Friday, November 20, 2009

Elan magazine features Laura Lee Designs

How did Harvard-educated California girl Laura Lee Williams beaded a path from a Fortune 500 exec to the head of her own successful handbag business? In an article for elan magazine, reporter Hope Gibbs explains.

elan magazine
August 2009

Beautiful beads from Tokyo—more than 30,000 of them—grace the most elaborate offering by Laura Lee Designs, a handbag firm founded in 2005 by California native Laura Lee Williams.

Other designs—such as her trademark M bag—feature fewer beads, but the focus here is on the three-inch wrap of Australian snakeskin in the middle.

“The white version is perfect for weddings, and pink version is a personal favorite because we contribute a portion of the proceeds from each purchase to Breast Cancer Research,” says the soft-spoken brunette, who shares the tale of how she got started in the handbag business as she sips chamomile tea at a café not far from her current base of operations in Vienna, VA.

As it turns out, the California native never planned to become an entrepreneur. She didn’t plan to go into the family business either—her father and siblings all work in the TV and movie industry. Instead, Laura Lee graduated with a degree in economics from UCLA, a master’s degree in international studies from Harvard University, and spent most of her career working on strategic initiatives and marketing programs for Fortune 500 firms such as Nike, American Express, and Apple Computer.

But when she accepted a job as VP of global business with Hong Kong’s Pacific Century CyberWorks (PCCW) in 1999, her time spent in China inspired her to look at the world in a new way.

“I helped PCCW transform itself from an old guard telecom company into an organization that provided Wi-Fi in airports, developed call centers and established broadband services,” she explains. “In doing so, I worked closely with Chinese executives and watched as they planned strategies that took a long-term view of business. It was a very different approach from what I experienced earlier in my career when I worked for U.S. executives. Too often, we Americans focus only on short-term profits and as a result, some very good ideas never got the chance to take root.”

However, Laura Lee says American firms also tend to be more entrepreneurial and innovative than many Chinese organizations. So in early 2003, she decided to meld the best of both cultures into a company of her own. Her mission: To manufacture elegant hand-beaded handbags and sell them to a sophisticated clientele in the U.S. and abroad.

Laura Lee’s timing was good. Although sales of pocketbooks dropped by an average of 4 percent a year in 1996, the total value of imports of women's handbags or purses recently hit $1 billion, according to the Gale Encyclopedia of American Industries.

“This growth in handbag sales is put down to women regarding handbags as essential, having more than one, coordinating them with outfits as fashion accessories and choosing different sizes or styles to suit the occasion,” says Glyn Barlow, director of the online store Fashion Shop UK.

Growth may also be attributed to an increase in supply, for more handbag manufacturers are outsourcing large portions of the production cycle to factories in developing countries such as China. Not only is labor dramatically less expensive abroad—but also Asian workers pride themselves on paying attention to detail and turning out high-quality products.

Laura Lee witnessed this firsthand when, in 2003, execs at Polo Ralph Lauren’s Hong Kong office hired her away from PCCW to help them with strategic initiatives. She watched, listened and learned—and on her off time amass traveled far and wide to find suppliers for her own line of pocketbooks.

In addition to the high-end beads she found in Tokyo, she discovered an Australia supplier for the snakeskin in Sydney. In her travels, she also located crystals, appliqués, and clasps to complete the look of the elegant creation.

Laura Lee’s connections at Ralph Lauren, as well as a family friend, led her to Timbacc International—a seven-factory operation based in Xien-Du, which
produces a variety of beaded products including evening gowns for Yves
St. Laurent.

“It was harder than I thought it would be to find a factory that would produce my bags,” she admits. “Although the Chinese are trying to be more modern, it is still a very traditional, male-dominated society. At the factories owned by men, no one would even return my calls. But a husband and wife team owns Timbacc, and the wife really runs the show.

Laura Lee had seamstresses there make enough bags to fill orders for about a year. By the fall of 2005, she was ready to peddle her purses. That December, she moved back to the U.S. so she could focus on getting her handbags into tony U.S. stores. Her first stop: Henri Bendel’s in New York City. As luck would have it the buyer was Foster Chang, a man of Asian decent. “He not only liked the quality and design of my bags, but appreciated that they were manufactured in China,” Laura Lee explains.

Chang set up a trunk show for her the week before Christmas, and Laura Lee sold two-dozen bags. It gave her the confidence to knock on more department store doors and today Laura Lee Designs—which range from $250 to $700—are sold internationally in Spain, Australia and the U.K. Nationally, they can be found at Bloomingdale’s, Fred Segal, the Ritz-Carlton gift shops, and tony boutiques from Los Angeles to Miami including Terri & Kate Clothier in Great Falls.

“I constantly have people telling me I need to meet someone who creates something special,” says Terri Parent, owner of Terri & Kate Clothier. “The work doesn’t always hold up to the praise—but that wasn’t the case with Laura Lee’s handbags. They are works of art. It’s the perfect accessory for a black suit or elegant evening down. You carry it, walk into a room—and you just stand out.”

That’s exactly what designers in Hollywood thought when they saw a sample of the bags. In fact, in a 2006 episode of Desperate Housewives, actress Eva Longoria’s character Gabrielle Solis carried a Laura Lee handbag—and the show’s costume designers made an outfit to match.

Soon after, organizers of the March 2007 Oscar Wilde pre-Oscar party called Laura Lee to order six of her purses to auction off to celebrities, and invited Williams to the gala.

