Jessielyn Palumbo, 25,
Fashion Photographer, Former Miss New Jersey USA
Jessielyn Palumbo is not your average pageant queen. Outspoken and talented, Palumbo is speaking out against her haters with a bold campaign called #ThisIsBeauty, which shows the Miss New Jersey 2016 alongside her pageant sisters wearing nothing but their confidence. “We decided to combat the bullies by empowering ourselves in the most vulnerable way possible; unedited, nude with minimal makeup,” says Palumbo, who shot every photo in her powerful series. “That is the true meaning of pageantry; empowering women.”
1. What made you choose this career path? What has been your greatest achievement?
Ever since I was 3 drawing in my grandparents home I always had an innate passion for the arts. I actually entered college as a Fine Arts major focusing on traditional drawing and painting. It wasn’t until sophomore year that I was exposed to photography. To date, some of my greatest accomplishments would be creating my own photography business at 22 years old, along with winning Miss New Jersey USA 2016 after 7 years of competing and never giving up.
2. What’s the biggest criticism/stereotype/judgement you’ve faced in your career?
There have been times where I was advised to dress “more conservative” for job interviews because I looked “too attractive” to be taken seriously.
As a female artist engulfed in the world of pageantry, I was not only combating the challenges of my appearance but also the stigma of pageants.
3. What was the hardest part of overcoming this negativity? Do you have an anecdote you can share?
The pageant stereotype is something that has definitely challenged my career. Many believe that competing in pageants is not in line with feminism, and some colleagues during college labelled me as “pageant girl” - the inference being I had nothing more to offer than a pretty face.
"To date, some of my greatest accomplishments would be creating my own photography business at 22 years old, along with winning Miss New Jersey USA 2016 after 7 years of competing."
When I finally won Miss NJ USA, I was hit with another wave of criticisms unlike what I faced in college. This time it was based upon the disagreement of my beauty. I was just one amongst many that almost felt defeated by cyberbullies. That’s when I created #ThisISBeauty campaign. Myself, along with my fellow courageous Miss USA sisters, decided to combat the bullies by empowering ourselves in the most vulnerable way possible; unedited, nude with minimal makeup. We wanted to show that there’s no definition of beauty, and that we are all beautiful in our own way. Every curve, cellulite, scar.
"As judgmental as some may be, I never resorted to hatred. If you succumb to the negativity, you will feel insecure and unmotivated."
4. How did you #SWAAYthenarrative? What was the reaction by those who told you you “couldn’t” do it?
I changed people’s perspective of pageantry through both my campaign, and by my actions. As judgmental as some may be, I never resorted to hatred. If you succumb to the negativity, you will feel insecure and unmotivated. By the end of the year in college, my colleagues came up to me and said “You’re nothing like what I thought a pageant girl would be, you’re cool and down to earth”. My #ThisISBeauty campaign also SWAAYs the perceptions of pageants and overall concept of beauty. I have had mothers messaging me thanking me for the project, allowing their daughter to feel comfortable in her skin and to have women to relate to. We have to be the change we want to see.
5. What’s your number one piece of advice to women discouraged by preconceived notions and society’s limitations?
No matter who you are, if you work hard enough, you can do it!. The worst thing one can possibly do is to give up, and succumb to the negativity of others. Believe in yourself, the only opinion that matters in the end is your own.
Sweaty Palms & Weak Responses
Early spring 2018, I walked into the building of a startup accelerator program I had been accepted into. Armed with only confidence and a genius idea, I was eager to start level one. I had no idea of what to expect, but I knew I needed help. Somehow with life's journey of twists and turns, this former successful event planner was now about to blindly walk into the tech industry and tackle on a problem that too many women entrepreneurs had faced.
I sat directly across from the program founders, smiling ear to ear as I explained the then concept for HerHeadquarters. Underneath the table, I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants, the anxiousness and excitement was getting the best of me. I rambled on and on about the future collaborating app for women entrepreneurs and all the features it would have. They finally stopped me, asking the one question I had never been asked before, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
Taken back by the question, I responded, "I just know". The question was powerful, but my response was weak. While passionate and eager, I was unprepared and naively ready to commit to building a platform when I had no idea if anyone wanted it. They assigned me with the task of validating the need for the platform first. The months to follow were eye-opening and frustrating, but planted seeds for the knowledge that would later build the foundation for HerHeadquarters. I spent months researching and validating through hundreds of surveys, interviews, and focus groups.
