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Harlen’s Julie Cantor on handbags and careers

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Harlen’s Julie Cantor on handbags and careers

Inspired by stylish working women, Julie Cantor created Harlen, a collection of expertly-crafted handbags that fit into a busy day instead of inhibiting it. Named for her grandparents Harriet and Lenny, both advocates for girls’ education and empowerment, each piece is designed to be an exceptional work accessory. And a woman like Julie, who has an incredible resume that includes a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Stanford, a law degree from Berkley University, a medical degree from Yale, and of course, founder and CEO of Harlen, knows what it’s like to need a bag that works. We chatted with her about how handbags have changed, what it takes to make the perfect handbag, and the unique challenges women face in the workplace.

On the evolution of the handbag:

“At the turn of the 20th century, as it became socially acceptable for women to spend more time away from home, the handbag developed as a functional solution to the need to carry more. It also became a symbol — something ‘entirely her own,’ as well as a symbol of independence and a private life. Harlen’s Modern Careerpieces, which are unlike anything on the market that combine fashion and function, represent movement along that arc. Today’s working women need ample space for their career and daily everything, and at the same time, the solution should not sacrifice style. It should reflect an effortless chic and an understated elegance, and it should be an entirely distinct entity — not a handbag or a backpack or luggage or a briefcase.”

On women’s changing needs:

“Handbags were never meant to carry everything we need for today’s careers. You can try to use a huge version of a handbag, but get ready for serious back and shoulder issues. That’s why we created two lightweight and compact solutions that can be carried, as well as two wheeled pieces that address the problem of ‘too much that’s too heavy to carry’ head on. So you can have your computer and your gym shoes and everything in between tucked neatly inside our wheeled bags. We literally lighten the load and give it a minimalist aesthetic.”

On combining form and function:

“Just as the finest cars as built around the driver, our Collection is designed around lives of high-powered, highly empowered women. Every piece closes securely to protect privacy, thwart theft, and defy gravity. Every piece is structured, not slouchy, with palladium feet to keep it upright and commanding. Our pieces merge the best of runway-ready handbags with the practicality of utilitarian function with dedicated spaces for a laptop, a tablet, a phone, business cards, keys, and more, so you can find exactly what you need exactly when you need it.  Our materials are made in Italy, designed to withstand wear, weather, and the day-to-day rigours of work. And of course, the pieces themselves are handcrafted by the finest artisans in Italy.”

On workplace barriers:

“Implicit bias, especially toward parents. At least in the U.S. with its culture of overwork, parents — and especially mothers — can be viewed as being less serious about their careers. It’s not a universal phenomenon, but it’s definitely an undercurrent. And the implicit bias seeps into the pay equity and opportunities for advancement. More awareness of bias may help, but more moms or those who understand what it means to be a caregiver in positions of power may be even better.”

On what it means to carry a Harlen Careerpiece:

“Every Harlen Modern Careerpiece is a symbol of women claiming space and exerting power in whatever workplace they happen to be.  We deserve to be everywhere, and it’s maddening that issues like pay equity, implicit bias, and outright harassment are still things in 2019.  Women belong, and our pieces, which exude personal style, speak to that reality. Beyond the symbolic, for every Harlen a client owns, we sponsor a full year of education and empowerment for a student in Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program. Our commitment includes tuition, fees, books, uniforms, and a bike, if she needs one, as well as robust mentoring.”

On happy customers:

“One of our clients has three Harlens, and she says that on any given day, her Harlen makes her feel like she belongs at that meeting where she is the only woman in the room. She owns that seat at the table. She also used her bag to house her pumping equipment when she went back to work after her maternity leave, so she felt like her Harlens are an integral part of her career journey and her return to the workplace.”

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Written by - Tara MacInnis

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