No one said building a business would be easy, but childhood-best-friends-turned-business-partners Jamey Gresham and Margaret Boyce are up for the challenge. In 2019, the duo launched J. Lowery, a Southern-based handbag brand offering “distinct, understated, effortless, and confident” pieces.
Born and raised in Meridian, MS, the Ole Miss graduates noticed a gap in the Southern handbag industry and decided they would try to fill the void. Equipped with a marketing background and an astute love of fashion, the two friends began sharing ideas and sketches (thanks to Margaret’s drawing abilities) that would soon serve as the blueprint for J. Lowery.
For some, starting a business with your best-friend-turned-cousin (more on that later) could present challenges, but Margaret and Jamey said they wouldn’t have it any other way. As they prepare to celebrate the first anniversary of their budding brand, the lifelong friends spoke with us about lessons in entrepreneurship, friendship and community.
Why did you decide to launch J. Lowery?
Jamey: We saw a gap in the contemporary handbag market in the South, and we really felt like when we were looking around, we weren’t finding those timeless pieces that still had a contemporary edge at an attainable price. We wanted to create something that was super timeless that you can wear from season to season that also elevates your look. From there, we started sketching — Margaret won’t ever say that she’s an artist, but she can really draw. So, she started sketching, and we eventually went to New York to meet with manufacturers — and it started from there.
How would you describe the J. Lowery consumer? And how do you design with this consumer in mind?
Jamey: From day one, our goal has been to design accessories for the women who inspire and influence us each day. We wanted to make bags that could take them seamlessly from one event to the next in their lives. Aside from functionality for day-to-day, we like to think of our customers as everyday influencers. Our style choices are a form of self-expression and tell the world how we feel about ourselves. We wanted to make it possible for these women to confidently tell others who they are through their handbag.
Margaret: Our customer is a woman who needs something practical for every day and also wants something timeless and distinct. She leads a busy life, needs something reliable, and also wants to make sure what she’s wearing expresses her style and who she is. We always refer to her as an “everyday influencer” because she knows what she wants and is confident in her style. When it comes to designing, we keep her at top of mind. We also make sure to ask ourselves if our designs are something we would want to wear ourselves and if they would work well in our day-to-day.
Your friendship is quite remarkable. You were born two days apart, attended the same schools (even college) and your families are close. How important has your background, friendship and small-town connection been in the J. Lowery story?
Jamey: Our lifelong friendship has now evolved into a family tree as well. After college, I ended up marrying my husband Scott, who is Margaret’s first cousin. So now we are cousins! We have probably the biggest cheerleading squad you’ve ever seen, who feel as if they have a huge stake in our company, which is amazing.
Margaret: It’s truly the most important thing in the world to have people to support you 100 percent. Luckily Jamey and I are able to fill in the gaps and build each other up when the other is having an off day. It’s also good having our family support us when we are feeling a bit down because we haven’t had a sale in a few days or a store hasn’t wanted to carry our bag. Our family is there to light the fire under us and remind us that we’re going to be fine.
How is it being best friends and business partners?
Jamey: I think the first thing seems like a given, but you have to have the utmost respect for a person. Margaret and I just really respect each other and our talents. It was pretty easy for us in the beginning by acknowledging each other’s strengths and weaknesses and making sure we each had our independent roles in our company so that both of us could thrive at what we’re best at.
Margaret: Although we have never worked together in a professional setting until now, we knew each other very well — enough to know when something is wrong with the other. And it boils down to communication and trust. We made the decision at the beginning that we’re 50/50, and it’s not going to happen unless we both agree on it. I think we’re pretty good at taking a step back when we need to.
J. Lowery celebrates its first anniversary in August. What lessons have you learned about yourself and entrepreneurship since launching almost a year ago?
Margaret: Patience is essential. I tend to want things to happen overnight (Jamey can attest to this). You don’t have to know the end game; just commit to taking small steps forward. The beauty of owning and building a business are the things you learn to carry over to your everyday. Be persistent in what you want to achieve, but give yourself some grace and remember all good things in life take time.
Jamey: Good things take time. The impression in a startup environment is that if you work in circles around everyone, you will get there quicker. This may be true for some, but we have learned so much of owning your own business is trusting your vision and having the patience to see it through. The bigger picture takes time.
Despite the challenges that can usually come as a result of starting a business, what do you love most about being an entrepreneur?
Margaret: It is definitely the freedom to make our own choices for ourselves and our business. We’re able to trust our gut, try new things and take risks. That’s not to say it’s without fear, but at the end of the day, our success is up to us.
Jamey: One of the most rewarding things about being an entrepreneur is the freedom. You are able to take risks and experiment in areas such as marketing and customer relations without limitations. It does require a great amount of trust in your vision and an hourly dose of courage, though!
When COVID-19 hit, many small businesses’ sales were negatively impacted. I’m sure as a small business, yours were too, but despite this, you both decided to do something to help out other small businesses. Tell us about that.
Margaret: Yes. We had things planned for every weekend in March and April, and then COVID-19 hit. And we had invested in all this inventory for our pop-up shops. But we realized that we weren’t alone — other small businesses were suffering, so we wanted to help out. With each handbag purchase, we would give a gift card to a small business of the person’s choice. This was a creative way to make up for the sales we would miss by not being able to have pop-ups and also show our support to other small businesses. One thing people have realized since this pandemic is that small businesses are vital to a community.
As entrepreneurs, do you find it difficult to balance work and your personal life?
Jamey: I’m a new mama of a 6-month-old, and honestly, in the beginning, I was just surviving. But as cliché as it sounds, it really is about balance. The biggest thing I’ve learned since being a mom is that whatever works for you works for you.
Margaret: The beauty of having a business partner is that when one of us is falling off, the other can fill in. If I’m not feeling my best and need to take some time for yoga or to take care of myself, it’s helpful to know that if I’m not having grace for myself, Jamey is having grace for me.
What’s next for the J. Lowery brand?
Margaret: In addition to adding new styles and new leathers to our collection, we want to continue focusing on partnerships with brands and businesses we admire. The pandemic has proven just how vital, valuable and powerful each small business is to their respective communities, and we want to continue supporting those where we can.
Jamey: The global pandemic really introduced a level of humility to our small business, where we were able to clearly see the power of relationships — relationships with our customers, vendors, fellow business owners and brands. As a younger brand, we have only scratched the surface in terms of the network of people we hope to work with and learn from. And of course, this year will bring new designs that we are very eager to unveil!
As handbag connoisseurs, what are your go-to essentials that are always in your personal handbags?
Margaret: Hand sanitizer, lip balm, AirPods, and concealer for when I need a little refresh.
Jamey: ChapStick, a notepad, at least three backup pacifiers for William (my son), and in the summer, I carry my Glossier highlighter with me everywhere for a quick brightener.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Margaret: I don’t remember when I discovered this quote from Mark Twain, but it says, “I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” I use it as a reminder when I am worried about any and every possible outcome, and it helps bring me back down to earth.
Jamey: My husband Scott is always reminding me to “control what you can control.” Running a business and being a mother means a lot of juggling, so it has been a very valuable lesson to learn this year.
Besides faith, family and friends, what are three things that you can’t live without?
Margaret: A daily challenge (running a business has a lot of them!), a glass of wine (to be shared with loved ones), and a good sense of humor.
Jamey: Quiet moments with my son, a great glass of wine, and laughter. Not only is she an amazing partner, but Margaret also makes me laugh on a daily basis. When times are high stress or uncertain, we always turn to humor to bring us back down to level heads. It’s our stress medicine.
Thanks for your insight, Jamey and Margaret! All photos courtesy of J. Lowery.