I was dedicated to knowing and understanding the needs and challenges of my audience. I knew early on that having a national collaborating app for women entrepreneurs would mean that I'd need to get feedback from women all across the country. I repeatedly put myself on the line by reaching out to strangers, asking them to speak with me. While many took the time to complete a survey and participate in a phone interview, there were some who ignored me, some asked what was in it for them, and a few suggested that I was wasting my time in general. They didn't need another "just for women" platform just because it was trending.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve. I became irritated. Just because HerHeadquarters didn't resonate with them, doesn't mean that another woman wouldn't find value in the platform and love it. I felt frustrated that the very women I was trying to support were the ones telling me to quit. I struggled with not taking things personally.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve.
The Validation, The Neglect, The Data, and The Irony
The more women I talked to, the more the need for my product was validated. The majority of women entrepreneurs in the industries I was targeting did collaborate. An even higher number of women experienced several obstacles in securing those collaborations and yes, they wanted easier access to high quality brand partnerships.
I didn't just want to launch an app. I wanted to change the image of women who collaborated and adjust the narrative of these women. I was excited to introduce a new technology product that would change the way women secured valuable, rewarding products. I couldn't believe that despite that rising number of women-owned businesses launching, there was no tool catered to them allowing them to grow their business even faster. This demographic had been neglected for too long.
I hadn't just validated the need for the future platform, but I gained valuable data that could be used as leverage. Ironically, armed with confidence, a genius idea, and data to support the need for the platform, I felt stuck. The next steps were to begin designing a prototype, I lacked the skillsets to do it myself and the funding to hire someone else to do it.
I Desperately Need You and Your services, but I'm Broke
I found myself having to put myself out there again, allowing myself to be vulnerable and ask for help. I eventually stumbled across Bianca, a talented UX/UI designer. After coming across her profile online and reaching out, we agreed to meet for a happy hour. The question I had been asked months prior by the founders of my accelerator program came up again, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
It was like déjà vu, the sweaty palms under the table reemerged and the ear to ear smile as I talked about HerHeadquarters, only this time, I had data. I proudly showed Bianca my research: the list of women from across the country I talked to that supported that not only was this platform solving a problem they had, but it's a product that they'd use and pay for.
I remember my confidence dropping as my transparency came into the conversation. How do you tell someone "I desperately need you and your services, but I'm broke?". I told her that I was stuck, that I needed to move forward with design, but that I didn't have the money to make it happen. Bianca respected my honesty, loved the vision of HerHeadquarters, but mostly importantly the data sold her. She believed in me, she believed in the product, and knew that it would attract investors.
From Paper to Digital
We reached a payment agreed where Bianca would be paid in full once HerHeadquarters received its first investment deal. The next few months were an all-time high for me. Seeing an idea that once floated around in my head make its way to paper, then transform into a digital prototype is was one of the highlights of this journey. Shortly after, we began user testing, making further adjustments based off of feedback.
The further along HerHeadquarters became, the more traction we made. Women entrepreneurs across the U.S. were signing up for early access to the app, we were catching investor's attention, and securing brand partnerships all before we had a launched product. The closer we got to launching, the scarier it was. People who only had a surface value introduction to HerHeadquarters put us in the same category of other platforms or brands catering to women, even if we were completely unrelated, they just heard "for women". I felt consistent pressure, most of which was self-applied, but I still felt it.
I became obsessed with all things HerHeadquarters. My biggest fear was launching and disappointing my users. With a national target audience, a nonexistent marketing budget, and many misconceptions regarding collaborating, I didn't know how to introduce this new brand in a way that distinctly made it clear who were targeting and who we were different from.
I second guessed myself all the time.
A 'Submit' button has never in life been more intimidating. In May 2019, HerHeadquarters was submitted to the Apple and Google play stores and released to women entrepreneurs in select U.S. cities. We've consistently grown our user base and seen amazing collaborations take place. I've grow and learned valuable lessons about myself personally and as a leader. This experience has taught me to trust my journey, trust my hard work, and always let honesty and integrity lead me. I had to give myself permission to make mistakes and not beat myself up about it.
I learned that a hundred "no's" is better than one "yes" from an unfit partner. The most valuable thing that I've learned is keeping my users first. Their feedback, their challenges, and suggestions are valuable and set the pace for the future of HerHeadquarters, as a product and a company. I consider it an honor to serve and cater to one of the most neglected markets in the industry.