“Now that was amazing,” admits Laura Lee. “I realize my bags aren’t for everyone, but the women who buy them are confident, and pride themselves on being fashionable, original, and making a statement. I like that in a woman, and want to encourage more ladies to stand out in a crowd and be recognized.”

For more information,visit

Thursday, November 19, 2009


When: Wednesday, December 2
Time: 6:00-8:00 p.m.

Where: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 3rd Floor Gallery, 1250 New York Ave., NW, Washington, DC
Register: Send an email to

How do we improve health care in the developing world? We start by improving the economic opportunities for women, says advisor to the chief economist of the World Bank, Dr. Maureen Lewis. Lewis will speak at a special networking event on Dec. 2 from 6-8 p.m. in Washington, DC, hosted by Robin Strongin, creator of the popular health care blog Disruptive Women in Health Care Other sponsors include Strongin’s public affairs firm, Amplify Public Affairs (, Strategic Health Policy International, Medco, Global Health Strategies, Creative Women and VirtuArte.

“It is gratifying to see how Disruptive Women has grown as a community, moving from words on a blog to global action. I am thrilled that this event and our bloggers have generated world-wide interest,” Strongin says. “We have created a place that takes the passion we have for health care and policy and merges it with solutions.”

This Disruptive Women in Health Care holiday reception will serve as the kick-off event for a series of blog posts by Disruptive Women and guest bloggers highlighting the connections between economic empowerment, the arts and improved health in the developing world.

“The Dec. 2 event is also the official launch for a series of blog posts that analyze the relationship between putting economic power in the hands of women — in the U.S. and abroad,” Strongin adds. “I am eager to hear the advice and ideas that Dr. Lewis will share with the impressive group that will be gathered. My belief is that when women put their heads together, great things happen.”


The mission of is to serve as a platform for provocative ideas, thoughts, and solutions in the health sphere. We recognize that to accomplish this, we need to call on experts outside of the health industry. The founding Disruptive Women have audacious hopes for our blog. We’re not managing change, we’re not thriving on chaos — we’re not waiting for cures. We’re driving change, we’re creating chaos, and we’re finding cures. In a nutshell: We’re disrupting the status quo in the health machine. Our goal is to become the “go to” health care blog -- one that is recognized as a Petri dish for fresh ideas and bold solutions. Won’t you join us?


Robin Strongin is the creator of the Disruptive Women in Health Care Blog ( and the president and CEO of Amplify Public Affairs ( She is an accomplished public affairs expert with more than 25 years of experience working in Washington, DC. Robin serves on the Board of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Capitol Chapter and is a member of the Women Business Leaders of the US Health Care Industry Foundation. She works with and for Federal and state governments, regulatory agencies, Congress, think tanks, nonprofit organizations, corporations, coalitions and trade associations.

Ampify Public Affairs is the next generation in public affairs, leading the way in the integration of new media and traditional communications strategies. With unequalled expertise in aligning allies, connecting voices, and promoting action, Amplify serves as a relationship builder, creating and sustaining win-win collaborations to move issues forward and influence targeted audiences. Through the blending of innovative communication technologies, credible coalition building, grassroots and top-tiered public affairs expertise, Amplify leverages connections to achieve targeted objectives in the public, private, and political arena.

Monday, November 16, 2009

NTSB Chairman Warns 'First Impessions Can Be Wrong'

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Debbie Hersman criticized the way some members of the press cover the aviation and transportation accidents at a National Press Club luncheon held on Nov. 16.

“We understand the need to solve the puzzle in the early hours of an accident, and we know your editors and producers want you to be the first to get the ‘cause’ of the accident, but what is the cost to your credibility if you are the first to get the cause wrong? We have learned from experience that first impressions can be wrong,” she said.

Hersman pointed to some of the less-than-savvy questions NTSB officials have received while on scene, including, “Who makes 747s besides Boeing?” “What kinds of planes make those white lines in the sky?” and “Who was steering the train?”

She said she understands that in today’s tough journalistic climate, “we don’t have the luxury of having only transportation experts cover our work. These reporters are very good surrogates for the public who, although they rely on our transportation system every day, often have a limited understanding of how it operates and how safe it is.”

The question, Hersman asked, is how do we provide important accident information responsibly?

“ As you know, the NTSB has been investigating major transportation accidents for more than 42 years, and in that time we’ve held thousands of press briefings near the accident scenes,” said Hersman, who joined NTSB in June 2004 and took over as its chairman in July 2009.

“I appreciate this opportunity to meet with journalists outside the atmosphere of a major transportation accident … I am often asked about how I feel about working with the press. I have to say, in the beginning, it was quite intimidating to stand in front of a bank of 20 microphones in a room full of cameras with reporters firing questions at me. “

She said that after accompanying NTSB teams to 17 major accidents in the last 5 years — ranging from the collision of two Washington Metro trains at Woodley Park Station in September, the mid-air collision involving a sightseeing helicopter and single engine plane over the Hudson River that killed 9 people in August — she said she had the opportunity to see her staff and the press corps in action.

“Of course all of our beat reporters are top notch, but occasionally we encounter reporters at the accident scene who don’t routinely cover transportation issues and have the – how shall I say it – don’t have a full grasp of the subject matter.

“Even in this changing environment, when you are being asked to re-invent yourselves on a regular basis, I hope you continue to achieve the professional satisfaction you sought when you became a reporter.”