While a trader at J.P. Morgan, Joanna Lau could not find a beautiful yet functional handbag to meet her professional needs. Instead of carrying her boring black tote to work, she decided to leave her job in finance to design her perfect bag.

Samantha Smikle was a fashion magazine journalist. When the time came for her to be interviewed for the position of an editor, she realized that she would rather pursue her dreams of becoming a jewelry designer.

Lau and Smikle are two of many bold young women who are defying the tradition of climbing up organizational hierarchies, instead choosing to turn their passions into promising startups. These female entrepreneurs were speakers on the “Start Ups from Scratch” panel held at the sixth annual Undergraduate Stern Women in Business conference on Feb. 17.

“I’ve always been a risk taker and have always loved doing things on my own,” said NYU Stern graduate Lau who founded JEMMA, a women’s handbag company dedicated to serving the needs of the professional women.

Similarly, Smikle is the owner of her own eyewear and accessories label TNEMNRODA, which is adornment spelled backwards. She gained experience in the fashion industry by working as a journalist, but soon realized that given the instability of the fashion and retail industry, she would rather jump in at the deep end and start her own company.

Both women self-funded their business ventures and built their personal startups from scratch. Lau said bootstrapping her business taught Lau a great deal about financial discipline. Resource allocation is imperative to a thriving business, she explained, because a brilliant business idea would never come to fruition without careful management of resources.

So far, their businesses have been thriving. Lau’s brand has close to 7,000 followers on Facebook and approximately 5,000 people on its mailing list, which she calls the #JEMMAGirls community. Smikle’s startup, which was launched in 2013, has grown into a four-person team including a production assistant and two interns. She dreams of eventually scaling her company to the size of Zara, with 1,400 employees across multiple locations.

A unique idea would not materialize without concrete actions, Smikle advised potential young entrepreneurs. “It really is super-crucial to take even the smallest step to breathe life into it… [I]t really is small steps that leads to a huge difference,” Smikle said.

Their successes have inspired students in the audience to join this wave of women entrepreneurs.  “Being in business school, a lot of students feel you have to follow one distinctive path,” director of conference Tabby Wakabari said. The speakers from diverse backgrounds gave students the courage to pursue any ventures that they wanted to, she added.

Lau understood this sentiment only too well when she was a college student, but her mindset has now changed and she encourages young women to do what they love. “It’s very easy to do what society tells you to do, but I think to lead a life that’s fulfilling you really need to do what you actually enjoy.”

Journalist and Photographer: ZiQi (Zikki) Lin

Photograph taken from fashion shoot with Chloe Richardson

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