Raising a quarter of a million people out of poverty, is a mammoth undertaking by any means; but it’s a goal that Jennifer Georgeson has her mind firmly fixed on.
With a line of work that has taken her everywhere from Zambia in the height of the HIV epidemic; face to face with the Taliban in the North West Province Frontier in Pakistan; to the slums of Mumbai working on the prevention of early childhood malnutrition; her experiences working with women and children in some of the most vulnerable communities on Earth inspired her to launch what has become, So Just Shop – an accessories, homeware and gifting marketplace that works directly with women-led artisans from some of the poorest communities in the world.
Driven by a determination to find a global and scalable way to economically empower women, “because if you do that, everything else falls into place”, I sat down with Jennifer eight weeks back, to talk through the admirable adventure she has been on to get to this point.
I don’t tend to spend as long as we did discussing life before launching a business in these interviews but you’ll soon see why I made an exception for Jen…
She can. She did. I can’t place your accent!
Jennifer Georgeson. I get that a lot! Even though it’s hard to tell, I’m from a family of Scousers! Because of my Dad’s job, before the age of eleven I’d lived in Manchester, Kent, Devon, Scotland and then down to East Sussex so I have quite an unspecific accent! I moved to London at twenty-two though and I’ve been here and overseas since.
SC.SD. That explains it then! Right, shall we start with what you were doing before you launched So Just Shop…
With a masters in Immunology and Infectious Diseases from The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, after graduating aged 24, Jennifer got a job at The Institute of Child Health; the academic wing of Great Ormond Street Hospital.
JG. I set up a programme that looked at the prevention of mother to child transmission in breastfeeding and while I was there, it was suggested that I did a PhD. As a staff member its half price and if you do it part time, it’s half price again so it makes it affordable! I tend to overdo things (!) so I ended up running this big intervention looking at mother to child transmission whilst doing a PhD in Zambia at the same time…
It was an incredibly difficult time because it was at the height of the HIV epidemic so in the community I was in, 35% of the population were affected by HIV; country wide it was about 20% and there was very little affordable medication. In the UK at the time, with no treatment, from diagnosis to death was about 10 years but because of malnutrition and tropical disease over there, it was about 2 years in Zambia. It was heart wrenching because it’s such a wonderful country with such fascinating people but it was being decimated.
On returning to the UK, Jennifer began working in the corporate sector but quickly realised that she “wanted to do something worthwhile”. Having witnessed the Clinton Foundation’s work in Zambia, applying to work at the foundation was an obvious choice.
JG. When I was in Zambia it cost about £100 per month to treat someone with HIV so it was totally unaffordable. When Bill Clinton left office, Nelson Mandela asked if he could do something to help with the HIV epidemic. He (Clinton) basically asked all of the countries in the world that were suffering from HIV, “if you had to treat everyone with HIV, how many people would that be?” and then went to the drug companies and said, “I want to bulk buy for this many millions of people, what price can you give me?” He drove the price of medication down from £100 per month per person to $100 per year so now in most countries there’s treatment available! I wanted to work for the foundation on that basis alone.
Joining the Clinton Foundation as a Programme Director in India in 2008, for three years Jennifer was responsible for establishing a public/private sector partnership, between The Indian Ministry of Health, Yale School of Nursing and the Clinton Foundation. Given that doctors are often reluctant to work in rural settings but in most countries, the incentive funds to send them there are scarce, Jennifer’s role focused on establishing nurse practitioner training which allowed nurses to prescribe medication (in this case for HIV, birth control and malaria) in rural areas.
JG. Because I was quite emotionally exhausted after Zambia though, between Zambia and India, I started working for a tech start-up based in the UK and I ended up managing their floatation on the London Stock Exchange. They gave me a bonus for that which I then used with two other colleagues to set up a small not-for-profit charity. Because we all worked in development, we were incredibly frustrated that large scale NGOs will sweep in wherever there’s a big health emergency and all the money that goes to the local charities disappears. We wanted to provide ground money for the local organisations, where we go in and say, “let’s help you do some really accurate field research, you can then take the results of that and apply for bigger money to compete with the big guys.”
