Designer Spotlight: Jessica Hendricks Yee of The Brave Collection

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Shop the Cobra Stitch Reversible Bracelet here

Over the past ten years, fashion, social responsibility and philanthropy have become more intertwined, supporting one another. For Jessica Hendricks Yee, social ethics and responsible innovation have always been at the core of her brand, The Brave Collection’s, DNA.

While teaching English in Southeast Asia, Jessica explored Cambodia and was awe-inspired by the Buddhist culture. She found a creative light amidst learning about the country’s grave genocide in the 70’s and painstaking truth about the presence of human trafficking. Jessica used her learnings from abroad to build a brand of handmade bracelets from talented artisans in Cambodia. As Jessica’s line continues to evolve and flourish, her influence does too. She was recently named one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30” 2016 honorees and isn’t slowing down anytime soon!

On a rainy afternoon at NeueHouse in New York, I sat down with Jessica to learn more about the story and evolution behind The Brave Collection, her future plans, and what advice she has for young, driven entrepreneurs who strive to make a difference in the world.

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Jessica Hendricks Yee. Shop the featured Buffalo Tooth Necklace here.

Your mother owns a jewelry shop, Peridot Fine Jewelry. Did you ever think you were going to follow in your mother’s footsteps?

Jessica: No not at all! She opened it when I was about 14. It’s one of those funny things where you don’t even realize you’re learning. It’s obvious to you, but I was just with my family. It was such an amazing way to learn.

When I went to Cambodia I really wanted to collaborate with the Cambodian community, but I didn’t really know what that would be. At that time, I was working for my mom at her jewelry shop while auditioning to be an actress. I ended up falling in love with her business. She works with designers that are mostly domestic, who make handmade, beautiful fine jewelry. I just fell in love with seeing how the pieces were made and saw the connection between a woman who makes these beautiful pieces by hand and then another woman who wears that piece on her body ; it’s such an intimate exchange. I realized that that was an amazing way to tell the story that I wanted to share about Cambodia.

Was there a defining moment in Cambodia where you knew you wanted to create a jewelry collection like Brave?

J: I taught English in Thailand after my Sophomore year in college. It took a couple years before my ideas evolved into a business. It was such a powerful experience that I wanted to keep it relevant in my life. Living in New York , it’s so easy to get sucked up in the superficiality of it all and ridiculousness of the rat race. I wanted to stay connected to this experience and this place (Cambodia), because it’s really important to me. I wanted to make a difference, but that is such an abstract idea. It took time.

How often do you travel and speak with artisans?

J: I try to go as often as I can, but it’s a big trip. Our product line is really tight and focused so there really isn’t a need right now to be going back consistently. In the beginning, there was a lot more back and forth in regards to quality control, getting on the same page and building a relationship with the artisans. Our relationship on email and Skype is so consistent and wonderful, which is great, but more of my work is here in New York.

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Is there one particular story of an artisan that resonates with you in particular?

J: They all do, but there is one; It’s simple, but wonderful. One of the artisans we work with had to drop out of school when she was in the third grade to take care of her younger brother. She was left with so few job opportunities, because she had such a limited education. I think this is a really consistent story in Cambodia and especially with women. We are collaborating with her and not only is she now making an above average salary and has health insurance, but she is also supporting her kids who are now in school. Even though it’s such a simple story, it’s breaking the cycle of poverty for a family. It’s such a powerful thing to do. When I think of the difference between my parents life and my life, it’s not drastically different, but the idea of being able to completely change the dynamic of a family and what there opportunities are is so powerful.

Do you work with solely women artisans or men as well?

J: It’s mostly women, but some men. The metal work is something that traditionally men do in Cambodia, and we’re trying to break that stereotype. We’re hoping to provide scholarships to some girls in metal making and training.

What type of benefits do you provide to the artisans in Cambodia?

J: An above average salary, health insurance, and education stipend. We work with a fair trade artisan group and they are our production team. We also donate 10% of profits to groups that are empowering girls against trafficking.

How big is your team in New York and in Cambodia?

