Joan Morgan has already made her mark as an award-winning journalist, now she’s about to carve out a niche in the beauty world.
A noted hip-hop journalist, Morgan, who was born in Jamaica and raised in the South Bronx, started out as a freelance writer for The Village Voice. Since then, she has written for Vibe, Spin, Ms., More, Interview, Working Mother, GIANT, and Essence magazine, where she was executive editor. In addition to this, Morgan coined the term “hip-hop feminism” in 1999 when she made her literary debut with When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost.
Now, she has turned her efforts to Emily Jayne, a natural body care line of products. It includes natural body butters and fragrances, all inspired by the Caribbean.
Madame Noire: Trying to solve your son’s mild eczema with homemade treatments helped spur the launch of Emily Jayne.
Joan Morgan: I’m very, very happy spending way too much money on products but he needed something that worked. The more I played with scents, the more I started to prefer my products. Frankly, they just worked better.
MN: You came up with the company name by combining the name of your Jamaican grandmother, Emily, and your Jamaican great-grandmother, Jayne. What was it about these two women that inspired you?
JM: I’m come from a family that believes strongly in “lines.” My mom’s line, the Lawson line, includes particularly strong women. They’re mountain women at their core; they have a harmony with the earth, a way with herbs and the kind of fortitude that starts you on a mountainside with no electricity and running water (Emily’s house and the house, I was born in, as a matter of fact) and lands you sitting in a graduation watching your granddaughter graduate from one of the top universities in the United States (me, Wesleyan). Throughout it all is a tradition of formidable strength, humility and beauty. We were raised with this as our legacy. I knew my grandmother Emily.
Jayne, my great-grandmother died before I was born. But like most the Lawsons who came before me, they were part of my family’s daily conversation during my childhood. Still are to this day. So they always had a presence, always had a place.
MN: How did you fund the startup?
JM: I took about $500 in personal savings and made a commitment to only grow the business as quickly as that initial investment plus any profit would allow me. That was a really important lesson I learned from a previous business venture that didn’t go nearly as well as Emily Jayne. Fabulous ideas are wonderful but you have to be able to afford them. When I couldn’t afford an initial ‘great idea,’ I just had to get really creative and come up with another alternative.
I also received a really generous initial order from a sister/friend who really believed in what I was doing and so she bought like a year’s supply at one time and had me charge her the price of what it would cost to incorporate and trademark the company. That kind of support has been amazing and invaluable.
JM: Really, no obstacles yet. Knock on wood. My biggest issue is time management because I’m also in the middle of a doctoral program at NYU. But I’m incredibly mindful of that. For the first two months I deliberately kept under the radar of my more fabulous and extremely well-connected circle of friends because I wanted to make sure I could handle production demands. I also waited to put Emily Jayne out on my public Facebook pages and Twitter. I knew my network was valuable so I wanted to utilize it wisely.
MN: What makes Emily Jayne different?
JM: Well the inspiration for the company is different. It’s based strongly on my desire to create quality natural products, but a lot of people have that desire. You can read about the inspirations on the first page of the website, but this entire venture is a tribute to my cultural identity and ancestry as a Caribbean-American woman. So the scents are really unique in that respect.
And also, I see this as an extension of my cultural and political work as a feminist writer and thinker. I wanted to create a product that helped black and brown people feel good about skin that is often problematized but inherently really aesthetically beautiful. I love the way our skin looks when its moisturized and glistening. The way the light catches it is just beautiful. And I wanted women in particular to have a product that encouraged them to touch themselves. I’m a big believer in pleasure, particularly women’s pleasure. This is product that’s deeply rooted in those particular values.
MN: What are your plans for the company?
JM: Future plans for this year are to continue developing the customer base. I want to know my customers so I try to make myself as available and aware of their preferences and tastes as possible. Besides, I love talking product. I’ve been really blessed so far, as publicity and press go. Emily Jayne sold it’s first jar on June 26th. [I]n a few weeks I’ll be making the celeb rounds but honestly, building customer relationships is my top priority. Do I want global domination — Whole Foods, Barney’s — down the road? Yes. But what I want now are happy, loyal customers that keep returning.
I’m also very happy to be working with other black women who have synchronistic brands, [like] Nina Burke’s company CCBlaq Candles which makes these divine soy based candles. And Jodie Patterson’s company, Georgia. We’ve done events together and have a lot of plans for cross-promotions. It’s mad cool to be able to work together and support each other this way.
MN: How do you juggle everything?
JM: I’m not working as a journalist, but I am a full-time PhD student, a cultural critic, public intellectual with a pretty heavy lecture schedule and a mom. But I’m also the daughter of a woman who immigrated to the U.S with $50 in her pocket from Jamaica and often worked more than one job until she got herself through nursing school. I don’t ask “How?” I just do it.