Redefining Empowerment with Purse & Clutch

Discussing Women's Rights, Ending Extreme Global Poverty, and Economic Empowerment with the founder of an Austin Conscious Fashion Brand.

We sat down with the founder of Purse & Clutch, a socially conscious fashion handbag brand working to break the cycle of poverty by connecting you to weavers & seamstresses in Guatemala + leather workers in Ethiopia, to learn about what empowerment means to her.  Purse & Clutch has a mission is to help support sustainable, long-term economic empowerment for men & women with limited opportunities. Not only is Purse & Clutch an amazing organization working to empower communities in extreme global poverty, but their founder, Jen, has been an incredible inspiration for the Collective Humanity team and a pillar of strength and guidance in helping us get this effort off the ground. We are all about the collaboration of community and celebrating supportive partnerships, so we wanted to honor this fabulous woman and share some of her magic with you all. Check out our Q&A with Jen and learn more about her story below.

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Q: Please describe a typical day working at Purse & Clutch.

A: My alarm goes off at 7:00am & I make coffee & scramble 2 eggs for breakfast. I put on a podcast (currently loving Molly Stillman’s Business with Purpose or a new NPR one called Rough Translation) while I get ready for the day. I love a bit of a meandering morning – lingering over coffee & getting in a creative mindset.

Around 8:00am I pull up my calendar & section of time to get the things done that I’ve prioritized as most important & start crossing things off the list. Sometimes it’s balancing the budget, sometimes it’s designing a new line, sometimes it’s taking product photos – each day is so different! I work until noon where I eat leftovers & try to not think about P&C while I eat. For me that means either reading a business book for my Mastermind group or watching 30 Rock or the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I schedule most of my meetings for the afternoon so I’ve been able to get the most important things crossed off my to-do list.

Q: Who were your role models and/or mentors growing up?

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A: In grad school, I had a Fellowship with a Non-Profit Leadership & Ethics Organization called the Soderquist Center & had the privilege of working closely with one of the Directors, Wendy Soderquist Togami for both years of my program. Attending her talks to women in business & being able to observe how she navigated a male dominated business management world was invaluable. I find myself continually relying on her words of wisdom throughout challenges I face. One thing that she would say that has really stuck with me & made a big difference in how I operate is that everything in life falls into three categories: things you can change, things you can influence, & things you can do nothing about. Don’t spend any emotional energy on things you can do nothing about.

Q: How did you become interested in conscious fashion?

I didn’t start Purse & Clutch because I was passionate about fashion, or even ethical fashion! I was passionate about community development in developing economies & learned about why ethical fashion is important along the way through starting Purse & Clutch. A friend of mine from grad school moved to India after we graduated to work with a block printing artisan group & the stories she would tell me about the impact that long term employment was having on the workers & their families astounded me. I knew I wanted to find a way to support the endeavor. I asked how I could help and she said she would send me a box of handbags for me to sell online since they didn’t have anyone selling their artisan made goods online at the time. I figured that if it didn’t go well, my $500 investment was going towards a good cause.

I snagged a website and a name and was up and running in a few months when the first shipment arrived. And then I proceeded to frantically read every article I could find online on how to run an e-commerce business! I quickly realized that there was a niche for the product – that people did want to shop ethically and didn’t want to sacrifice their personal sense of style to do so.  At the time, the term “fair trade fashion” didn’t really exist! There was either Fair Trade or Fashion. We expanded to working with several other Fair Trade brands with existing products, curating collections with a specific fashion aesthetic in mind.  Last April we made a big shift & started having our own designs made by a group of leatherworkers in Ethiopia & last summer, we took over the operations of a Guatemalan textile co-op starting from the raw cotton that is hand spun, botanically hand dyed, hand woven to product our designs. Our current Fall Collection is our second line.  In seeing the effect of a sustainable, living wage jobs for the artisans on our teams, I began to realize that if I felt connected to the artisans when I was making ethical purchases, I also was connected to those who made everything I purchases.

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Q: What drives you to do what you do? What motivates your success?

A: Growing up in the United States has given me so many opportunities. I don’t take those for granted & recognize that I could have just as easily been one of the women we work with in Guatemala without available employment. I believe that because of the blessings I’ve been afforded it’s my obligation to offer what I can to those without these opportunities.

Q: What is your dream for Purse & Clutch?

A: That everyone in Guatemala + Ethiopia (the countries we’re currently invested in) who is looking for a job has access to a fair wage one with a positive work environment at Purse & Clutch.

Q: What does the term "empowerment" mean to you?

A: I think that empowerment is about giving opportunities with the end goal of self-reliance.

Q: What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your job?

A: Rewarding: watching the artisans move towards self-sufficiency for themselves & their families.

Challenging: being face to face to generational extreme global poverty & feeling like I can only do so much to make a small dent in a larger systematic problem. That & the self-induced pressure to keep growing so we can offer more work to more men & women in developing countries with limited opportunities.  

Q: Do you have a favorite book or documentary on ethical fashion that you recommend for our readers?

A: I really liked the documentary Poverty Inc. (it’s available on Netflix). For a bit of a heavier read about what sustainable development could really look like, I’d recommend diving into Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.

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