Q&A Sessions

Interview: Jennifer Georgeson, founder and CEO of So Just Shop

So Just Shop is a jewellery, accessory and homeware marketplace working directly with women-led artisans from some of the most vulnerable communities around the globe.

Jewellery Focus sat down with the business’ founder and CEO, Jennifer Georgeson, to discuss empowering women, sustainability in business and navigating the difficulties resulting from Covid-19. 

Can you tell us about your background working in international development for nonprofit and for profit organisations?

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I worked in a number of countries in Africa and South Asia, running maternal and child health programs for University College London and the Clinton Foundation.

How did that experience inspire your work with So Just Shop?

It really drove the founding of So Just Shop. What I found is that time and again, in public health interventions, women are the people that access services more because of their children or because they’re pregnant.  Time and again, health intervention seems to start with them. 

So there’s questions about why these children are not vaccinated? Why are they suffering from malnutrition? A lot of the time, that is very much out of the control of women. 

You can ask them: “why is your child not vaccinated even though there’s free vaccinations available in the clinic?” 

They would reply: “I can’t afford to get the bus to the clinic.”

Women are not the ones that have economic power, so they don’t have those economic decision making abilities. When you look at the impact of economic empowerment, you can see it is one of the most essential systems that can work to change the role of many things: including maternal health, early childhood malnutrition, access to education, and reproductive health services. 

These all change when you economically empower women. Money in the hands of men, and this is a global issue, around 30% of it goes back into the community. Whereas, in terms of money being put into the hands of women, about 90% of it does. 

There are many reasons for this: including income, cultural perceptions of where people spend their money, and who traditionally focuses money in that area. What you see is that women are more likely to invest in their children and within the community and healthcare. 

If you can economically empower women, you can reduce early childhood malnutrition. You can increase maternal and child health care. You can increase children’s education.  

So Just Shop came about from my frustration that the current systems we have, in terms of public health intervention, don’t seem to be focused on actually one of the simplest things you can do: economically empowering women.

I was looking to find a way in which you could do it across countries and cultures, but also was sensitive to specific cultural needs.

I was also looking for a solution for women who had very little education. Most women in these communities, even if they haven’t had access to any education, have been taught some traditional skill. 

How did you initially approach staring up So Just Shop? Which sellers/markets did you approach first?

I would go and work overseas for a number of years, and I would invariably get quite stressed and drained. I came back and worked in the startup space in Germany as an operations director.  So I had quite a mixed background, whereby on the one hand I worked in international development, but on the other hand in startup technology. 

So Just Shop, for me, is an amalgamation of those two things. It’s bringing both those experiences into play.  I started So Just Shop when I came back from India, and I went to work for my old boss, and I knew I wanted to do something that specifically economically empowered women, but I wasn’t sure what. 

I’d been living out of the country for quite a few years, before I came back. That was when I discovered notonthehighstreet and that led to me thinking about a marketplace model and how that would be able to support the smaller artisans. 

We initially started selling a few products on notonthehighstreet, just so I got an understanding of how it works and what the customer appetite would be. We went on from there to a small investment raise, while we built our own online shop.

We were tiny when we started. We had six artisan groups from three different countries. Now we have 15 different artisan groups, in 20 different countries across three continents. 

What were the logistical difficulties of setting up such an enterprise?

We continually have those issues to a degree. But technology is a wonderful thing. We use WhatsApp a lot. People that work with the business will communicate via video, so we can actually see products being developed. That saves a lot on physical visits or shipping costs. It’s a really good way of doing things because I think it’s very easy. 

For example, if you’re designing a piece of jewellery, taking a photograph of it doesn’t necessarily do it justice. You need to see how it moves, for example, how a bracelet moves when it’s resting on someone’s wrist. 

So we do an awful lot through technology and that solves an awful lot of problems, especially shipping issues or travel issues. 

We have had a few very specific issues that we’ve come across, and we’ve had to find ways around it. We were doing a pop up in Bloomingdales in New York a couple of years ago, around autumn/winter. We had loads of orders coming in from Kenya, which was going through an election. The results were contested. They had a second election on the back of it and they basically closed down everything. This was just when we were getting products shipped out. It wasn’t safe for people to work. So they basically asked people to stay in their home. This whole wonderful system, where we had everything sorted and in place and ready to go, suddenly overnight we just didn’t have those products. 

We were left scrambling around trying to find other suppliers, but we did and we managed it. I think that’s a testament to our reach, because we work with a number of different suppliers. Even if there are problems on one side, we can find solutions in other ways. 

