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.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.