As most entrepreneurs know, ideas can strike at any moment. Sometimes they are loud, and shiny, and chase us. But more often, they are subtle, haunting us in the corners of our minds, begging us to give them a chance to be bright and shiny, too.
Jen Kahn heard the whisper and decided to take the chance and bring it to life. The idea became Scenery Bags and the rest, well, is not quite history…more like a new beginning. In making bags out of old theatre scenery drops, she not only gave her idea life, she gave new life to something that had been discarded.
As this month’s Doing Good In Heels spotlight, Jen shares how she brought her idea to life and how Scenery Bags is doing its part to pay it forward.
Brooke: Scenery Bags was inspired by a line of bags you discovered that were made out of old sails. What clicked in your mind and became the catalyst leading to where you are today?
Jen: I was trying to think of what I could use to make bags out of that is a large piece of fabric that would otherwise be thrown away. I work in theatre, so the idea of theatre backdrops came to me as the obvious choice.
Brooke: You and your husband both have successful careers working in theatre on both coasts. When did you first discover your love of theatre?
Jen: When my parents took me to see the CCT production of Crazy for You. I left the theatre tap dancing (I use the term "tap dancing" very lightly because I was about 8 and had never really taken a class). From then on, I was in dance classes and youth theatre (cough cough "with you" cough cough). It was in high school that I decided my love of theatre was something I wanted to take from hobby to career, but behind the scenes as a stage manager.
Brooke: Since I’ve known you, you’ve always been a big advocate for the arts. Why are you so passionate about not only theatre, but all forms of artistic expression? Where do you think this passion comes from?
Jen: That's a very good question. I love stories. I always have. And I'm fascinated by all the different ways people choose to tell them. Be it: live theatre, or poetry, or dance, or painting, storytelling is one of the most uniting, engrossing, and universal things we share.
Brooke: From the start, it was important to you for Scenery Bags to have a social initiative. You decided to partner with TDF’s Stage Door Program, which provides arts education to middle and high school age children, including a chance to see a Broadway show. How did you go about choosing your charity partner?
Jen: Well, the egg came before the chicken on this one. I knew from the beginning that I wanted a portion of proceeds to go to taking kids to see theatre. Introducing a new generation to theatre is a cause very close to my heart and I love the cyclicality of making a product out of retired theatre pieces that supports future theatre lovers.
In my entrepreneurial ignorance, I thought I was going to do it all! The company and the non-profit. Well, I quickly learned that, that was way too much for this new mom and new business owner to do, so I started searching for an existing non-profit that shared my heart and mission. TDF's Stage Doors Program is everything I could have hoped for and more. I'm so very blessed to have found them.
Brooke: Since Tom’s came to the scene in 2006, there has been a significant jump in businesses that prioritize a socially responsible model. Why do you think social enterprise has become so popular and powerful?
Jen: If given the choice between two products, and one is just a cute pair of shoes and the other is a cute pair of shoes that helps someone in need, it's a no brainer. At least I think so. I try to wear at least one thing a day that gives back. We get to wear our heart and tell these peoples stories.
Brooke: As Stiletto Gal readers know, building a business from scratch brings all whole laundry list of challenges and, let’s call them, opportunities for personal growth. Why choose to add an extra layer by including a social initiative to Scenery Bag’s mission?
Jen: It's my heart. This company is my love letter to the theatre. It is the marriage of everything I love. The social initiative might actually be my favorite part about it.
Brooke: On top of everything else, you’ve made it a priority from the beginning to ensure every bag is made in the United States and follows Fair Trade guidelines. Why is this important to you?
Jen: My blog (linenlaceandlove) was a part of the "who made your clothes" campaign. As a company that touts sustainability and giving back, fair trade was none negotiable. We can't claim to stand for something if we can't back that up from every angle.
Brooke: An important part of any new business is getting your unique story out there. What has been the biggest challenge in getting your narrative out?
Jen: Ha, well, honestly my biggest challenge was that it got out there too quickly! This little idea that I believed in went big fast and I've just been trying to keep up ever since. It's an amazing problem to have, but I did not expect it.
Brooke: You’ve had amazing support and found an enthusiastic audience amongst the Broadway and creative communities. What has been your strategy in engaging with and educating the non-theatre community?
Jen: Social influencer advertising has been my biggest marketing tool. It was a fast way to tap into the theatre lover community, and then to reach a non-theatre crowd. The ability to partner with people who share the same passion for the bag, the story behind it, and then market it as the perfect gift for a theatre (or arts) lover in your life. Luckily there are a lot of theatre lovers out there, so they have been keeping me pretty busy, and I'm forever grateful for them.
Brooke: What has been the biggest obstacle in this experience? What about the biggest lesson you’ve learned about yourself through this adventure?
Jen: The biggest obstacle has been timeline and patience. I love ideas. I have them all the time, all day long. I love planning, but the waiting almost kills me. For example, it takes 4 weeks to order zippers! And there's so much I want to do, and ways I want to grow, and I want to do them all right now. Ironically, what I've learned is that it's good to take your time. Do it right the first time. Perfect the model and then start in on the next one. It's hard, but it's the right way to do it. I've also learned that I can do it. It requires all of you, and all the fight you can bring to the table, but it's doable.
Brooke: What is the one piece of advice you would want to share with someone looking to follow in your footsteps by adding a socially responsible initiative to their entrepreneurial endeavors?
Jen: Do it!! It's so worth it. To take something ordinary and turn it into a story, a treasure, a tangible way to do good, there's nothing better.