Sometimes life shows you the path to your passion. At least that is what Jessica Perdomo discovered.
The Queens, NY-native grew up in a low-income family where she saw her family struggling. Perdomo, who is Dominican-American, was raised by her grandmother, who had 15 grandkids. It was a struggle and Perdomo knew she wanted to find a way to better her family’s condition. With this ambition she started working early on, working as a cashier at a local bodega even selling lemonade at Belmont Racetrack. Eventually, she built a career in fashion, working at such luxury brands such as Ralph Lauren.
But it was a trip to Spain that led Perdomo down the path of entrepreneurship. It was there that she met a family of leather artisans. So impressed with the leather they used for shoes, she asked if they could make a pair for her. She sketched out a design and she went home with a new pair of comfortable leather shoes that eventually led Perdomo to launch J.J. Gray, a unisex line of shoes handcrafted by third generation artisans in Spain and sold in the U.S.
J.J. Gray’s handcrafted riding boots and Oxfords can be purchased online or at one of Jessica’s traveling trunk shows, and they range in price from $390 to $1,275.
MadameNoire.com caught up with Jessica Perdomo while she was at a ski resort and told us her inspiring journey to entrepreneurship.
Jessica Perdomo (JP): Hi, thanks so much. This is an honor for me. Sorry you had to call back, I am here at a ski resort in Vermont and everyone else is still sleeping, I had to step outside.
MN: Sounds like a nice holiday vacation
JP: Actually, I came with my boyfriend. He had some work to do here and I haven’t had a vacation in two years since I started my company so we figured why not get a little pleasure out of it (laughs).
MN: That’s a good mix. Speaking of work, how did you come up with the idea for J.J. Gray?
Jessica Perdomo: I was working at the time for Ralph Lauren and was tired of spending money on shoes that were really expensive because of the name brand but turned out to be poorly made or just uncomfortable. And then it happened that I had this trip to the South of Spain; while walking around I found this leather, really, really soft leather. It was the kind of leather that molds to your feet. This family had been making shoes with this leather for more than 100 years. So I asked them to make a pair for me. When I got back, everywhere I wore them I got compliments. And if you met me you’d know I am not the most fashionable person. So these compliments were unusual.
MN: But you’re in the fashion business, you must be used to people noticing your outfits.
JP: I have my work attire and then all you’ll find me in is a comfy tee-shirt and jeans…maybe some red lipstick. But I do like to buy quality goods. So I would be shopping in my favorite stores like Saks, Barneys, and INTERMIX and they’d ask about my shoes. Even people on the street were stopping me and asking me about these shoes. That’s when I realized there was a market. You can’t find leather like this in the U.S., so I thought this has to be something, an opportunity to start my own business.
MN: What have been some challenges?
JP: This has been an organically built business. I didn’t have time to nurture relationships. People ask me about a business plan and I’m like a business plan? What? It has been all me. I bootstrapped this business entirely. I quit my job at Ralph Lauren with just $800 in the bank and with faith. It has been so humbling that people come to my shows and buy my shoes.
The whole reason for me wearing luxury and for working in luxury was because of the trauma, the trauma of my grandmother not being able to afford new sneakers for me when I was a kid. I thought if I wear luxury stuff it will last forever. So it’s funny how the universe revealed this journey to me, there were all these signs to me to start this business. And now I can help other children. I got excited about the idea of being a business owner and the possibilities of what this would mean for my real goal of having footwear sneakers for kids in the five boroughs. Even when there were days when I had only $16 in my bank account I didn’t give up faith, and then the next day someone ordered $20,000 worth of shoes.
MN: How do you market the company?
JP: We’re a word of mouth business and this is how the story has gotten out–through people who have told other people. We are mainly an online business but my secret sauce is that I do events once a month. I host trunk shows–L.A., NYC–we’re like the traveling shoe company. It is the only way for me to keep the cost down. I don’t have overhead charges; I just partner up with local stores and we have parties.
MN: What do you enjoy about being an entrepreneur?
JP: It’s all very humbling. Having my own business is a dream come true. I always thought I would be an ace employee, and I was. I took my job seriously because it was my way to help my family. And then when I started my company, my family I don’t have a safety net– it’s not like I have a family who could help me support my business. Maybe I was naive, but I knew I could do it anyway.
MN: What are some of your goals for 2017?
JP: When I was in eighth grade I got a hole in my sneakers and when my grandmother and I left a store without a new pair of sneakers that was when I knew we were poor. Before that, I remember turning on the stove for heat, but I thought that was normal. When the sneaker thing happened that made me want to do something to help my family. I got a job right after that to buy my own sneakers. Now with my own company, my goal is to donate sneakers to children in need in the five boroughs of New York City. My goal is that for everyone who buys a pair of my shoes I will buy sneakers for kids. I also want to find a way to team up with Fila; I think they would make good partner. I already go to speak at schools and tell students about my experiences. I want them to see that no matter where you come from you can be a success, and you can give back. I never thought I’d work for Ralph Lauren, go to Spain, vacation at a ski resort. But here I am.
MN: What has been your biggest business lesson?
JP: You have to always remember where you came from. It’s only when you are faced with challenges that you push. Every time I go back to Queens I walk a little harder, my lean gets a little stronger and after I play some Nas, I’m back in my Queens mode (laughs).