Meet Jen Lewis, Founder Of Purse & Clutch
Jen Lewis has spent many years traveling the world and thoughtfully analyzing the most effective ways to alleviate poverty. From her days as a well-intentioned (albeit misguided) volunteer, to masters student and social entrepreneur, Jen is constantly critiquing how she can most sustainably support low-income communities to improve their qualities of life. She shared with us her motivation for founding Purse & Clutch, what she’s learned from her international travels, and the impact that she’s having on the lives of artisans in Ethiopia and Guatemala.
You’ve traveled the world and witnessed the devastating impact of generational poverty. Tell us about your evolution from traveler to entrepreneur. When did you decide that building a business was your most effective form of action?
I consider myself an accidental entrepreneur—for me, it’s been about saying yes to opportunities to help as I work to support that which I am most passionate about: connecting resources and needs. As I spent more and more time in different cultures, I began to see the difference between a hand out and long-term sustainable development.
On my first trip to a new country as a freshman in high school, I spent a week just outside of Monterrey, Mexico, with my church youth group. With the very best of intentions, we stapled paper plates together and filled them with dried beans to make tambourines the kids. Little did we know that our toy represented meals that the children didn’t always have on the table. We were accidentally very offensive and most likely did more harm than good. From then on, I began to research cultures before I visited and spoke with local leaders to collaborate on the projects that would bring about real change.
After graduating from college, I taught High School Chemistry at a bilingual school in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. It was a year of really trying to understand the root causes of generational poverty and observing the different solutions and their effectiveness.
A year after I graduated with my Master’s in Leadership & Ethics—a business degree that focused on the relational aspects of business—a dear friend of mine moved to India to help with an artisan group making handbags among other things. That’s when it really clicked for me—taking a traditional, indigenous art form, a skill set people already had and connecting them with a market in the States to provide long-term, sustainable employment. I sent them a $500 check and asked them to send me some handbags!
This became Purse & Clutch the boutique, which has recently transformed into Purse & Clutch the brand where we directly employ artisans Guatemala and Ethiopia to make our own designs.
You are clearly passionate about developing sustainable solutions to poverty. Tell us about the impact that economic opportunity has in low-income communities. What value do your partnerships offer artisans?
I think our team member, Lindsey Owens, who lives in Guatemala and sees the impact we’re having on a daily basis can best answer this!
In Guatemala, the opportunities for women to work are very limited. The jobs that do exist consist of 12-hour workdays for minimal pay. These working conditions don't allow women to take care of their children or their homes. The opportunity to work for a socially responsible company like Purse & Clutch is life-changing to these women. Not only are they able to provide financially for their children, but also be able to be at home more and participate in the lives of their children.
One of the ladies was never able to go to school and can't read or write. Through working, she has gained confidence in herself and her abilities and is now going to classes in order to learn to read. Another woman, opened up a bank account (which is basically unheard of) in order to save for her children's future.
We’d love to learn more about the logistics of production. Working with teams in Guatemala and Ethiopia, how do you manage the design and production process? How do you choose which products to bring to market?
It is a very international collaboration within our business. With every new product, I first send an idea over to Dinusha Wijesinghe and the Insights Research Group to do a competitive analysis and to look into what customers are really looking for in that item. That research is compiled and heavily influences the final design.
The process differs depending on the product type. If it’s a leather product, I sketch out the design based on their research as well as my own and send it to our Ethiopia team. They whip up a sample and ship it to me to tweak. Once the design is finalized, it goes into our regular product line. If it’s a cotton product, I collaborate on the design with designer Angela Story. We sketch out ideas and balance design with function based on the Insights Research Group’s input. These sketches go to our Director of Guatemalan Production, Melissa Gresham. She will then make a pattern and sew a sample herself so she can know how best to teach the Guatemalan seamstresses the new product.
With each season (currently two a year: Fall and Spring), we’re also working with our team members to develop new colors through botanical dyes as well as unique fabric weaves from traditional patterns. Our team managers both in Ethiopia and in Guatemala spend time getting to know each and every person in all steps of production. These dynamics translate to a beautiful thoughtfulness that really does show up in the final product.
Purse & Clutch is quickly growing into more than just fashion accessories, but despite this diversity you’ve maintained a consistent brand standard. Your product line is soft and feminine but still built on raw leathers and earthy palettes. Each piece has a beautiful attention to detail, thoughtful use of color, and a very organic feel. How would you describe the design aesthetic and what inspires it?
I would describe the Purse & Clutch design aesthetic as classic, clean lines, simple yet unexpected color combinations, with a splash of quirky to keep our customers on their toes. It’s important to us that a handbag or accessory not only lasts because it’s high quality, but also because it’s a timeless design.
We’re inspired by the local cultures we partner with—both Ethiopia and Guatemala are wonderfully relational cultures, full of vibrant colors and slow production techniques.