This week we’re thrilled to feature outstanding entrepreneur, fashionista and humanitarian Jia Wertz. As she is founder of Studio 15, an online marketplace for trendy and affordable women’s apparel, one might suppose our interview would begin with a description of how Jia became interested in fashion and what prompted her company’s launch; instead, after a quick hello, Jia dives right into the good stuff and shares a personal gem about her passion and purpose.
“Fashion isn’t really what feeds my soul. But turning a hobby into a job has been amazing.” This isn’t too surprising, considering her company’s manifesto reads, “We believe that everything should be done with a higher, more meaningful purpose – including fashion – and that everything counts, big or small.” Reflecting this tenet, Studio 15 donates 5% of all online proceeds to Kleos Microfinance Group, an organization providing economic assistance to those in developing countries. More specifically, Jia points out, “all donations go directly to women and support them in launching their own businesses.” Throughout our conversation it becomes increasingly clear that a desire to help those in need is an integral thread throughout Jia’s personal and professional life.
An Introduction to Fashion. “I’ve always been petite and, as a teenager most of my clothes didn’t fit properly. My mother would adjust pieces for me and eventually taught me how to sew. And I loved it.” Several years later, Jia began her first full-time job as manager of a boutique in Calgary. “At the time, I was 18 years old and fresh out of high school. The boutique carried 100 different brands and I thought I was in the best place in the world (smile). The two boutique owners noticed that I was increasing their sales (most customers were around my age) and gave me a lot of responsibility. I’m very lucky to have had the best teachers and role models at an early age.”
A Career is Born. Soon after, Jia moved to Toronto where she received a degree in Fashion Merchandising and Management; and over the next decade, she developed a reputation for excellence through her work at the corporate offices of powerhouse women’s retail companies Aldo and Bebe. The majority of her career has been spent in San Francisco, where she worked as Senior Manager of Communications, Sales Development and Operations for Bebe – until a defining moment several years ago inspired Jia to make a major career shift and move to New York.
Taking Power Into Her Own Hands. Since managing a boutique in Calgary at 18, Jia has known she would like to “launch something” some day. At the time, the industry was vastly different (online shopping was pretty nonexistent) and her business would have required a completely different setup; however, the seed had been planted. Years later, a personal realization at work prompted Jia decided to step away from her corporate career and to begin building a business that unites her experience in the fashion industry with her desire to create positive impact. Jia had proposed to her employer that over the winter holidays the company donate the proceeds of an internal project to a nonprofit. “They were making a lot of money and this would not have meant a loss for business, as this was all internal — but the moment I proposed something that would benefit others, I received a cold response. This didn’t sit well with me and was a signal. Soon after, I quit – cold turkey. No job, no nothing.”
An Awakening Trip to Uganda. Although Jia had always been interested in volunteer work, her hectic work schedule had largely prevented her; so when she left her job and suddenly had time, she jumped at the opportunity to volunteer. Her brother is actually co-founder and Executive Director of a non-profit organization that does work in Uganda, and Jia eagerly signed up to volunteer there for one month (sweetly adding that this would also allow her to check up on her little brother – to see where he’d been staying and to ensure his safety). Witnessing the living conditions of many Ugandan women, who are single parents raising children without enough basic necessities like water and shoes, reconnected Jia with her mission to assist those in need. Jia aims to continually develop her impact in this area in the upcoming years.
Baby Steps + Beta Test + Launching Studio 15. Recalling what it was like to leave her corporate job without a back-up plan, Jia asked herself: “How can I take what I’m good at and use it to also help others?” Combining her expertise in the fashion industry with her desire to give, Studio 15 was born. “I would have loved to have had a physical store, but I saw the market was shifting to online, so this made a lot more sense business-wise.” Jia worked on the website with a freelance designer and tested it in beta for 1 year prior to Studio 15’s official launch.
New York. Just Because (It’s New York). Although on a personal note, I must admit that Jia’s vibe pretty much exudes ‘New York artist and entrepreneur’ (she happens to also be a gifted photographer), Jia has spent her pre-Studio 15 career elsewhere. A native of Alberta, Canada, Jia has lived and worked in Toronto, Houston and San Francisco, before moving to New York two and a half years ago. “New York has always been my favorite city in the world. When I was 12, I said I was going to move to New York – I don’t even know why. (smile) And now, here I am.”
Passionate Leader + Activist + Adnan Syed. Some of you may be familiar with the name Adnan Syed (or the podcast Serial), who was wrongly convicted for the murder of his girlfriend in 1999 and currently remains in prison. The story has been breaking headlines this summer since Syed’s petition for a re-trial was granted in July, thanks in great part to increased public awareness. (How does this relate to Jia, you’re asking?) After listening to the Serial podcast (long before the story was receiving much media attention), Jia decided she needed to do something to help Adnan’s family. “The fact that an innocent teenager lost 17 years of his life and is sitting in jail because of a faulty system bothers me so much.” Soon after, she co-organized and launched a concert fundraiser in New York to help raise money for the Syed family and to increase public awareness. The event was a tremendous success – so much so in fact, that Jia was later put in contact with Adnan’s close family friend, Rabia Chaudry, who has been extremely active in the fight for his release. Jia Wertz’s courage, initiative, resilience and sincere need to do good in the world is truly inspiring. May we each tap into this part of ourselves, and work to be more active in initiating positive change while remaining true to ourselves.
* Song For This Moment: “Shine” by Lolo.