The Creator of This Michelle Obama-Approved Jewelry Business Shares Her Secret to Staying Motivated
Editor’s Note: Inspire Me is our series in which entrepreneurs and leaders describe what has motivated them through good times and bad, and share stories of how they overcame challenges and strove to inspire others.
Theresa Bruno has seen her jewelry grace the earlobes, hands and décolletage of such big-name clients as Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey and former First Lady Michelle Obama. But this jeweler's path to such success wasn’t always one of glamour and wealth.
In fact, Bruno started her line Jordan Alexander 10 years ago when the recession was at its height and people weren’t necessarily indulging in luxury jewelry. Despite the economic downturn, however, Bruno felt compelled to create a line that was both elegant and classic but was also one with a twist: her personal desire to use it for social good (a goal she achieved by partnering with groups like the organization A21, which works against human trafficking.)
Bruno has also bootstrapped her venture herself from the start -- a costly and risky endeavor based on her price points. To make her business work financially, she sought out the partnerships that allowed her to grow her client base and compete with the David Webbs and Cartiers of the world. “I'm really happy with where we are in terms of design," Bruno told Entrepreneur. "I feel like I've found that niche that is mine."
Expanding beyond the four-figures-and-up niche she's in, due to her generous use of diamonds, aquamarines, Canary beryl, Tahitian pearls and other precious gemstones, Bruno recently took another unorthodox step: She launched Andrew Harper (Ah!), a more affordable line for both men and women. “It allows me to explore creatively without spending so much money,” the designer explained.
For our Inspire Me series, Bruno also talked about that creative streak and the importance of always listening to your gut. (This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
What was the last major challenge you had and what inspired you to work through it?
We've done a lot of business over the last four years in Houston, and I knew that I needed to open my own space in Texas, whether it was a true retail space or an atelier space. But Houston is hard with real estate because it's so expensive. I started out thinking I wanted an ordinary retail space; I went down that path and found a space. But it just became so difficult to negotiate. I then took a step back. As much as I was pushing for it, this was not the space for me.
I started thinking about how I do business in Houston. My clients want a very personal and private experience. They're not going to walk into just any retail space when purchasing a very nice piece of jewelry. They want to know me. They want me bringing them stones and drawings before they are set. It's not truly a retail experience.
I knew I could do this a different way. So, we found a gorgeous space in what was a bank building that had just been renovated, in an area of town where most of my clients come from. Everything fell in line. It's less than half the money of the retail space, and it’s been so easy to negotiate. I just had to really listen to my insides telling me what to do to get here.
What is a lesson from an early boss or mentor that inspires you today?
I grew up being trained as a classical pianist. I was fortunate enough to get into Juilliard as a graduate student. After my first year, I had a terrible injury to my hand. And so pretty much everything I had done from the time I was 8 years old fell apart. But I had a fabulous teacher. She took me on the road with her to teach other students. It was hard, because I was having to stand there and help her coach people doing what I most wanted to do. But she showed me the value of using my craft to continue to inspire others to play.
When things get really tough, I remember how hard that life lesson was and how amazing that woman was. She didn't give up on me just because I could no longer be her star student.
What do you do to motivate and inspire your team?
I hire people in a very gut-level way. I feel like you hire a personality, not a skill. You can always teach the skill. I tend to hire people whom I find strong-willed and inspirational. And it is very much a team approach. I create the jewelry, but they have to sell it. I welcome them into the design trenches with me. I'll draw a collection, and the first thing I do is call the woman who is in charge of wholesale to sit down and make sure that we are running down the same path to build the brand.
Who is a woman that inspires you?
Misty Copeland, the ballerina. I'm so inspired by that story. She was constantly told "you can't." She had overcome poverty and abuse, and she didn't start dancing until she was 13. She's the first African-American female principal dancer in a major company [American Ballet Theatre] in the world. It's just extraordinary what she's done.
A few months ago, in New York at the Harlem Stage, I was invited to watch her teach about 15 kids from Harlem. I got to sit with her and talk to her afterwards. The humility that she's been able to maintain with this extraordinary fame and what she now wants to do with the next part of her life -- giving back and teaching other girls, especially young African-American girls – is something I really draw inspiration from.
For those women who are looking to start a business, or have begun one but are feeling discouraged, what advice do you have for them?
I always tell people who come to me that you can't listen to all the voices around you, because there will always be somebody who's doing it better -- and there's always somebody who is doing it worse. You have just got to find your own path.