When MBA student Wilglory Tanjong launched Anima Iris, her luxury handbag company, two years ago, she just wanted to "start making bags for fun."
Now, her purses are everywhere: online with big retailers like Nordstrom and Revolve, on TV in HBO's "Insecure" and even on Beyoncé's Instagram. The bold, geometric bags are designed by Tanjong, 25, and hand-stitched in Dakar, Senegal.
Since launching in February 2020, Anima Iris has brought in over $700,000 in lifetime sales — with $603,819 in 2021 alone. And recently, the company has been earning around $100,000 in revenue per month.
"[Anima Iris] was a therapeutic project that was just making me happy," Tanjong tells CNBC Make It. "I've always been a very fashionable person. People always ask me, 'Where'd you get this? Where'd you get that?' And then I realized, 'Hey, maybe people will just buy [products] from me.'"
But Tanjong didn't start the business for the money. Rather, it honors her personal and ancestral background.
Growing up, Tanjong watched her parents hustle. After moving from Cameroon to Maryland when Tanjong was 2, they held a number of different jobs and owned a laundromat. Tanjong, with her older and younger sisters, would help her father flip houses in the summer.
"I really hated it at the time," Tanjong says. "But that's clearly where [my] motivation comes from."
Her mother, a nurse, also ran a small cosmetology studio out of the back of their home, where Tanjong watched her "take control of her schedule and build something from nothing."
But they faced hard times as well. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when Tanjong was 8, and when she was 14, her parents divorced and Tanjong watched her family "tumble into financial hardship."
"I'll never forget the day when my mom told us that we were finally approved for food stamps," Tanjong says. "Having those kinds of experiences really pushed me to be financially independent as quickly as I could be."
Tanjong continued to work hard and earned a full ride to Princeton University. She worked and had a high grade-point average throughout all four years — but when her mother died during her senior year, Tanjong was emotionally jarred.
Still, she persisted, and in June 2018, Tanjong became a first-generation college graduate. She moved to Atlanta, Georgia, three weeks later to start her new role as an operational manager at a manufacturing and supply company.
At the time, her bank account was reaping the rewards — on top of her $86,000 annual salary, Tanjong had saved about $22,000 from on-campus jobs and summer internships. She also inherited about $50,000 from her mother.
But Tanjong was "the unhappiest [she] had ever been."
"I had never really taken a moment to actually slow down to really deal with 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 her mental health.
Relying on her savings, Tanjong traveled around Africa for six months. She started in Ghana, where she began to unintentionally network with young entrepreneurs. As she traveled, she interviewed local entrepreneurs for the African Hustle series on YouTube and Instagram, which she created to showcase 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. That's when inspiration struck.
"I realized that there was a significant gap in the market," Tanjong says. "Women of color, and specifically Black women, have always been excluded from the luxury narrative. Building a brand that centers these women while also bringing forth African culture into the global landscape was like a bingo moment for me."
When she found a local artisan could craft her jewelry and purse designs, Tanjong explored what it would mean to start a small business by speaking with and hiring other artisans in the area. Then, she transferred money from her savings and invested approximately $5,000 into the company. The money funded travel, materials and labor to make 50 bags.
After a soft launch in November 2019, Tanjong narrowed her focus on handbags. She opened Anima Iris in February 2020, and formally quit her full-time job and moved to Philadelphia a month later.
In the clutches of success
Anima Iris had its first viral moment in June 2020 when the brand was featured in a Vogue article promoting Black-owned beauty and fashion brands. Soon after, a blogger tweeted photos of Tanjong's purses with links to the company's webpage and social media accounts. The post received almost 30,000 retweets and the Anima Iris website instantly sold out.
But the "greatest moment" of Anima Iris success came in August 2021 when the brand became "Beyoncé approved." Tanjong serendipitously opened Instagram and spotted the mega star sporting a Raspberry Zaza bag.
That day, Tanjong knew it was time to expand. Almost instantly after Beyoncé's endorsement, Anima Iris sold over $23,000 worth of luxury handbags, became verified on Instagram and surpassed the brand's projected earnings for 2021.
Since then, Tanjong has hired help to maintain the brand's exponential growth. Anima Iris also now has seven artisans who hand make the purses in its Senegal facility. In an effort to support her employees and the local economy, Tanjong pays her workers twice as much compared to what the average artisan in Dakar makes.
"For so long, Black people have really defined the culture in America, but I've never actually gotten to reap the benefits of it," Tanjong says. "It's so wonderful to see so many Black creators finally being able to actually build their businesses, grow their businesses and for people to have other options outside of the options we've typically had that actually have excluded us."
Student and CEO by day
So far, the growth has sustained. Black Friday was Anima Iris's most profitable day yet, bringing in over $62,000 dollars in revenue. Partnerships with retailers like Revolve, Nordstrom and soon Saks Fifth Avenue — in addition to the money the brand already earns through its Shopify site — have put the company on track to earn at least $1.2 million in annual revenue.
"I project that we're going to make at least $5 million next year because I think that there are a lot of opportunities for people to learn about us," Tanjong says.
While maintaining the overwhelming success of Anima Iris, Tanjong is also a full-time MBA student, on track to graduate in the spring from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She plans to finish out her degree — but only because "the African immigrant child in [her]" refuses to quit.
"I wanted to get an MBA because I wanted to build the company while also learning how to build a company," Tanjong says. "But I didn't foresee Anima Iris growing so quickly."
Going forward, Tanjong wants to expand the brand's social media presence, community and product line. "My larger goal is to turn this into a full lifestyle brand," she says. "I want to be selling clothes. I want to go back to selling jewelry. I want to sell shoes. I want to sell furniture and home decor."
When asked about advice she had for other aspiring entrepreneurs, Tanjong says she thinks everyone should be willing to take risks to find their "real purpose."
"I didn't come from the most privileged background," Tanjong says. But now, "I'm really living life to the fullest extent, and it's so possible for you to have that same life experience, but you have to be willing to reach out and go find that life for yourself."
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