Small Business Spotlight: Ms. Jetsetter Takes Flight
Starting a travel accessory company at the beginning of a global pandemic isn’t easy. Just ask Tracey McGhee, founder of Ms. Jetsetter.
“There were times when I thought that my business wouldn’t succeed,” said McGhee. “I wanted to start a company centered on helping people travel in an organized, fashionable way, but with the pandemic, nobody was traveling anymore.”
Despite these challenges, McGhee not only successfully launched Ms. Jetsetter in 2019, but navigated it through the pandemic and has been able to significantly grow the business over time. Its lines of fashionable, durable travel accessories can now be found in over 30 boutiques across the country, along with a number of national retailers.
Success wasn’t always clear, but with the help of the Polsky Exchange’s Small Business Growth Program, McGhee was able to take Ms. Jetsetter from a simple idea to the success it is today.
After experiencing frustration with tangled necklaces, unorganized makeup, and basic travel bags when traveling, McGhee thought there had to be a better answer. She wanted something simple that would keep her organized, but also do so in a stylish way.
She started looking for options, but to her surprise she found nothing.
“I wanted something beyond just organization – something stylish, a little elevated,” said McGhee. “But I didn’t see it, so I thought there must be an opportunity here.”
With no background in manufacturing or product design, McGhee started searching for manufacturers online. The process was far from smooth, involving countless hours searching for one willing to work with her on creating the products she wanted, without a significant investment.
In time, she eventually found a manufacturer willing to work with her on the project, and after a few iterations of customization – adding and removing different options – McGhee had her first products: a jewelry case, a makeup case with brushes, a toiletries bag with a detachable pouch, and the Triple Trio – a stylish, functional set comprising of all three.
With her first products in hand, she started selling to her family and friends. The initial feedback was encouraging – they loved what she had created – but to truly test her products, McGhee wanted to get in front of people she had no connection to. She set up at a number of small popup markets around Chicago and to her surprise the positive reception continued.
“When I started to sell at popups, I noticed there was some interest, and I was gaining a little traction,” said McGhee. “I started to really believe that I could be on to something.”
In hopes of building on this momentum, McGhee signed up to attend a large retail trade show. However, just as Ms. Jetsetter was starting to take off, the whole world was being grounded.
In March of 2020, McGhee set up Ms. Jetsetter’s first booth at a major retail trade show. As she sat there, she remembers looking around at a mostly empty building.
“The week of the trade show was the same week that the world was shutting down due to Covid,” said McGhee. “I remember being there and speaking with the other vendors, and no one really knew what was going on. It seemed to be light from an attendance standpoint, but it was also my first show, so I didn’t really know what to expect.”
Although many customers cancelled their plans to attend, a few did still show up. And for McGhee, that was all she needed.
“I still ended up getting my first order at that show – a local luggage store in Chicago,” said McGhee. “That really solidified to me that there was potential for Ms. Jetsetter.”
While Ms. Jetsetter was starting to see success, McGhee recognized that to get through the pandemic, she would need to pivot. People weren’t traveling anymore, and as a company that sells travel accessories, it was a challenging environment.
She quickly got to work and created a new product – a stylish face mask and wristlet set that complemented the Triple Trio. And while she was initially unsure how it would do, it ultimately became the thing that helped Ms. Jetsetter get through the pandemic.
“At this time, I was part of a retail accelerator program designed to assist small businesses, and thanks to that program, I was able to pitch my face mask and wristlet set to Walgreens,” said McGhee. “They liked the product and tested it in a few local stores. It was successful and they eventually expanded it into even more stores.”
“I can look back now and see that my pivot-product and the pandemic allowed me to get into my first major retailer,” said McGhee. “At the time, I wasn’t necessarily seeing all of the positives, as I was worried about getting Ms. Jetsetter through the pandemic, but in hindsight I can now see the silver lining.”
From that point, Ms. Jetsetter started to grow. As the pandemic continued, McGhee introduced more products that aligned with the original concept of her business. Those caught on too as people started getting back to traveling. The success caught the eye of other retailers, and Ms. Jetsetter started to expand into other stores, including T.J. Maxx, a few airports throughout the U.S., and soon Macy’s.
McGhee’s efforts have also been marked by accolades and recognition, including winning the Chicago Minority Supplier Development Council’s Supplier of the Year – Class I Award, and nominations for the Walgreens Diverse Supplier Award and the National Minority Supplier Development Council’s Supplier of the Year Award.
“It’s been an unbelievable journey, with many ups and downs, but I’m still here and I’m so grateful for it,” said McGhee.
McGhee has plans to keep building. Her immediate goals are focused on getting Ms. Jetsetter in front of more customers by making her products available through more distribution channels and retailers.
Looking further ahead, she hopes to expand the product line to anybody that travels.
“Men have been asking about a line for them, so I’d love to create something that appeals to men, women, and gender non-conforming travelers,” said McGhee. “I would also like to expand into travel accessories for children and pets. People are traveling like they never have before, so there is definitely space to create products that can help any and everybody stay organized.”
Ms. Jetsetter began from just a simple thought. With a background in sales and marketing, starting an entire business from scratch was a challenge.
Early on, McGhee was introduced to the Polsky Exchange’s Small Business Growth Program, which helps South and West side businesses grow and scale. Excited to receive help starting her business, she learned that there was a revenue requirement for the program that she did not meet. Instead of giving up, she decided to reach out anyway.
“I saw the revenue requirement and I knew I didn’t have it, but I also knew that I needed the help,” said McGhee. “My background is in a corporate environment, which helps a lot, but it’s very different than entrepreneurship and starting a business, so I knew I needed guidance.”
“I reached out to the Exchange and asked if they would consider me, and ultimately they allowed me into the program.”
The program was paramount in getting Ms. Jetsetter launched. She was able to receive guidance from a mentor and was given a team of University of Chicago students to provide hands-on consulting, which had a lasting impression on her and the business.
“I’m still in touch with my advisor from that program,” said McGhee. “I had student helpers and they assisted me in building a marketing plan. I used their recommendations for my products and it was very helpful. It was a great way to see how someone else sees the business and think about different ways to get my products and brand out there.”
Follow Ms. Jetsetter on Instagram at @msjbrand and Facebook at @msjetsetter
The Small Business Spotlight Series highlights South and West side business that have taken part in the Polsky Exchange’s Small Business Growth Program. Learn more about these exceptional businesses.
Article by Darwin Minnis, associate director of media relations and external communications at the Polsky Center. Darwin has a passion for telling the stories of the people, products, and companies that are making a positive impact on their communities. Reach Darwin via email.