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Handmade Bags by Purse & Clutch Let You Show Style, Support Artisans

Purse & Clutch started when Jen Lewis wanted to help out a friend. The former chemistry teacher has always been passionate about sustainable job opportunities in developing countries. So when her friend Rikki Marler started a business that sold handmade, fair-trade accessories and homewares from India, Jen asked how she could pitch in.

Rikki sent her a box of artisan handbags to sell online. Fast forward a few years, and now Jen, who’s based in Austin, Texas, sells handmade bags and other fair-trade fashion accessories made by artisans all over the world. Purse & Clutch’s artisans use handmade fabrics and recyclable materials and receive a living wage. And here’s more good news, socially conscious shoppers: Everything on the Purse & Clutch website is under $100.

In this conversation (edited for length and clarity), this teacher turned entrepreneur shares how she founded Purse & Clutch, her successes and failures, and her biggest lessons from running her own online business.

Tell us about your background.

I have a degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in leadership and ethics. I spent a year teaching high school chemistry in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and several years in the job-creation nonprofit scene here in Austin working and living among the homeless and formerly homeless. I’ve always been passionate about connecting needs and resources, but really never dreamed that I’d start my own business and that it would be in the fashion industry!

What motivated you to start your own business? Did anyone inspire you along the way?

I started Purse & Clutch just over three years ago when a good friend of mine decided to move to Northern India to launch a new, ethical brand to help create sustainable jobs in a village with limited opportunities for employment.

As my friend described the incredible effect on the families and the community, I knew I wanted to help. She sent me a box of handbags to sell online to help them expand their reach.

From there, Purse & Clutch was born.

The best way you can grow your business is to surround yourself with other driven, like-minded individuals.

What have you learned from running a design business? Any greatest successes or failures?

The best way you can grow your business is to surround yourself with other driven, like-minded individuals. When ideas feel stale and motivation wanes, your network can inject your business with their energy and ideas to keep what you’re doing fresh and always moving forward.

I’ve found that the biggest bottleneck in running a business is the person running it! My biggest failure early on was to try to do everything myself and not ask for help — or hire help! — when needed.

What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business? Is there anything you would’ve done differently?

I never realized how many completely different skill sets you need to run a business and which roles I would like or dislike. One of my favorite projects is to map out seasonal collections across all of our different artisan groups. I love taking into account style, price point, materials and cohesion within such different products!

I don’t know if I would have done anything differently. I made so, so many mistakes along the way, but that’s where I’ve the learned most.

What’s your best piece of business or design advice for designers/entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

Figure out what you’re really good at and you’re really bad at. Find someone that you can partner with or barter with to do things that don’t come naturally to you so that you can dive into the aspects of running a business that energize you.

What’s next for Purse & Clutch?

I’m toying with the idea of launching an ambassador-type program early next year where I connect with women in different cities who believe in ethical shopping and can help me expand my trunk show reach at churches and art fairs.

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