So Just Shop: Meet the ethical brand helping to lift women out of poverty

Having fun at Badala, a not-for-profit organisation in East African and Central America. The money the artisans earn has revolutionised their families’ lives

Having fun at Badala, a not-for-profit organisation in East African and Central America. The money the artisans earn has revolutionised their families’ lives

“Success must include two things: the development of an individual to his utmost potentiality and a contribution of some kind to one’s world.” So said my all-time heroine Eleanor Roosevelt – and she could have been speaking about the founder of online ethical retailer So Just Shop and the amazing women she is empowering.

Jennifer Georgeson has spent her life working to help others. In her 44 years she has worked (deep breath):

  • on researching the prevention of mother-to-baby transmission of HIV in Zambia (while she also studied for her PhD);

  • on preventing early childhood malnutrion and training traditional midwives in India and Pakistan, and

  • with impoverished communities in some of the worst slums in Delhi with the Clinton Foundation.

It was this last challenge that inspired her to set up So Just Shop.

Jennifer Georgeson from So Just Shop

Jennifer Georgeson from So Just Shop

After two years with the foundation, Jennifer could see no improvement in children’s nutrition. So she began chatting to the mums and finding out more about their social customs.

Through this, she realised that women were key. That if they could provide sustainable economic opportunities for the women, many of whom were incredible artisans, they could turn things around.

Within two months, using local government grants and putting schemes into place, they began seeing improvements.

However, the grants were short-lived and not sustainable, so Jennifer began working on a system that would help give the communities their own economic sustainability by exporting their goods to other countries for sale.

And so, in 2015, she launched So Just Shop, a fashion accessories, homeware and gifting site that works directly with women-led artisans in 35 of the most vulnerable communities in the world.

Through So Just Shop, the women’s beautiful goods are sold online, in pop-ups – they had one in Bloomingdales – and via wholesale sales (one line was even carried in Anthropologie). Each piece is ethically and, where possible, sustainably made.

Jennifer’s work also showed her the need for women to have financial control of their money. If their earnings went to their husbands, very little – if not none of it – was used to buy food or in ways that would benefit the community. (An Oxfam report in 2017 found that giving women economic empowerment played a key role in helping reduce poverty overall.)

To get around this, she came up with an innovative way to make sure the money went straight to the women: everyone is paid directly in phone-app credits. Despite living in poverty, almost everyone in these communities has a mobile phone. Jennifer’s scheme means the women can use phone credits to buy the likes of food from the local markets – and that means everyone benefits.

“Women are more likely to invest in their family and local community,” says Jennifer. “Economic empowerment of women saves lives, increases education and improves the social indicators of whole communities.”

Artisans at Mata Traders cooperative in India and Nepal receive healthcare, paid maternity leave, daycare and a pension

Artisans at Mata Traders cooperative in India and Nepal receive healthcare, paid maternity leave, daycare and a pension

Obviously one who enjoys a challenge, Jennifer has set herself a fairly hefty goal – to raise 250,000 women and their families from some of the poorest communities in the world out of poverty.

She’s also taking So Just Shop on to new levels with its own brand of jewellery called Just. Each delicate piece is handmade or casted by cooperatives in Delhi and Jaipur, using women-led departments to teach entrepreneurial, design and management skills.

I caught up with Jennifer earlier this month to find out how retail is helping women change the world

Tell us about yourself…

I have an unusual background combining international development and start-up tech. I live in South London with a bouncing eight-year-old child and an even bouncier eight-month-old puppy. 

But I’ve lived and worked across seven countries and three continents and I consider my life to be full of amazing life experiences surrounded by the most wonderful friends and family.

Why did you start So Just Shop?

I started So Just Shop with the aim of economically empowering vulnerable women throughout the world. 

In many places the world over, women have little control of the family income and because of that they often have no control over the food that's bought for the family or decisions taken around children's health – “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 per cent of it stays in the community, paying for health care, food and education. If you put money into the hands of men, only 50 per cent of it does. 

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How do you decide which artisans to work with? 

I’m extremely lucky that through my work, I have a great network that I can tap into – women's groups that I have previously worked with or that I've been introduced to. The world is full of extremely talented ladies making the most fabulous products. 

We try and showcase as many traditional skill sets as we can, while making the products contemporary in their look and feel. So we hunt down artisans who are adept in different skills, reflecting their community.

What has been the most difficult part?

We have had little external investment to date and as an online business, this means we've had little advertising budget so we've had to work very hard to find our – extremely loyal – customer base. 

This has meant doing a lot of small market stalls and pop-up events and a lot of lugging boxes and getting very cold hands and feet! 

However, it has also given us the opportunity to speak to customers and hear their invaluable feedback on our products, which in the long run has strengthened us as a business.

And what has been the best?

I've just been visiting some of our artisans and I met this amazing young lady called Sonia. She was due to be married off at the age of 16 but through working with our artisan group, she’s earned a valuable income that has given her a much stronger voice in the family home. 

She’s still working for the artisan group six years later, has completed a degree and is now doing a part-time MA.  That's definitely worth a bit of frostbite!

How has your business grown?

The first 18 months were tough, but we saw a big leap last year – 2.5 times the sales on the previous year – and we’re looking at an even bigger one this year. We’ve expanded our market from consumer to encompass selling into retail and corporate/bespoke gifting.

I read that you came face-to-face with the Taliban in Pakistan…

I didn't!  I was working with an amazing group of ladies based out of Peshawar, Pakistan, providing technical support for a project they were running looking at training traditional birth attendants. 

We had been running this project for more than two years when the Taliban turned up at their local community office and told them to leave and never come back. 

I’ve come face-to-face with community leaders that have been strongly linked with the Taliban, but this was a far more challenging situation – these women risked their lives to educate birth attendants (midwives) and educate girl children. 

They are far and away the bravest and most unassuming women you could ever met.  

(A warning not to believe all you read. Unless it’s on 50Sense, of course!)

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What are you proudest of?

That I’ve built this business from nothing. That I look around and have the most brilliant people working with me and supporting the business, both financially and with advice and other support. And that we have the opportunity to make such a positive impact in the world.

And finally, what advice would you give to women wanting to start their own business?  

It's hard work and you’re the only one responsible, so the drive for it to succeed can only come from you – you know this already.

So surround yourself by people who want you to succeed; those who will pick you up when you are at your lowest, those that will pick your children up from school because you have a last-minute meeting, those that will take you out for a glass of wine or cup of coffee and listen to you endlessly talk about cash flow. 

Ask for help, ask for support and someone will be there to help you get where you need to.

 Many thanks to Jennifer for taking the time out to talk to 50Sense. What an amazing woman! What do you think of Jennifer’s work? Should we be putting more women in charge? 

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