We were doing a project with the British Council out in Pakistan, while we were working with five different tribal groups from across the country. We sent trainers out to train them. It was all going wonderfully. But then there was trouble in a couple of regions, and the women weren’t able to travel. So we never actually managed to include them in our program. These are the local and regional frustrations that we sometimes have. 

How has the business adapted to the pandemic?

It’s been a bit up and down. Normally, around 25% of our sales come directly from consumers online, and the other 75% are made up of events that we attend or wholesale sales. When the pandemic started in March, I was absolutely beside myself. I just didn’t know how we would manage as a business. Not only that, the harrowing stories that we were hearing from our artisans, particularly in India, Bangladesh and Kenya, were really troubling.

Overnight, they were just losing so many sales, and not just losing sales, but some of those businesses weren’t able to pay them. We have this twofold pressure. We have some wonderfully amazing and very supportive customers. So one of the things we did very quickly was we launched a campaign to support artisans where people could pre- order products that then got shipped to them when lockdown lifted. That was a real boost to the business. 

Secondly, we realised quite rapidly that there will be a big market for face masks, using upcycled materials which were machine washable, so they weren’t disposable. So I found an Eritrean refugee community, nearby where I lived and they started making face masks. Those masks ended up on ITV’s This Morning and in the pages of Vogue. 

What I found is that whilst a lot of businesses have been struggling in the pandemic, others are using it as a way to shift their focus to be a bit more sustainable and longer term in their thinking of who they want to work with.

I think a lot of consumers have moved online. They’re more interested in sustainable and ethical products. The fact that we have those direct stories from artisans, so we can relay exactly who made the products and where they’re made, helps us.

I think that really adds to the story and gives the level of authenticity that people really need. Because of our mission, and because we want to impact on as many people as possible, we’ve always tried to keep our costs as low as we can. We’ve always worked remotely. So in terms of the team, the pandemic’s not had that much impact on how the team works.

In what ways have you expanded your business model in order to  help more female entrepreneurs in vulnerable areas of the world?

We have a number of different sales models. I think it’s quite important that we have multiple sales channels. So we sell direct to consumers, but we’re also selling wholesale into retail. That means a lot of smaller shops, as well as some of the larger ones. We also do bespoke for organisations. So for example, we’ve just done a set of Christmas decorations for the World Wildlife Fund to support their  ‘Save the Elephant ‘campaign. That’s something I’m really proud of, which we’re doing with a group of artisans in Bangladesh.  

I think having those multiple income streams sets us up quite nicely for the future. It means that we’re not just relying on direct to consumer, or we’re not just relying on wholesale. It also stopped the peaks and the troughs that happened in the year. 

In terms of the artisans, it’s a bit of evolution on both sides. We’ve got quite a core offering. We are jewellery, homeware and accessories. We have no plans to go into clothing or anything like that. For me, there’s a very practical reason for that, which is if you’re getting stuff made by artisans, you need to have something that is not going to need that many returns, because that’s just too much of a challenge. 

So that has kept what we’re doing quite core. We only come out with one, maybe two different sets of designs over the year, just because of the nature of how we work, and we’re not fast fashion.  

In terms of jewellery, specifically, we’re sort of working around the edges at the moment. So we launched our wholesale line of jewellery in late 2018. It’s gone, it’s been incredibly well received. But we’re looking more into how we can make it more sustainable and how can we also incorporate some traditional designs into more contemporary fields. 

We’re constantly playing around the edges there, i.e. how can we use more brass and aluminium. At the moment, we have gold and silver pieces but we also have some brass and aluminium. I would like to increase the brass and aluminium a little bit more, just because of the more sustainable side to it. 

We look at a lot of future trends and styles, what people would like. But then we’re also very interested in the materials and the carbon footprint of that, and how we can reuse and recycle where we can.

Are there any inspirational artisans, who have been platformed by So Just Shop, who you think are particularly emblematic of the business’s mission statement? 

There was a lady who joined one of the groups we work for in Kenya. She has an amazing story. She used to work quite menial labor, hourly/day rate as a cleaner. Then there was an explosion near her house, and she ended up losing her hearing. She then lost any income she had. Somebody mentioned this artisan group to her, and said she should go and see if they could train her. They trained her up to make jewellery. 

Now she is one of the leaders in their team that make jewellery. This artisan group is amazing. They work mainly with disabled women and their families. They also have a creche, so they can bring their children to work with them. She now makes much more money than she ever used to. When her sister had kidney failure, she actually was able to afford to send her to India to have the treatment she needed. That was something that she would never have been able to do had her life stayed as it was before.

Jennifer Georgeson is the founder and CEO of So Just Shop: a jewellery, accessory and homeware marketplace working directly with women-led artisans from some of the most vulnerable communities around the globe. Pick the perfect Christmas gift from So Just Shop’s online store.

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