Jennifer Woodsmall, now 23, didn't go into business because she wanted to sell handbags. She went into business selling handbags because it provided a way to give back to entrepreneurship.
"I've had a passion to give back to others and start my own company since I was a little girl," she says. As a youngster, Woodsmall created and sold "shell-mobiles" and planned a carnival so she could donate proceeds to charity. As a Wake Forest University student spending a week in Hanoi, Vietnam, she was struck by the skill and dedication to quality of craftswomen creating women's handbags. She took some of the bags back to her hometown of Kansas City where they were well received.
Woodsmall realized she could fulfill her dream of starting a business and, at the same time, help these women entrepreneurs build their businesses. After conducting market research throughout the Midwest, she approached her parents for assistance to return to Vietnam, at which point, her mother joined the venture.
Growing J.L. Lane
Woodsmall proposed to her Vietnamese craftswomen friends a design-manufacturing partnership arrangement.
"I don't have any experience about the U.S. market and you help me know what is the most fashion and the famous color and design," recalls one partner. "I remember you choose very carefully each color of thread for the embroidery of the flowers and leaves."
"You help people in country village to have more work after the farming season," said another. "If they have more work on embroidery and beading, they have more money. It is not much for you, but for them, money help them have better life because most of the people in country village is still poor."
Back in the States, samples in hand, Woodsmall negotiated sales agreements with retailers ranging from large department stores in New York City to small boutiques in North Carolina where she went to college.
The result was J.L. Lane, a growing company that began selling fashionable hand-embroidered silk handbags in January 2002, broke even last year and is beginning to enjoy profits. With its e-commerce site recently launched at www.jllane.com,Woodsmall expects to produce and sell about 4,000 handbags in 2005, priced from $40 to $150, and is considering ways to expand her product line.
Still, the primary vision of the company – to foster entrepreneurship among Vietnamese women – remains fixed.
Woodsmall began allocating a percentage of revenues from the start to organizations dedicated to finding lasting solutions to poverty, hunger and social injustice in the developing world. Thus far, J.L. Lane has made financial contributions to two groups that provide micro-loans to women-owned businesses in Southeast Asia.
"Given that it was the impetus to start this company in the first place," she says, "I know that giving back will always be the focal point of my entrepreneurial life, and I look forward to increasing my ability to contribute as my company and wisdom grow."
Woodsmall's passion for giving back to entrepreneurship may have originated in childhood but has been strengthened along the way by her "network of advisors" and the supportive climate she enjoyed as a young entrepreneur in college.
Woodsmall appreciates the help she received from several women business owners in Kansas City, as well as Wake Forest professors who, she says, "were kind enough to let me, a liberal arts student, not only enroll in a few business courses but mentor me through specific issues."
When the company was just starting, Woodsmall worked with her international business professor. The next year, she attended The London School of Economics, where she formed a mentorship with her entrepreneurship professor, who continues to share his wisdom.
In the fall of 2002, Woodsmall participated in Wake Forest's bid for a $2.16 million grant from the Kauffman Foundation to further entrepreneurship on campus, including the establishment of a university-wide office of entrepreneurship and liberal arts, adding new entrepreneurship courses and faculty, creating a university Center for Entrepreneurship, and developing a fifth-year entrepreneurship institute for recent graduates pursuing new ventures.
Upon being awarded the grant, Woodsmall continued her involvement in the Center for Entrepreneurship. Since graduating with degrees in psychology and religion, she's welcomed opportunities to serve as an ambassador for young entrepreneurs, speaking out on the need for colleges and universities to promote and support entrepreneurship.
"The next generation – my generation – is very passion oriented," she says. "You get these people coming out of college with a mission to save the world. To invest in global welfare. It's important that we do all we can to provide the resources to keep those dreams alive.
"It takes that encouragement from universities to push the students into following these ideas that they have and into learning what it takes to find the resources to begin a business. It's definitely an overlooked discipline. It gets so much emphasis in the business schools and not enough in the liberal arts setting.
Woodsmall's relatively brief but intense experience in business and giving back to entrepreneurship has whetted her appetite to do more.
She relishes the personal relationships she's developed with her Vietnamese partners. In many respects, she's their angel investor. Recently, she asked one of them how she could be of more help and got this response: "You can help me more to open wide the business and show our products to U.S. people, and we may teach some orphans to work and it can bring them a better life because they don't have to earn out of street."
Friends seek Woodsmall's advice on how to turn their business ideas into reality, and she looks forward as she gains experience to providing more formal mentoring, perhaps as member of the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization. J.L. Lane is currently working with design schools to offer student internships. Woodsmall hopes to eventually write and teach and sees establishing a foundation to support entrepreneurial education and build businesses in Vietnam as "a tangible dream."
"I believe that reaching out to create opportunities for others is a way of life," she says. "I've always wanted that way of life to be the life of my business."
© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.
Jennifer Woodsmall Founder J.L. Lane