Long before the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton was spotted in a JoJo Maman Bebe maternity coat, Laura Tenison sat at her kitchen table in London sketching ideas for the company taking shape in her mind. In 1993, she launched a line of clothes for babies and mothers-to-be that combined classic British style with a Bretton twist.
What began on a shoestring budget has grown into a favorite of British mothers looking for high-quality clothing, accessories and toys. JoJo sells online and in about 50 stores across the UK. Though it has shipped to US fans for years, the brand is now expanding stateside. JoJo’s first East Coast store, in Westport, Conn, opens in April, followed by ones in Hoboken, Montclair and Greenwich and Brooklyn.
Tenison calls how the retailer does business as ‘the JoJo way,’ an informal ethos of treating employees well, focusing on quality and service, recycling programs and charitable efforts including a long-running partnership with Nema, a non-profit working to reduce infant mortality rates in Mozambique. That ethos became official when JoJo became a B Corp. four years ago.
I spoke with Tenison about crossing the Atlantic, being a solo founder, and how she puts into action the phrase, doing well while doing good (okay, she says, whilst)
Let’s start with the big news—your expansion to the U.S. Why now, and are the stores the same as in Britain?
I’m super excited–or maybe super worried– because I had a dream that when my little one left school I would open stores in the US. They grow up in a flash! He turned 18 and I had to fulfil my promise to myself. I was beginning to lose confidence when HRH
Princess Catherine (a loyal supporter) became pregnant with her third child and in a flash I found my energy. I would open three stores in the US in time for the birth of the third British royal baby … so that’s pretty much what happened and we are working round the clock to make it happen!
Our first store is in Westport, CT, then Hoboken, Greenwich, Montclair and Brooklyn. We’ll offer the US moms the service we offer our British mums– everything they need from pregnancy to pre-school from a local store, great quality at very reasonable prices. Our bestselling UK styles will be available– I don’t think we would get a
way if we changed too much since it was our US customer who demanded we cross the pond.
Looking back, what were some of the biggest challenges you had getting going?
I started JoJo with big ideas but a very small budget. It was a long hard slog to get the business off the ground., taking four years before we turned a real profit. We were so poor for so long, that the culture stayed with us and even though it’s a long time since we had to scrimp and save we never forget those days. Hard work is addictive– to this day I feel guilty taking downtime! So I guess the biggest challenges were being short of cash at first and now that we are established maintaining our ethos. I’m right there alongside our teams as we open new stores. It’s so important to me that our founding principles are filtered down to the next generation of the JoJo team.
Did what you call ‘the JoJo way’ evolve as you grew the company, or did you have a pretty clear sense early of how you wanted to conduct business?
I guess the ‘JoJo way’ comes from my life choices. I wanted to run a business that I could be proud of–and which my parents would accept was a good use of my time. I’m the youngest of a large family and my father did not approve when I left my job to start JoJo. We were turning over $15M before my parents stopped asking me when I would be getting a proper job. I wanted to prove to them that I could do it. They have both passed on now, but my Mum told me just before she died that she was very proud– she took her time! I need to be proud of JoJo, our ethics, our designs, service and people – that is the most important thing to me, and way higher on the agenda that our profit.
Why did you decide to become a B Corp, and what did you discover through that process?
It’s funny to think that four years ago I did not know what a B Corp was! I had been running JoJo as a purpose-lead company for years. We have dozens of initiatives to help our local communities, teams, and charities across the world … basically we just want to make sure that the business is run as a force for good. People kept telling me after I gave speeches on doing good while doing well that I should become a B Corp. Eventually I researched the movement and I was addicted. A business which is run for profit but with an ethical purpose ticked all the right boxes. The B Lab audit is stringent and onerous – it delves into areas of business ethics that I had never thought about but which opened my eyes. I genuinely feel we are a better business as a B Corp.
Your designs are so cute–do you see a role for you in educating customers about ethical business and fashion once they already won over by your clothes?
JoJo is about really practical clothing but with gorgeous (and a little humorous) designs. We have paired great French nautical style children’s wear with quirky British humor to make little outfits which will keep babies and children comfortable. Our customers come to us because our designs are practical, our stores are convenient and our service is good. The fact that we are a B Corp is the icing on the cake … not the cake itself. So we appeal to all sorts of people and yes, if we can use our small level of influence to spread our messages around reducing landfill and a circular economy we are happy.
You’ve been so successful in a very competitive space. What have your learned about yourself as an entrepreneur?
I guess you are right; I started my first business with $3k borrowed from my brother after four banks turned me down for a loan. I’ve worked hard all my life and always re-invested; we don’t borrow and run the business safely to secure the jobs. I believe in our ethos and brand and I’m hugely loyal to my team, but I don’t see it as a success … yet.
Life is like climbing a mountain as soon as you think you have reached the top you see another summit over the horizon. I have learned that if you are ambitious you will never be satisfied with your achievements.
I think my best attribute is being positive. I’m the eternal optimist and generally happy wherever I go. My worst aspect is that I think I can mult-task effectively but in reality, I don’t really listen when people come to see me when I’m busy watching the kids out the window or replying to emails. I really should multitask less!
How did you decide to partner with Nema?
I was on an eco-holiday in Mozambique with my two little boys. Every day we would walk into the village with our football and two hundred little ragged, barefoot kids would follow us, excited to see a real football. At the end of the holiday my son suggested we rebuild the local school. That was 11 years ago. Working with Nema, we have built five school and feed 1,000 kids a school meal daily, installed dozens of water pumps, run two ambulances and fund lots of other projects. This year we have agreed to a huge task – to build a local hospital. I’m terrified by the challenge, but with infant mortality still running ridiculously high, we have no other option. Life is like riding a bicycle – you must keep moving or else you fall off!