When MBA student Wilglory Tanjong started Anima Iris, her luxury handbag business two years ago, she just wanted to “start making bags for fun.”
Now she handbags are everywhere: online with big retailers like Nordstrom and Revolve, on TV in HBO’s “Insecurity”and even on Beyoncé’s Instagram. The bold geometric bags are designed by Tanjong, 25, and hand-sewn in Dakar, Senegal.
Since its launch in February 2020, Anima Iris has generated more than $ 700,000 in lifetime sales, including $ 603,819 in 2021 alone. And recently, the company had sales of around $ 100,000. per month.
“[Anima Iris] was a therapy project that just made me happy, “Tanjong told CNBC Make It.” I’ve always been a very fashionable person. People always ask me, ‘Where did you get this? Where did you get this? And then I realized, ‘Hey, maybe people will just buy [products] of me.'”
But Tanjong didn’t start the business for the money. Rather, he honors his personal and ancestral background.
Growing up, Tanjong watched his parents jostle each other. After moving from Cameroon to Maryland when Tanjong was 2 years old, they held several different jobs and owned a laundromat. Tanjong, along with his older and younger sisters, would help his father topple houses during the summer.
“I really hated it back then,” Tanjong says. “But it’s clearly there [my] motivation comes from. “
Her mother, a nurse, also ran a small cosmetology studio at the back of their house, where Tanjong watched her “take control of her schedule and build something from nothing.”
But they also had difficult times. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when Tanjong was 8 years old, and when she was 14, her parents divorced and Tanjong saw her family “fall into financial difficulties.”
“I will never forget the day my mom told us we were finally approved for food stamps,” Tanjong said. “Having these kinds of experiences really pushed me to become financially independent as quickly as possible.
Tanjong continued to work hard and got a full ride to Princeton University. She worked and had a high GPA throughout the four years – but when her mother died in her senior year, Tanjong was emotionally shaken.
Still, she persisted, and in June 2018 Tanjong became a first-generation college graduate. She moved to Atlanta, Georgia three weeks later to take on her new role as an operations manager at a manufacturing and supply company.
At the time, his bank account was reaping the rewards – in addition to his annual salary of $ 86,000, Tanjong had saved about $ 22,000 through campus jobs and summer internships. She also inherited approximately $ 50,000 from her mother.
But Tanjong was “the most unhappy [she] had never been. ”
“I never really took the time to slow down to really face the passing of the most important person in my life,” she says.
So, after a year in the professional world, Tanjong took a leave of absence for his mental health.
Drawing on his savings, Tanjong traveled to Africa for six months. She started in Ghana, where she unwittingly began to network with young entrepreneurs. During her trip, she interviewed local entrepreneurs to the African Hustle series on YouTube and Instagram, which she created to show how “young people are reshaping the continent in their own way,” she says.
In Senegal, she found a community of artisans who handcrafted shoes, jewelry and handbags. It was then that inspiration struck.
“I realized there was a big gap in the market,” Tanjong said. “Women of color, and especially black women, have always been left out of the luxury narrative. Building a brand that centers these women while bringing African culture into the global landscape was like a bingo moment for me.”
When she found out that a local artisan could create her jewelry and handbags, Tanjong explored what it would mean to start a small business by chatting with other artisans in the area and hiring them. Then she transferred money from her savings and invested around $ 5,000 in the business. The money financed the travel, materials and labor to make 50 bags.
After a smooth launch in November 2019, Tanjong focused on handbags. She opened Anima Iris in February 2020 and officially quit her full-time job and moved to Philadelphia a month later.
In the clutches of success
Anima Iris got its first viral moment in June 2020 when the brand was featured in a Vogue article promoting black-owned beauty and fashion brands. Shortly after, a blogger tweeted photos of Tanjong’s handbags with links to the company’s webpage and social media accounts. The post received nearly 30,000 retweets and the Anima Iris website immediately sold.
But the “biggest moment” in Anima Iris’ success came in August 2021 when the brand became “Beyoncé endorsed”. Tanjong accidentally opened Instagram and spotted the mega star carrying a Raspberry Zaza bag.
That day, Tanjong knew it was time to develop. Almost instantly after Beyoncé’s approval, Anima Iris sold more than $ 23,000 worth of luxury handbags, was verified on Instagram, and exceeded the brand’s projected profits for 2021.
Since then, Tanjong has hired help to keep the brand growing exponentially. Anima Iris now also has seven artisans who handcraft the handbags in its Senegalese factory. In an effort to support his employees and the local economy, Tanjong pays his workers twice as much as the average Dakar craftsman earns.
“For so long, black people really defined culture in America, but I never really got to reap the benefits,” Tanjong said. “It’s so wonderful to see so many black designers finally being able to start their businesses, grow their businesses, and people having other options outside of the options we’ve usually had that actually shut us out.”
Day student and CEO
So far, growth has been sustained. Black Friday was Anima Iris’ highest grossing day to date, grossing over $ 62,000 in revenue. Partnerships with retailers like Revolve, Nordstrom and soon to be Saks Fifth Avenue – in addition to the money the brand is already making through its Shopify site – have seen the company earn at least $ 1.2 million in annual revenue. .
“I predict that we will make at least $ 5 million next year because I think there are a lot of opportunities for people to find out more about us,” Tanjong said.
While maintaining the resounding success of Anima Iris, Tanjong is also a full-time MBA student, graduating in the spring from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. She plans to finish her studies, but only because “the African child immigrated in [her]”refuses to stop.
“I wanted to get an MBA because I wanted to build the business while learning how to start a business,” Tanjong said. “But I hadn’t expected Anima Iris to grow up so fast.”
In the future, Tanjong wants to expand the brand’s presence on social media, community and product line. “My most important goal is to make it a full-fledged lifestyle brand,” she says. “I want to sell clothes. I want to start selling jewelry again. I want to sell shoes. I want to sell furniture and home decor.”
Asked about the advice she’s given to other aspiring entrepreneurs, Tanjong says she thinks everyone should be willing to take risks to find their “real goal.”
“I am not from the most privileged backgrounds,” Tanjong says. But now, “I’m really living life to the fullest, and it’s so possible for you to have the same life experience, but you’ve got to be prepared to reach out and find that life on your own.”
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