Beginning in 2005, Jennifer’s charity worked with two organisations. The first was based in the North West Province Frontier in Pakistan in which Jennifer and her colleagues worked with tribal leaders to formally train the community’s traditional birthing tenants in midwifery.
JG. The work the women did there takes your breath away and we had a programme running for about eighteen months but then one day, the Taliban turned up with machine guns and said “get out”. I mean we were just sitting in the background providing guidance on how to do these studies and providing money but there are women on the ground day in, day out risking their lives to educate these women and girl children.
After leaving Pakistan, the charity’s efforts were focused on the prevention of early childhood malnutrition in the slums of Mumbai; a project that ultimately inspired Jennifer to launch So Just Shop.
JG. At the age of two, there is a cut-off point so if children aren’t at normal weight by then, they tend to be physically and mentally stunted for the rest of their lives. When you’re looking at populations where you have 40-50% of your population suffering from chronic malnutrition, you are never going to achieve your full potential as a country.
In India, chronic malnutrition is extremely common and is harder to treat because it’s caused by many factors be it unsafe drinking water, lack of vaccinations, lack of food… We did cooking classes for mothers and we saw their education increasing but saw no impact on the children at all and we couldn’t work out why. When we asked, “are you feeding the children five meals a day?” though, they said, “when we’re there we are” to which we said, “what do you mean when you’re there?” Unbeknown to us, many of these women were working in insecure or semi-illegal work so they couldn’t take their children with them. That meant you’d quite often have a 4-5 year old left at home to look after an eighteen month old for up to twelve hours at a time so neither of the children are fed properly.
On the back of that, the charity launched a crèche in Mumbai where children were fed as their mothers were educated and within three months, they started to see positive results.
JG. It was brilliant! I was doing this alongside my role at the Clinton Foundation so that got me thinking it’s a much bigger issue. These women have no control over their jobs; because they don’t have control of the money they have no control over the food they buy; they don’t have access to money either and can’t get a bank account because they don’t have formal ID. It’s changing in India but it’s still prevalent in many areas across the world because if you don’t get a birth certificate when you’re born, how do you apply for anything?
The other issue we faced then was, “well I’d love to go and vaccinate my children but I can’t afford the bus fare.” There are so many layers that end up blocking not just the child’s health but the development of the whole community because if you think about the issues that affect the children, they will also be affecting the mother. She won’t be able to access birth control because she doesn’t have the money to get to the clinic so then she’s in a situation where there are more mouths to feed, that affects her health. There are so many knock on implications.
That got me to the core of So Just Shop which is that I want to find a global and scalable way to economically empower women because if we can do that, all of the other issues fall into place. It’s been shown that if you put money into the hands of women, 90% of it stays in the community, if you put money into the hands of men, only 50% of it does.
SC.SD. Is it fair to say then that the idea for So Just Shop was born over time out of the culmination of each of those experiences or can you recall a lightbulb moment where it just popped into your head?!
JG. I had the notion, ‘it’s all about the economic empowerment of women’ going round my head for a long time and I knew I wanted to start a business which would be an impact business but for profit. I didn’t want it to rely on charitable donations; I wanted to make it sustainable. It had to be global, it had to be scalable and it had to work with the economic empowerment of women. That’s all I had though and then I was stuck!
When I came back to the UK after India, I got in contact with my old boss from the start-up space who is a serial entrepreneur and asked if he was launching anything at that time. He said, “yes” so I said, “can I do it for you so that I can understand the whole process of launching a start-up?” It was a mobile app for employee communication and benefits so not my space at all (!) but I wanted the operational experience. It was whilst doing that that in 2011-2012 that I stumbled on notonthehighstreet.com…
I’d been out of the country so when I saw that, I remember thinking, ‘ah ha! That’s the sort of model I could use’ so I just started thinking about how I could do that. I ended up spoofing a product to sell on notonthehighstreet.com because I wanted to know how they worked and how their back end system works!
SC.SD. What was your product!?
JG. I had a friend that was a graphic designer so I literally drew out some images of elephants that she then mocked up on to baby grows! I then submitted it and applied to be a seller, they said “yes” and at that point I went and got a few of the baby grows made!
SC.SD. That’s incredible! I mean, that’s a start-up story in itself!
