Welcome to the latest in our series of conversations with people we admire. Our latest gracious subject? Our adviser Jessica Hendricks Yee—the founder of The Brave Collection, a line of jewelry that’s made in Cambodia and raises money to fight human trafficking. (You can see some of the collection in our shoot for our new Sandara fragrance.) In our conversation, she shares what inspires her, her favorite scent memories, and her 91-year-old grandma’s key to longevity. She also gives us the scoop on her next big project. (Hint: it involves jewelry). Check it out below.
PHLUR: Tell us about your journey with The Brave Collection.
JHY: I was a theater major at NYU, and I decided to go teach abroad the summer after my sophomore year. I went to Thailand to teach English and traveled around Southeast Asia a little bit, and went over to Cambodia and just totally fell in love with the Buddhism and the culture and the people. I went to Angkor Wat, which is the largest religious monument in the world. It’s a city of ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples. And just really fell in love with the creative history of the Cambodian people in particular. And was just so shocked to learn that, in the genocide of the ‘70s, that 90% of the artisan community was killed. That creative community has suffered so much.
And I also learned about the human trafficking there, which I didn’t really know anything about. I was just so surprised to learn that I was getting this great education at NYU and didn’t even realize that slavery was a modern-day issue.
JHY: So I came back to the States and just was marinating on all these ideas for awhile. This mix of having fallen in love with this place, but also feeling like there were some really heavy topics there that I wasn’t really sure how to talk about.
P: I bet.
JHY: I was working in my mom’s fine jewelry store, and just really seeing the relationship that women have to their jewelry. Seeing how intimate, and how personal that relationship is, and how much jewelry can symbolize something deeper. I started to think about jewelry as a medium to not only talk about some of these issues and make them feel personal, but also to empower artists and support the creative community in Cambodia.
So I went back to Cambodia with this idea in mind to produce a line of jewelry that could be handmade in Phnom Penh. And the first piece that I wanted to make was a bracelet that would say “Brave” in the Cambodian script. And so I went back and started working with a team of fair trade artisans to make that first bracelet. It really started as a passion project for my family, and I sold the first bracelet for $38, which felt like a really accessible price point to try to really raise awareness in addition to funding the product. And started growing it from there.
P: Wow, congrats.
JHY: That was six years ago. Since then, we have launched an e-commerce business, I’ve launched a wholesale business, have grown the collection beyond just the first Brave piece. And now it’s really a brand about partnership with these amazing artists in Phnom Penh who make all of our pieces by hand. And then we also donate 10% of our profits to non-profit groups that empower girls against human trafficking. And try to use the platform and the company to make some of these conversations a little more accessible, and empower people to make a difference even if it’s in a really small way.
P: Lots of us have ideas. Why were you able to make your idea a reality?
JHY: I’ve always been really entrepreneurial, and I come from an entrepreneurial family. So we would always talk about business ideas at the dinner table growing up, and that was just the environment that I was raised in. And I think being a theater major, you become a professional storyteller.
Ultimately, I think that for whatever reason, I don’t even really know why, this story just connected to me, and I connected to these people and it became bigger than me.
P: What, if anything, has gone better than you expected when you started?
JHY: Oh, I like that question. [Laughs.] That’s optimistic, it’s usually what has gone—
P: Oh, there’s a pessimistic one. That’s next.
JHY: We’ll get there. [Laughs.] What’s gone better? I think for me it’s been pretty amazing just to see that when you really commit to something, and when you’re really passionate about something, that people will listen and will support you and be excited with you. That’s been really exciting and humbling throughout this whole journey.
P: And where do you still feel challenged?
JHY: Oh, man. So many places. [Laughs.] I think it’s hard to find the balance between innovating and staying relevant, but also staying true to the original idea. Especially when you as a person are growing and changing.
P: It’s a business challenge and a creative challenge.
JHY: Yeah! Totally. That kind of battle sometimes between who wins [laughs]… It’s normally the business! [Laughs.]
P: How do you define success?
JHY: I used to define success in a more superficial way. It was based on either just revenue, or on being associated with a store or a publication that I respected. But I’ve been beginning to think about success in a much more holistic way. To me it’s really about a good work-life balance. Because working really hard and being burnt out seems like success in a lot of ways, but isn’t for me anymore. [Laughs.]
P: Nice. Do you have any tips or tricks for those of us trying to achieve that elusive balance?
JHY: I’m definitely in the “trying to achieve” camp as well. But I learned Transcendental Meditation recently, so that’s been really helpful. I talk about it a lot, I do it sometimes. [Laughs.] But I swear by it because I know how amazing it is.
