This Female Founder Leans on Her Best Friend for Business Advice -- and Even Recruited Her to Join Her Company
For the Women/Entrepreneur series Mentor Moments, female founders sit down to chat with their mentors (and us!) about how and why their relationship developed, and the lasting impact it’s had on those founders' careers.
When Anna-Mieke Anderson was starting MiaDonna, her ethical, lab-grown diamond business and jewelry collection, she was told she was crazy by just about everyone she knew -- with one exception: her best friend, Melanie Ware.
As Anderson set up her business in Portland, Oregon (as well as an associated nonprofit, the Greener Diamond Foundation, which funds educational, agricultural and relief programs in diamond-mining communities), Ware cheered her on from Sydney, Australia, where she headed up marketing for Commonwealth Bank.
MiaDonna's official launch followed in 2005, and over the past 14 years the company has reported yearly growth of more than 30 percent; in 2019, Anderson says she is expecting 60 percent growth. Over the years, the foundation has been helping from the nonprofit side to exorcise the violent legacy of "blood diamonds" and relieve the exploitation of today's diamond industry by training more than 500 reformed child soldiers in Africa to grow food instead of mine for the gems.
According to Anderson, all this would have been impossible without support from Ware -- who, later this year, will officially join MiaDonna to help it grow its international business. Here’s how their long-lasting friendship turned into a valuable business partnership.
How did you two first meet?
Anna-Mieke Anderson (AMA): Mel and I met in Australia when we were 11 years old, over 30 years ago. My mother passed away when I was a child, so I’ve known Mel longer than I knew my own mom.
What bonded you two at that young age?
AMA: We navigated life together, and were confronted with some adult topics. I didn’t come from a traditional family. My mom and I lived on a sickness benefit, like welfare, and after she passed away when I was a teenager, I lived in foster care. Mel was my sounding board, my everything. Her family was supportive, too. Her home was the place I could go, to just be a kid.
How did your relationship evolve as you grew into adulthood?
AMA: After high school, Mel went to university, and I started traveling. I was leaving for America with really no plan, and my independence scared a lot of our other friends. People wanted me to settle down, go to university, get a job. Melanie was really the only one who encouraged me to go.
Melanie Ware (MW): We’ve always taken very different paths -- mine has been corporate -- but our deep bond meant that, whether we were in the zone and soaring, or out of our depths and failing, we always had a good read on each other.
AMA: Especially now with our careers, our level of honesty helps. Now that I have the CEO title I get a lot of "yes" people around me. But Mel will give me honest feedback. Honesty hurts, but she’s probably saved me from some stupid ideas I’ve had.
Speaking of ideas, when you first wanted to launch MiaDonna, how did people react?
AMA: They thought I was crazy! You want to grow diamonds in a lab and give away all your money? No one could wrap their head around it. But Melanie knew this was a passion of mine. There was no playbook, and Mel really stepped in to help me: "How can I market a lab-grown diamond?" "How can I change perceptions?"
What were some specific ways she provided guidance?
AMA: It was really practical marketing advice. She gave me real educated advice on how this would be perceived by consumers.
MW: I was a marketing resource. I was also -- critically -- free.
AMA: Well, you have some diamonds now!
MW: That’s true, I do. But I was really writing content, reviewing the website, helping with treatments. But, as the company grew and Anna-Mieke got that bench strength in the team, I became more of a sounding board, which has helped me understand her big-picture vision.
AMA: I’m an emotional, gut-driven entrepreneur, and Melanie is very organized and data driven. I know what I’m great at and what I’m not great at, and I’m not afraid to say that. When I need help, I know it, and Melanie is seriously one of the smartest women I know.
Melanie, who has provided that kind of support to you in your own career?
MW: I’ve had different mentors come in and out of my working life for every different reasons. One was a former boss, at a time when I’d just come back from maternity leave. And he said, "You think you’ve got everything under control, but you’re putting your kids first, work second, and you and your husband are way down at the bottom of the list." And he told me to turn it around, and put myself first. He said, "Make yourself happy, nurture yourself. That will make your partner happy, and make your kids happy; and then you’ll bring your best self to work." That was an important lesson, and really speaks to the idea of being your whole self.
Anna-Mieke, in addition to Melanie, how important has it been to build a really full support system, one that allows you to be your whole self?
AMA: When you’re running and starting a small business, it’s a lonely path, and you’re going to get haters along the way, especially the more successful you get. So, you’ve got to have supporters that have your back. And with female entrepreneurs, there’s an added layer of emotional burden because we’re often still running a household.
How do you make space for your work life and personal life?
AMA: I’m still working it out! My daughter and son have known nothing but my life as an entrepreneur, and they’re super supportive. We’ve been through a lot. I went through a bitter three-year divorce, and it almost destroyed the company. But my kids and I call each other the A-Team, and we get through it. But as far as balance goes -- Mel, you should tell her what’s happening…
MW: Oh, you mean right now? Well I haven’t taken my kids to school yet and I was just about to get on the phone and my daughter got sick and started vomiting. Real life! You don’t win at balance every day, but as long as you’re winning overall, right?
You two live on opposite ends of the earth. How do you keep in touch?
MW: Sometimes we have to schedule calls!
AMA: Social media is great. And we do try to see each other whenever we can. And Mel is actually turning into a business partner! She’s going to run our international business and bring these diamonds to Australia.
MW: I’ve been watching and cheering from the sidelines, but I’m excited to get involved officially. And I love that our relationship is moving to a new chapter.
AMA: I was actually just talking to Mel yesterday, and she said, “Before we discuss any business, we need to sit down and discuss our relationship and how we’ll handle it within the business, because we cannot mess up our friendship.”