JG. It’s a good way of testing a concept without outlaying much money! I signed up to Etsy to see how it worked too but by 2015, I realised I needed to commit to my idea.
SC.SD. What did committing to So Just Shop involve then to get it up and running?
JG. So I used Shopify for the website so I didn’t have to spend thousands, I did a small friends and family raise initially and I launched the website with about seven sellers – people that I’d worked with before!
SC.SD. Did you just call up your contacts and ask if they’d be interested in selling on the platform then?
JG. Essentially yes. One of the organisations I worked with on the nutrition project also had a livelihoods project. They were amazing seamstresses but they were relying on donated fabric so we gave them a small grant and taught them how to block print and they made some scarves for us; they were one of the first designers on board.
I then collaborated with the London College of Fashion. I had a masters student working with me and she helped me to source designs and make sure that the designs were contemporary as well as having that traditional heritage so there’s a nice overlap. She was great so I ended up taking her on as my Creative Director!
SC.SD. That’s amazing! How did that collaboration come about?
JG. So my one piece of advice for anyone is to exploit every single contact you have! It’s so easy to think, ‘I don’t want to be that person’ but people are so willing to help and are so happy to help. I had a very good friend who worked there and she heard about their collaborative unit where they collaborate with industry and fashion students so she suggested me to the Head of the Unit.
SC.SD. I love how reaching out to contacts always snowballs like that. One person leads to another and before you know it you’re looking back thinking, ‘how did I get here!?’
SC.SD. So the website goes live… How did you market So Just Shop in the early days, has that evolved since and how quickly did you start to see traction? So many questions..!
JG. It was a slow burner for sure and I think it’s unrealistic to expect it to happen overnight! When you’re an online shop, you’re literally shouting in the dark. I’ve spent money on Google ad words in the past and it just doesn’t work for me. If I’m trying to compete and bid on the words, ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ I’m never going to win against the big competitors and their budgets!
We’ve definitely opted for the slow burn method instead. We do the big shows like Spirit of Summer and Spirit of Christmas which are great. Even if you just break even, you still have 15,000 people walk past your store and that’s advertising in itself. That’s where you get your feedback too; you see what customers love and quite frankly, what they don’t love! Some people are incredibly rude but you hear that and receive that feedback straight away!
One of the challenges we have though is educating our customers. Take pashminas for example, we sell 100% pashminas. The trouble is no one really knows what a pashmina is because everything gets labelled as a pashmina now even though it might be 5% pashmina wool. When people see pashminas for £10 and then hear that ours are £120, it’s making sure they understand why!
In general though, having any system where you can get peoples emails via a newsletter is a great way to grow your network and then for obvious reasons, social media too. Most of our sales come from Facebook and Instagram.
SC.SD. Let’s talk learning curves… Given that you volunteered to launch your friend’s tech start-up and created a brand just to test how NOTHS works, I get the distinct impression that you’re not afraid of a challenge (!) but what’s surprised you most since launching So Just Shop?
JG. I think it’s the relentlessness of it! You’ve got to drive it fully and give it 100% because if it doesn’t come from you, it doesn’t happen. Not only do you have to have the energy to push the business, you’ve got to have the energy to motivate your staff too. It’s making that decision that you’ll do whatever it takes for your business to work.
Now we’re still not at break-even and we’ve been going for two years. I’m not wealthy by any means but I was lucky to buy a house in London at the right time which I sold last year and that’s enabled me to put a bit of money into the business. I’m also consulting on the side to help us break even and I’m a single Mum. I’m up at 6am, answer emails before I get my son up and quite often I’ll work until 10-11pm at night. Sometimes that can be extremely exhilarating; when it’s all going well, you have all the energy to do it but when it’s going badly, it’s mind-numbingly exhausting. It’s incredibly hard to keep perspective on the bigger goal. Going back to surprises then, I always thought with a start-up, they’d be natural tipping points where it’s either going to work or it’s not but I haven’t found that! Again, I think it goes down to your drive and how much you’re willing to fight and scrap and give it everything you’ve got.
SC.SD. You mentioned when things go badly… have you had any days that’ve made you question whether the business is worth pursuing and if so, what made you carry on?
JG. I had a moment last year where we were down to our last £5000 and I didn’t know how I was going to pay people’s salaries, I didn’t know how I was going to pay the rent on my house for my son and I and I remember thinking, ‘this is it. I’m going to have to get a job and pack up.’ I happened to have been given tickets to a conference in the States at the time though and just being around women-led businesses gave me the energy to carry on. You get fed this story, ‘launch a start-up and within two years it’ll be successful! You’ll get millions on investment, happy days!’ so when you’re a year and a half in and that hasn’t happened yet, you think, ‘well I’ve clearly failed then.’ That event was amazing because you had women on stage saying, “I’ve been running this business for ten years and only now would I say it’s successful.” Hearing their honesty gave me the reassurance and motivation to carry on. I got home, someone invested £5000 and off we went again.
SC.SD. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve had days where I’ve turned up to interviews for this feeling so deflated but once we get talking and I hear what they’ve pushed through to get to where they are now, I always walk away from them feeling inspired again!
JG. Exactly! I’m so fed up of going to networking events where it’s white, thirty year old men doing another bloody content management system and they’re sat there like, “yeh, we’ve raised £100,000 and it’s nowhere near ready yet.” I’m sat there thinking, ‘I had my website up and running, it was income generating with £12,000. A) how rude of you to take money off of investors and not squeeze every last penny out of it and B) how did you get the bloody money in the first place!?’
I think that two year story comes about because you’ve got all these angel investors investing in these tech boys, they’ve put no personal investment in so do it until the money runs out and either the business works and they get more investment, or it won’t and voila! There’s your two year cycle. For the majority of women led businesses, we’re more likely to succeed in the long run because we don’t get the easy investment. We have to put all the leg work in so by the time we do get investment, we’ve built the business up enough that it has legs already!
SC.SD. Has anything gone drastically wrong with So Just Shop?
JG. See with us, when things go drastically wrong it tends to be out of our control. For example, we launched our retail line at the end of last year and our first two customers were Bloomingdales and Anthropologie…
SC.SD. Erm, wow!
JG. I know, it was amazing! But we’d ordered loads of jewellery in from Kenya but then the Kenyan elections happened. There were loads of riots and we didn’t know if the jewellery would get to us in time. It’s really hard to complain and get frustrated though because people weren’t going to work because it was literally not safe for them to walk down the street!
So yes, things have gone drastically wrong but relative to me and my life and my business, not so much! Things like that will always be a constant challenge for us though and so we’re very conscious of building that in going forward. For example, with the wholesale line now, we’re very clear that our lead time is never going to be a month. A) things are handmade and it’s a small group of women working on them which takes longer anyway but B) we have to build in time for these logistical issues around the world that people don’t think about.
SC.SD. When you have clients like Bloomingdales and Anthropologie relying on you though, how does that responsibility sit with you? Knowing that at the end of the day, the onus is on you to deliver the goods regardless of whose fault it may be…
JG. I suppose, given the historic line of work I’ve been in, I have an inbuilt expectation that things will go wrong. I quite enjoy it actually! When you’re sat there at the cold face thinking, ‘oh my god, it’s all gone wrong’ and you have to think of a solution fast. That for me is my moment, I love it!
SC.SD. Really!? You honestly feel like that in the moment!? I’m not talking about in hindsight..!
JG. Honestly in the moment! You can’t overthink in that moment; you don’t have time to get stressed and panic. I’m a here and now, let’s get on with it person whereas my Creative Director would find it more stressful! I think her creative tendencies – and it’s a good thing – mean that she likes to think it all through and don’t get me wrong, she always steps up to the challenge but it’s not something she enjoys whereas I find those moments exhilarating.
SC.SD. What about your high points? Can you recall any moments since launching that have made you feel proud of yourself and what you’ve created?
JG. I don’t know if I feel proud of myself but I do feel incredibly privileged that I’m able to do this; particularly when we have our monthly meetings as a team. At the moment, we’re creating our own line of So Just Shop jewellery and I find myself thinking, ‘my goodness how many people have the opportunity to do this?’ To work with the women we do, to hear their stories, to be a part of something that makes their lives better and build a team that’s really impassioned. It’s amazing! That makes me feel like the luckiest girl in the world.
On the flipside, my low moments are very human low moments. The other day, I was up at 6am, I’d done loads of emails, I’d put the washing on, I’d hung it out, I’d put the dish washer on, I’d got my son up and dressed, I’d fed him breakfast, we finished off a bit of his homework… I thought, ‘I’m totally winning right now!’ But we race down the road to school and I look at him and he’s got half his breakfast down his front and his tracksuit bottoms for PE have another hole in them. He looked like some kind of urchin! Moments like that make you think, ‘I could not physically have done more that morning and I still failed because I’m sending my son to school looking like he’s falling apart.’ That gives you that whole, ‘well if I can’t do that, I can’t do anything’ mentality. None of us are perfect but you still put that on yourself.
SC.SD. I think we can all relate to that…
JG. Exactly. I constantly have a monologue in my head nowadays where I have to try and tell myself, ‘live in the moment now, stop worrying, you can’t control what happens in the future, be present’ and I think that’s served me well. If I didn’t have that, I think the panic would be unsurmountable. I try not to think about the fact that I’m responsible for people’s salaries, it gets too much! Instead I think, ‘today, I have to make sure my Dad has sausages in the fridge to feed my son later and work out what I have to wear to a fashion investor event tonight!’ What do you even wear to that!?
SC.SD. You’ve obviously project managed teams in your previous roles so how does that experience compare to managing a team now that you’re responsible for the company at large too?
JG. I think the biggest thing for me, and it was something that happened in January, was having to step back and allow the team to take a bigger role in the business and give them more responsibility. As the business grows, you can’t do everything yourself so it was finding that balance between being responsible for the business but also making others responsible. They need that and want that but letting go of the control was hard. That took me a few weeks to get used to but I’m so much happier now and so are they!
SC.SD. What does success look like to you and do you consider yourself, at this stage, to be successful?
JG. It depends because sometimes success for me is getting my son out the door on time for school! But in terms of the business though, we’re currently raising investment to build a back-end system where we can track the supply chain of our products transparently as well as have the ability to tap into mobile payment schemes so we’ll be able to pay people who don’t have bank accounts. We’ll also be able to check that they’re being paid and being paid a fair wage. I think when we get that up and running, not only will it let So Just Shop expand, it will also benefit so many artisan businesses around the world. It’s so important to me as we’re limited to working with women that have bank accounts at the moment and it’s also limiting where we’re working. The most vulnerable women live rurally and don’t have bank accounts so if we can tap into that network, we’ll make a much bigger difference. That will make me an extremely happy lady!
SC.SD. That sounds incredible. And do you have a time frame on that?
JG. Five years down the line, I want to be working with 1500 women’s groups and by doing that we could potentially lift a quarter of a million people out of poverty. That would make me very happy. But to get to that stage we need to build those back end systems!
SC.SD. Last question then… Can you see yourself running So Just Shop for the rest of your life or do you have other ideas ticking away up there?!
JG. I think you get to a certain point in a business where you’re no longer the very best person out there to drive it forward so honestly, I don’t think I’ll always be the right person to lead it. I’m very comfortable spending my days walking around slums talking to women – I could do that all day long – but talking about what materials go into making a handbag and e-commerce isn’t my area! I can see myself getting someone in with that experience at some stage but when that is, I don’t know. Right now, I’m taking it day by day and I’ve got a lot of financial constraints to get through before I get to that point!
It goes without saying that when your goal is to alleviate 250,000 people from poverty, the journey to do so will come with challenges aplenty; but what Jen has pushed through, both prior to and post- launching So Just Shop, deserves recognition and praise in gargantuan proportion.
From her initiative to willingly launch someone else’s start-up and create a product range for notonthehighstreet.com for the sake of experience; her readiness to persist in the face of rejection from investors and put her daily struggles into perspective with issues at large; to her frank admission that she will do whatever it takes to make her vision a reality, all the while juggling consulting work to help with bills and single motherhood at home; the sacrifices she has made to her lifestyle in order to commit to her goal will continue to inspire me for years to come.
Selfless, brave and astonishingly humble too, her favourite quote summarises my thoughts of her well.
JG. I can’t remember it word for word but it’s along the lines of, ‘don’t think that just because you’re an individual you won’t make a difference. Often it’s the individuals that do.’