Heroes Of The COVID Crisis: How Handbag Designer Janine Wallace Helped Address The Shortage Of Personal Protective Equipment
I wish someone would have told me to enjoy the rollercoaster that is inevitable with any startup. There are enormous highs and lows that come with life as an entrepreneur but as long as you have a solid business model and are willing to work hard every day, the highs will win out in the end.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Janine Wallace.
Janine Wallace, of Chatham, NJ is Founder and CEO of Cartwright, an innovative luxury locking handbag company. After 15+ years in corporate America as an engineer, patent attorney and CLO, Janine stepped away from her legal career to pursue her dream of entrepreneurship. After 18 months of research and development, she and her husband successfully launched www.cartwrightbag.com in late 2019 and developed a dedicated following of handbag enthusiasts. Once the COVID-19 global pandemic hit and it became clear that America was critically short on personal protective equipment, she reached out to her team overseas to find ways to produce much needed respirators for local hospitals. Within days she had reworked her supply chain, halting all production on new handbag styles, and devoted all resources to not only supplying the N95 facemasks but donating them to area hospitals in need.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Well as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. One morning one of my little guys got into medication that was in my work tote. Thankfully it wasn’t life-threatening, but it scared the heck out of me. After searching for a fashionable way to safely carry private things, like medication, and finding nothing in the market, I decided to design and make my own. It wasn’t long before friends and family wanted ones for themselves, and a business was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
By far the biggest decision I made was to halt work on our new line in order to devote 100% of our resources to supplying surgical respirators to doctors and nurses to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. We have written into the corporate charter that we will be a socially conscious company and part of that is an annual giving plan. We were in the midst of vetting charities for our 2020 campaign when the virus hit. We knew we had to do something more than make a donation. We had spent 2 years building up an extensive network of contacts with both business leaders and suppliers, and this was the opportunity to put that to the test. We tasked our overseas team to get us the much needed N95 respirators that the healthcare professionals were short on. It wasn’t easy given the intense global demand, but one of our manufacturers has the proper certifications, so we immediately put them to work. I’m so proud of what they are accomplishing in such a short time, it’s quite extraordinary.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh wow, I’d have to say that my first trip to our manufacturing facilities takes the cake. My background is in STEM and my husband has a finance background, and while we hired excellent designers, they were not with us when it came time to talk shop about the subtleties of the process. I must have looked so green to these professionals who have been in the industry for decades and were making handbags for Prada and Tory Burch. But I never let that show, and despite not being versed in the proper vernacular or intricacies of zipper tape, I asked the questions that I needed answers to, and I didn’t stop questioning until I understood absolutely everything. After delving deep into that world, I am now considered an authority on handbags, armed with the knowledge necessary to demand only the finest quality and ensure a spectacular product. Although, it still gives me a giggle every time I choose a zipper tape for our bags.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
I think delivering these surgical masks to the nurses and doctors treating the coronavirus patients makes a huge impact. We are working to save lives and each healthcare professional that stays healthy is able to treat dozens or hundreds more patients. The impact of that can ripple across geographies and across time. As a Mom of three, family is the single most important thing to me, and I can’t imagine the fear and pain this pandemic is causing to the families of those sickened.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Many in the healthcare community have reached out to me regarding both the Cartwright bag and the respirators to tell me of the need for these products. Doctors and nurses were our strongest supporters prior to the pandemic, and now that they know we are doing everything we can to keep them stay safe as they work to keep others safe, they are even more engaged.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
So we are trying to solve two problems at once. Our privacy bags are designed as a stylish way to store medications and that mission is heavily focused on child safety. For that problem the best thing society can do is to understand that medications need to be secured. So called “child-proof” pill bottles do not cut it, nor does storing pills in unlocked medicine cabinets. We believe the best thing to do is to lock these up and our product does just that. In fact, the CDC recently changed its prescription safety guidelines to promote using locks, and we couldn’t agree more.
The second problem, which is more immediate and more acute, is defeating the COVID pandemic. For that fight I think the best thing is for the government to work with businesses to find solutions. We are currently working to donate respirators, but we may have the capacity to go beyond that and have reached out to government agencies to do so.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership, to me, is having meaning in your life and driving forward each day to fulfill that meaning. It’s not about choosing a superficial goal, like making a fortune, and it’s not about fulfilling someone else’s goal. When I was in the corporate world I helped clients, businesses, and bosses toward their goals, not my own. Leading involves deep personal meaning.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Firstly, I wish someone had told me that the people who will support you the most might be the people you least expect. There have been complete strangers who have heard our story and have picked up the gauntlet and run with it. It’s amazing and invigorating. Some people just get it, and they are invaluable. Our first customer, Mary, was one of those people. Not only did she order over a dozen Cartwrights, she told her friends and family about us, and she even emailed us ideas for product improvements. She was also the first person to reach out with support for our coronavirus efforts. Every start-up needs support and when you get it, embrace it.
Next, I’d say that I wish someone had told me about the self-doubt that must be conquered early and often. Launching a new product, a new concept, is impossibly hard. I didn’t expect it to be a cakewalk, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the severity of the challenges, like for example, a global pandemic! But for every obstacle I focus on adopting a new skill and on forging forward.
Thirdly, I think it’s important to know that patience is key. This isn’t patent law, this isn’t a day in the office and a paycheck every two weeks. This is building Rome brick by brick and it takes time and ton of blood and sweat.
Another key to success is to have a laser focus on message reach. We know that privacy is important and that Cartwright privacy accessories are amazing, and I thought once we launched everyone would immediately get on board like a rocket. Only now do I realize that it takes a good amount of time to educate and inform the public on our unique value proposition. Countless times I’ve heard someone say, “That’s a lovely pouch, but I don’t need one with a lock,” only to have them call me two weeks later saying they need one asap because Junior got into some expensive make-up or a nephew’s roommate swiped some Adderral.
Lastly, I wish someone would have told me to enjoy the rollercoaster that is inevitable with any startup. There are enormous highs and lows that come with life as an entrepreneur but as long as you have a solid business model and are willing to work hard every day, the highs will win out in the end.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Well, I’m biassed on this one because the movement I am starting involves moving away from this oversharing economy and bringing some privacy back into people’s lives. Not only is this peace of mind good for mental health, but it can also save lives when privacy involves medicine safety and there are children or grandchildren around. It’s early in the process but, as a comparison, it took a long time for everyone to start wearing their seatbelt when driving or to wear helmets when bike riding. This movement is important and we won’t stop until everyone has heard the message.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve always been fond of JFK’s quote, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” The quote is on our founding corporate document because we knew what we were embarking on was difficult, and therein lied the challenge. My husband and I both had successful careers, but we both felt we could do more. It’s the same sentiment that got us involved in the effort to supply respirators for the COVID pandemic. We felt we could do more, and we took action. Kennedy’s famous quote was about putting a man on the moon and it happened. We’re not doing anything so grand, but we all have our moonshots, and they should be difficult, and we should strive to achieve them.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Oprah. She is the most influential and inspiring woman of her generation and I love how she faced down adversity, proved her doubters wrong, and improved the lives of countless people worldwide. It would be a dream to sit and have a cup of tea with her.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you so much for the opportunity!
Heroes Of The COVID Crisis: How Handbag Designer Janine Wallace Helped Address The Shortage Of… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.