year to develop the product. I had the idea in mind while still in work, but I went full time on it six months after that. So, it essentially took me about a year to kind to from the idea into an actual product that could be sold.
How do you advertise for JEMMA?
We are focused on being very consumer based. We do a lot of social media and don't really spend a lot of money on mainstream advertising because we like to do it more organically. Social media allows us to do that because we not only reach out to new customers, but we also hear their feedback and thoughts about our products. They talk about it, post about it, and comment about it on Facebook and Instagram. With mainstream advertising it's a little harder because you don't know if people see it or what they think of it, so we like social media advertising more.
What is your 5-year plan for JEMMA?
In five years we really want to build JEMMA into a brand that caters to every dimension and need of a workingwomen. Whether it's handbags or any other product category, we are always looking into expanding the brand based on the needs of a modern woman. Also, there are so many needs and things to work with that fashion brands have not looked into in-depth yet, so that is what we are really focusing on.
We're here. We're queer. Now that it's pride month, it feels like every store and corporation is flooding us with their best rainbow merchandise, capitalizing on a $917 billion dollar consumer market.
The rainbow flags are out. The mannequins are sporting pride tees. And corporate newsletters are full of interviews showcasing all their queer employees ("Look, we have a gay person here! We GET you!").
To me, this is blatant evidence that the future is queer.
These corporations follow the money, and with 20% of millennials and 31% of Gen Z openly identifying as queer, these businesses have to capitalize on the growing purchasing power of LGBTQIA+ consumers. With a recorded market size of $917 billion dollars in 2016, and a growing interest in socially conscious brands among young consumers, this is clearly a market opportunity that corporations cannot afford to ignore.
However, I'm always surprised by how little attention investors and the entrepreneurial community devotes to this undeniable trend, despite being constantly inundated with overwhelming statistics proving the importance of diversity and inclusion in entrepreneurship. Only 2.2% of venture capital funding went to women in 2018, less than .1% of funding has been allocated to black women since 2009, and only about 1% of venture-backed companies have a black founder or Latinx founder. These statistics are over-quoted but underacted upon.
This gender and diversity inequality significantly hinders economic growth, since 85% of all consumer purchases are controlled by women, and startups with higher ethnic diversity tend to produce financial returns above their industry norm.
The data is clearly leading to one direction: investing in women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, veterans, immigrants, and other minority groups in entrepreneurship leads to higher revenue and better business results.
As data-driven and forward-thinking as this industry claims to be, we haven't caught up to the queer founders, particularly queer women, who are rethinking the future. These founders understand and speak to a generation of increasing numbers of LGBTQIA+ people whose market share will only continue to grow exponentially. VCs and investors are already behind the curve.
SoGal Foundation, a non-profit on a mission to close the diversity gap in entrepreneurship, is helping bridge this divide between queer women founders and investors with the launch of applications for the second annual Global Pitch Competition for diverse entrepreneurs. Hosted in 25+ cities across five continents, and culminating in a final global pitch competition and 3-day immersive educational bootcamp in Silicon Valley, this is the first and only globally-focused pitch opportunity for diverse entrepreneurs.
Startups that are pre-Series A (raised less than $3M) with at least one woman or diverse founder, apply here to pitch! The top teams selected from each regional round will join SoGal's final global pitch competition and bootcamp in Silicon Valley for guaranteed face time with dozens of top Silicon Valley investors, curated educational programming, unparalleled 1:1 mentorship, press exposure, and a chance to win investment capital.
Women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ founders: what's the best way to kick off pride? Apply to pitch!
Regional pitch rounds will be held August-November 2019; final pitch competition in Silicon Valley in February 2020. Details and additional cities to be announced.
SoGal Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and the largest global platform for diverse founders and funders in 40+ chapters across 5 continents; our mission is to close the diversity gap in entrepreneurship. SoGal Foundation's global startup competition represents the first and largest opportunity for women and diverse entrepreneurs and investors to connect worldwide. Join the SoGal community & follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook.