An Entrepreneur Uses Her Business to Empower Cambodian Women

The value and economic impact of women-owned businesses and female entrepreneurship is often overlooked, yet women business owners were responsible for generating over $1.8 trillion in sales in the U.S. in 2018.

On a more personal note, my own pathway into entrepreneurship started with the help and support of a brilliant woman and serial entrepreneur named Dana Bowers, who really took a chance on me when I was a first year engineering student during the .com era. Aside from being an inspiring mentor to me, Dana and I have worked together at three separate companies. I saw firsthand back then how -- despite having the most domain knowledge in the room -- she often had to fight to be heard in a room full of men. While Dana is a force of nature and would find a way to be heard in any room, those early experiences made me realize how many others’ contributions we might be missing out on if we don’t encourage and celebrate diversity and ensure everyone has an equal voice and chance to build and innovate.

In honour of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we sat down with Jessica Hendricks Yee, CEO and founder of The Brave Collection, a jewellery line with products handmade in Cambodia that empowers women across the globe, to hear how she got started, what obstacles she has overcome and what advice she has for other aspiring female entrepreneurs.

Bill Ready: How did you come up with the idea for your business?

Jessica Hendricks Yee: I was teaching English in Thailand the summer after my sophomore year of college when I decided to travel to Cambodia. I wanted to see the famous temples of Angkor Wat, which is a magical city of ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples. I fell in love with the beautiful history of art and spirituality in the Cambodian culture and was heartbroken to learn that during the genocide in the 1970s, nearly one-third of the population was killed, along with 90 percent of the artisan community. This inspired me to do something collaborative with today’s creative community in Cambodia and find a way to empower women and fight against human trafficking, which is a huge issue in modern-day Cambodia.

BR: What inspired you to start your business?

JHY: My mom opened up a jewellery store when I was 14 years old, so I grew up working at her shop and watching the incredibly intimate relationship that is formed not only between a woman and a piece of jewellery, but also the relationship between the wearer and the artisan. It's a both a tactile and personal exchange.

At the same time, after my trip to Cambodia, I struggled to share the stories of the people and community with my friends and family back home. There seemed to be a disconnect. I was giving my friends a laundry list of statistics about Cambodia that were gripping to me, because I had been there and met individuals who brought these facts to life in a personal way. However, when I shared this with friends and family, it was difficult for them to relate, and ultimately, care.

BR: And there’s a philanthropic side to your business – can you talk a bit about that?

JHY: Absolutely. Every piece of jewellery is made by hand, by fair-trade artisans in Cambodia from disadvantaged areas, many of whom suffer from disabilities. We also donate 10 percent of our profits to empower girls and fight against human trafficking in Cambodia.

BR: Who are some of the artisans that you work with?

JHY: We work with a team of 26 artisans, mostly mothers. The amazing thing about working with mothers is that we're able to help stop the cycle of poverty within one family. For instance, one woman we work with, Soknea, had to drop-out of school in the third grade to care for her younger siblings, so she never learned to read or write. Today, she works on hand-weaving our bracelets and can ensure her children will finish their education.

Do you feel there are any advantages and/or disadvantages to being a female founder?

JHY: I think it's often more difficult to be taken seriously as a female founder, especially in the fashion business. At the same time, there has been such an incredible surge of support for female founders these past few years that I've benefited from so much, like the Tory Burch Foundation. I think it's about seeking out the networks and resources that celebrate you.

At the same time, I feel so lucky to have come of age in a time and place where being a female founder is cool. I think about my grandmother who didn't get to go to college, and never got to even dream of starting her own business, and I realize how many amazing women had to pave the way for me to get to where I've gotten.

BR: What obstacles or challenges have you had to overcome?

JHY: When I was starting out, it was really difficult to be paving my own path. It was both scary and isolating! It's hard to keep your head up high through the roller coaster-like nature of entrepreneurship, especially when your friends have a business card with their name on it, listed below a fancy, well-known logo. As you get older, you stop worrying so much about what others think and get better at trusting yourself.

BR: How have you kept up with changes in your industry, and what are you doing to keep up with the evolving commerce landscape?

JHY: It's definitely important to stay relevant. Being active on channels like Instagram, and always working with new partners and creating exclusives to keep our products fresh has helped. However, I think it's also been really important to stay true to who we are, despite the trends. That consistency has been really powerful.

BR: How has PayPal helped your business?

JHY: I watched my mom open her jewellery store when I was 14 and saw the incredible financial risk she had to take in order to build out a physical store, as well as the many weekends she had to work by running a brick-and-mortar. It was pretty incredible for me at age 23, with only about $5,000, to be able to start my own business! Businesses from PayPal to Shopify made that possible.

BR: What’s the most challenging part about starting a business?

JHY: Perfect is the enemy of good. It's hard to not become completely consumed with the details and end up in ‘failure to launch’ mode.

BR: On the flipside, what’s the best part about owning your own business?

JHY: Getting to do something that’s meaningful to me every day.

BR: Any lessons you’ve learned through owning your own business that you can share with other entrepreneurs or people looking to start their own business?

JHY: Patience is key; nothing happens overnight. Every step of the way has taken three times longer than I thought it would. But don't give up!

We’ll be publishing more interviews with inspiring female small business owners all month in celebration of Women’s History Month.

Bill Ready, EVP and Chief Operating Officer, PayPal


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