J: We have about 26 artists in Cambodia and 4 people that I work with in New York.

Where do you find your outlets of inspiration?

J: Everything is inspired by the Cambodian culture and sharing a piece of that story. Our main piece says Brave in the Cambodian language. Everything about Cambodia is beautiful and so much of the culture in Cambodia was destroyed in the genocide, which is such recent history in the 70’s. All of the inspiration for the pieces is about celebrating their culture, because it’s not even being celebrated sometimes in the country itself. The artists I worked with were so taken aback when they discovered we wanted to make pieces with them and their alphabet–their culture. They were surprised that I saw beauty and value in it. That’s part of the Brave mission. To collaborate together and work with their culture. It’s incredible to see that this bracelet is now at ABC Carpet & Home and on Kendall Jenner’s wrist in Vogue. It shows them that their culture is beautiful and is celebrated all around the world.

Is there a deeper meaning behind the silhouettes, colors, or textiles used in the collections?

J: The buffalo tooth bracelet represents a small part of a greater whole. I also saw this shape on a lot of the architecture on the Buddhist temples in Cambodia and just loved it. Red was our first signature color, which to me felt like an extension of the red Buddhist strings that the monks put on your wrist when you go to Cambodia. As a tourist, you have about 6 of them by the end of your trip. I think the Buddhist culture is fascinating. The strings are such an important part of the culture and that is where we started. Now it’s more about brave, bold colors.

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Photo via The Brave Collection’s brand book

What’s one piece of advice you would give to a young entrepreneur?

J: Perseverance is the most important. I had no idea how long it would take to build a brand and create something out of nothing. Unless you are piggy backing onto something that already exists, you’re literally creating something out of nothing. You have to make up every single piece of the puzzle from scratch. It takes an incredible amount of time to develop that into a brand that people recognize and can stand on its own.

I have so many ideas, but it’s not really about your ideas. It’s about your execution, and that was a challenge for me. I started to not even believe in my dreams or ideas because I wasn’t actually doing anything. I think in our culture especially, we are so ADD and all over the place. I definitely am so it was hard for me to stick to one thing and focus, but that has been so rewarding.

How long did it take you to brainstorm the framework behind Brave?

J: It’s still evolving. When I first started I was so moved by the anti-human trafficking in Cambodia. When we started we were practically a non-profit because it was so much about the cause. Once we matured and developed, we became more of a fashion brand. I don’t feel like we ever landed, we are still constantly evolving and I still have an idea of where I would like Brave to go–it’s very nimble. It’s nice to have a small team so that you can keep progressing at a pace that’s right for you.

It makes it really helpful in regards to people recognizing us because there are a lot of brands that are working with fair trade artisans and they are doing a variety of product, which can be amazing but it’s not always recognizable. Being small and focused has really helped tell the story which is one of the most important things.

What has been your biggest challenge starting and building The Brave Collection?

J: I think the biggest challenge is being isolated. Unless you have massive funding and a large team–which is not the direction I took–then you are making a lot of decisions on your own and have to have a lot of confidence in yourself. It’s hard to feel like you’re making the right decision. You have to be an executive when you are still a young entrepreneur who hasn’t had decades of experience. Building mentorship and having people to turn to has been a godsend to me. I’m very grateful to hear other people’s thoughts and advice based on their experience.

What’s next for The Brave Collection?

J: We’re really excited about launching an all metal collection that’s in the works. We’ve been blown away by how much the bracelet means to people and the significance they put behind it. We are thinking of making pieces that are a little more serious (like chains and cuffs) that can hold a bit more weight. Also telling stories of not only the people of Cambodia, but people who are buying the bracelets. That’s a really interesting side of the movement that I didn’t predict. I’m so inspired by stories of the women I hear that support each other and share the bracelet and bravery. I have had so many other female entrepreneurs mentor me and that has made such a difference in my life. It’s sometimes hard for woman to be supportive of each other rather competitive, but it’s so important. I think that’s where we can come in and help deliver that message.

Shop and learn more about The Brave Collection here.