Jean Poh, Swoonery, Woman Entrepreneur
Jean was introduced to me by a VC who I have known for many years. He was impressed with her and thought I should meet her. I was not only impressed; I was blown away. Jean came in and started talking to me about what she was building. In my head, I was thinking if I was going to build the business she was building I would approach it in the same way. She had looked at every angle. I told Jean that I was definitely interested but wanted to wait until she launched but in the meantime she could continue to lean on me like an investor. She took me up on that and emailed me that afternoon with a slew of questions and continued to rope me in. I eventually caved and invested pre-launch.
Jean was born in Shanghai and moved to NYC at 2 years old. Her history in the jewelry business is deep. Her Mom’s side of the family governed a wealthy province and when the Imperial Dynasty collapsed they moved to Shanghai. Jean’s great-Grandfather on her Mom’s side came to the US in 1911 to go to UPenn and then got his PhD at Harvard before returning to China to found his own hospitals and give back by building medical teaching facilities around China together with the Rockefellers. Her father side produced a famous poet during the Tang Dynasty and her great-Grandfather acquired at British jewelry company called Alexander Clark. Their store was on the ground floor of the Peace Hotel on the Bund and sold all the Western luxury jewelry brands from Rolex to Mikimoto. This was passed down to her Grandfather.
Jean has pedigree and two ivy league degrees but that is not what makes her the force that she is. This girl has a hustle and resourcefulness like I’ve never seen and the kind of laser focus that only comes from a deeper sense of purpose.
Her family fell from grace when they were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. They lost everything. Her parents, who had known each other since kindergarten were in their pre-teens. Her great-grandmother was tortured, her Mom was fending off the Red Army as they looted their home of all their art, jewelry and valuable possessions. Her Grandmother was a doctor who used to zip around Shanghai decked in couture clothing on a motorcycle was now testing strains of tuberculosis on herself until she found one that was innocuous enough to inject her kids so they would test positive and avoid being sent to labor camps. Her parents came to the US with $40 in their pocket and two suitcases leaving Jean behind in Shanghai until they got settled.
Her mother, once a spoiled rich girl, took a job as a nanny on the Upper East Side to put her Dad through college. Her Dad ended up dropping out and becoming an apprentice in a jewelry shop. They started off in Queens but her parents never wanted Jean to forget her heritage or their upbringing. At four years old Jean announced to her parents that she was listening to Menudo as she danced and sang. Her Mom said no way and enrolled Jean in private music school and ballet academy on the Upper East Side. All the other kids were in their private school uniforms and Jean had her corduroys and new balance sneakers. She would return with her Mom to Queens after class where there were drug deals happening under sneakers hanging from the telephone poles. She was growing up in one world but being pushed to understand and embrace the elite world of her family’s past.
The family left Elmhurst when Jean was 6 and continued to rebuild. Her parents were working like dogs to change their lives while Jean was changing her brother’s diapers. Her Mom eventually opened a jewelry store on Madison Avenue and then became a real estate broker in 3 states. Her father took out a $5k loan, started his jewelry manufacturing company and eventually became known for making high-end one of a kind pieces for celebrities and even royalty. Her parents wanted to give Jean the best education so she could rebuild her family’s legacy.
She went to Barnard College at Columbia University majored in poly-sci and focused on foreign policy and international security. She didn’t have a fake ID so she decided to become a club promoter so she could get in and party for free while pocketing close to$2k a night. She was slacking off in school and realized she had to take another path. Jean spent the next few years working her ass off and taking 27 credits a semester to get her grade point average up. Upon graduation she was recruited by the National Security Agency on recommendation by one of her professors who was security advisor to the UN. She decided to pass because they told her she would have to sever ties with her family in China, ask for permission to travel and if she did well she could make around $85K a year. Jean decided that was not the right path, applied to law school and ended up at Cornell.
After law school she worked for a law firm in NYC doing M&A and VC work but moved back to Shanghai in 2008 to be a lawyer there because China was booming and she wanted to see it first hand. She was 28 when she started investing in startups.
She met her Italian husband (now-ex) there and they stayed for 3 years. They decided to prioritize his career and his job took them to Seattle. She mastered every cooking technique and soufflé recipe while she was a housewife and then turned her focus to helping her dad’s jewelry manufacturing business survive in the economic crisis. She dove into learning about the industry, taught herself to design jewelry and started building a client base to make custom jewelry for and brought the business to her Dad. Moved back to NYC, got divorced and built her own atelier which became the retail arm of her father’s business specializing in one of a kind pieces. She bank rolled it by helping her father broker gem deals with the second largest jewelry company in China and he once sent her to Japan to close a deal for 3 tons of imperial jade and they helped the company set up their flagship store in NYC and later got cut out of the deal.
Jewelry manufacturing was moving overseas because its cheaper and there weren’t many jewelry companies looking for new manufacturers in NYC so Jean decided she would help her dad by creating a client who needed manufacturing but didn’t know the first thing about jewelry. So she sent the owner of Kleinfeld’s Bridal a cold email on LinkedIn and they connected. Over the course of two days Jean pulled together a business plan, taught herself how to do financial projections and nailed the meeting. The concept was to create a diverse line of inventory exclusively for Kleinfelds and build an online bridal jewelry business. The owner wanted a big line of inventory but did not want to put a dime in. She knew to make this work right it would take $8m to build and produce enough inventory. At the second meeting they told her they were being pitched by a few big diamond dealers and she realized that they did not want to build a business selling unique high-quality jewelry they only wanted to license the Kleinfeld name and collect the fees because it was easier.
In January 2015 Kleinfeld’s finally turned her down. Jean’s concept was to fix the generic selection and terrible experience of buying jewelry online by using behavioral profiling, data and recommendation technology to do what she did for her private clients—getting to know them and then sell them unique jewelry that they could connect with. She believed in her concept because she knew the industry and understood the customer so she decided that she would raise the money and do it by herself. Except instead of taking on inventory cost she would give her customers the biggest selection of styles and sizes by aggregating designer fine jewelry brands on a marketplace and use a drop-ship model to benefit the brands.
She got a few advisors on board, her dad wrote her her first investor’s check and let her squat out of his office. With that check she hired her first employee in April. The developer she hired didn’t work out and after going through several different UX designers no one could design a site that wasn’t cookie cutter that used all this technology in a way that made buying jewelry easy. One night in September 2015 a light bulb went off. Jean picked up a marker and started drawing on a whiteboard. She spent the next week teaching herself to make wireframes using Powerpoint. She closed her first round in November, built up a team of 6 employees and got over 40 designer jewelry brands on board for her launch. Jean is the founder and CEO of Swoonery and they launched yesterday.
Here is a special discount for everyone to go buy their first piece at Swoonery.