Creating a full life at home is really important, too. We love to host Shabbat dinners, and dinner parties. Especially in New York City, where people don’t often host at their homes. It’s so grounding, and it creates this other space outside of work and all the chaos, that is really expansive. Those experiences really fuel me, and give me the clarity to go back to work with energy and focus.
P: We have some TM enthusiasts on our team.
JHY: Oh, I didn’t even know that! That’s awesome! Yeah, my grandma is 91. And she is sharp as a tack. She’s amazing. She experimented with macrobiotics, she was growing her own wheatgrass in the ‘70s. She’s just a total renegade. And whenever I ask her what is the one thing that I should do if I want to be as healthy as you, and she always says TM. That’s her number one, she just swears by it. And that’s what got me to finally learn. She’s the living proof.
P: I read that you and your husband [Patrick Yee, another of our advisers] had an interesting date here in Austin.
JHY: We did! We fell in love in Austin! He was living in LA and I was living in New York when we met, so we were talking on the phone every night for, like, weeks. And finally decided on a Thursday that we would meet in the middle that weekend. I had never been to Austin so I was like ‘Can we meet in Austin?’ And we just had so much fun. Austin gets credit for, like, our marriage. Because it was the perfect weekend. We ate at all the best restaurants. I mean, we went to that place Elizabeth Street [Cafe], that Thai place, you know? Oh my gosh, loooooove.
P: It’s fantastic.
JHY: We just, I don’t know, it was such an inspiring, cool place, and we loved the vibe so much. I think it’s part of what showed us that we have such similar taste and values because we got excited about the same kind of stuff. You know, the cupcake trucks and everything that Austin has to offer. That was just the perfect start to our relationship, so we love Austin so much. It’s such a cool town.
P: That’s Bill Murray’s advice: If you’re thinking of marrying somebody, you should just throw a dart at a map and fly there together.
JHY: Is it? Oh, I love it. It’s true. You really learn about people when you travel. Although I feel like I’m easier to deal with traveling than I am in real life. I’m just so happy when I travel that I’m a great traveler and I can figure everything out, but then in real life I get stressed out. It doesn’t really make any sense. [Laughs.] So it’s a tease, yeah.
P: Well, we’re glad to have you with us.
JHY: I actually met Eric [Korman, our co-founder and CEO] for the first time when I was at South by [Southwest]. And obviously was so in love with the product and the story and the values of the brand. And it’s just so exciting to watch you guys grow, and have all these amazing new products. The candle is so killer.
P: Aw, thanks. So what’s next for you guys?
JHY: We launched a new collection with gemstones called the Gemstone Collection. We only recently started moving into metal and chain and now gemstone, so becoming a more robust jewelry line is really exciting to us. And having different pieces within the collection that you can layer together is really exciting. Because we were just this one bracelet for so long. So that’s what we’re working on.
And then I’m also independently launching a new company as well.
P: Oh, wow.
JHY: The new one’s called Zahava, and it’s heirlooms and traditions reimagined. So it’s about a lot of the things we’ve been talking about. Celebrating these lifecycle moments and finding time to step away from the chaos, and create traditions and rituals, and how the heirloom pieces help you to do that. So that’s still in the works but we have our Instagram up.
P: What’s the meaning behind the name?
JHY: It means “Golden” in Hebrew.
P: Can’t wait to hear more about it. Are you ready for some lightning round questions?
P: Do you have a favorite scent memory?
JHY: Oh, scent memory, not just a scent. I really love jasmine, and whenever I smell it, it takes me back to Thailand. I don’t know if I taste jasmine tea, or if I smell it, I just have this really zen, tropical feeling that I just get transported back. And with the late-blooming jasmine in Los Angeles, every night I would get this wave of happiness and I would feel like I was on a beach in Thailand.
Also: the fireplace.
P: Did you have one growing up, or…
JHY: I did. And I’m such a pyro, I could sit and make fires for hours. I love it. I’ve always wanted an apartment with a fireplace in New York City, but as you know those are hard to come by. [Laughs.]
P: Those are a little rare.
JHY: Yeah. Oh, it’s like my dream, though. A house with a fireplace. I would make fires every night. I love that smell so much.
P: Do you have a favorite scent of ours?
JHY: Hanami is my favorite. And actually, my scent memory for that is I spent three months in LA last year. And I love LA so much. That was kind of a dream come true for me to be able to kind of fake-move there. And I was using my Hanami, like, twice a day. And whenever I use it now it takes me right back to LA. It was just such an exciting couple months, where it felt like anything was possible. And it was such a positive time so that scent is always now connected to that moment in time for me, which I love.