Information and Inspiration

More than 200 women in the jewelry industry attended the fifth annual Women in the Know conference, sponsored by the Women’s Jewelry Association and The JCK Industry Fund. The full-day conference, held March 7 at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, featured both motivational speakers and educational seminars focusing on communication, leadership, and the value of listening.

Susan Jacques, president and CEO of Borsheim’s, Omaha, Neb., led off the event with an inspirational keynote address titled “From the Counter to the Corner Office,” highlighting her personal journey from her childhood in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where she attended an all-girls high school and “always loved pretty things,” to her position of leadership at one of the nation’s most prominent jewelers in the United States and a part of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

“The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, and 25 years ago, I was where you are now,” she told the audience. Jacques began her career as a junior typist at Scottish Jewellers, the largest jewelry store in Rhodesia. Her career was interrupted in 1978 when, worried about political instability in Rhodesia, her father moved the family to London. Eventually, her father agreed to let her return to Africa, and she went back to Scottish Jewellers, this time in the marketing department. She also began taking GIA correspondence courses—which, in the era before the Internet, was slow going. She begged her parents to let her go to California to enroll at GIA in the residence program, where, among her teachers was one colored-gemstone instructor named Bill Boyajian—who later became the institute’s president.

Meanwhile, one of the fellow students Jacques befriended was Alan Friedman, son of Ike Friedman, the owner of Borsheim’s. Alan was earning a graduate gemologist diploma in preparation for entering the family business.

As the semester end neared, Friedman was concerned about getting home quickly to work at the store for the Christmas season. Jacques and her boyfriend had volunteered to drive Friedman’s car back to Omaha so he could fly out as soon as he finished classes.

“OK, so maybe that wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did,” she joked. Not only had she never driven on the right, she’d also never driven in snow. Nevertheless, she made it to Omaha unscathed, delivered the car—and, it being holiday season, was put to work on the spot. That, however, wasn’t her official entry to the business. After graduation, she returned to Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe. There weren’t many opportunities for young white people anymore, so she returned to California to work as a stone grader. But the grading business suffered tremendously when the early 1980s economic—and gemstone—bubble burst. Her hours were cut back until it was clear she wasn’t going to live on her salary.

Alan Friedman, meanwhile, was now ensconced in the family business. “Come to Omaha and work for a year,” he said.

“I never aspired to run the business,” she said. “It was a family business with lots of layers of family.” Over time, however, the dynamics changed. Between illnesses and deaths in the family, and the sale of the store to Warren Buffett, it no longer was a family business. Still, Jacques had no designs on the top slot until one day she got a call from Buffett himself, asking her to come to his office. To her great surprise—and then realizing how much he believed in her—he offered her the CEO position.

Jacques attributes her success in part to believing in her strengths and finding great people to help her with her weaknesses. A mother of three, she also believes in a balanced life, and, apart from the holiday season, keeps the store closed on Sundays.

Gail Blanke, president and CEO of Lifedesigns, talked about how to address and eliminate issues of self-doubt and insecurity. During a presentation titled “Owning Your Power,” Blanke provided personal coaching tips including “Failures can be defining moments because they remind you of how strong you can be and how you can survive.” She also focused on the importance of separating the facts from interpretations. To illustrate, she related a personal tale of how as a child she and her mother went shopping for a party dress. She saw the dress of her dreams, a ruffled, bowed, and beribboned confection of pink, and begged her mother to buy it.

“No, dear, you’re not that type. You’re the tailored type,” said her mother, selecting a dress that was tasteful and attractive but not a little girl’s fantasy dress. For years, said Blanke, her mother’s comment rankled—and affected how she saw herself—as she had equated “tailored” with “plain.” It was only as an adult shopping with her now-elderly mother that she finally brought up the painful moment.

“Oh, that?” laughed her mother. “Good heavens, dear—that dress was the tackiest thing I’d ever seen! I couldn’t let you go out in that! You’re far too elegant!” After all those years, said Blanke, she finally understood that her mother had been complimenting her, not pigeonholing her. It wasn’t what her mother had said—but how she had interpreted it.

Debbie Goldstein, managing director of Triad Consulting, presented “Negotiating Effectively: How to Get What You Want Without Pounding the Table (or the Other Person!).” Goldstein stressed the importance of listening during negotiations. Often the internal voice in our heads does not allow us to fully listen, says Goldstein. Fight the urge to want to win every battle. Once you discover the true interest of the person you’re speaking to, you can negotiate effectively.

Bryan Dodge, president of Dodge Development Inc., presented “How to Build a Better You.” Dodge taught a stair-step method of how top producers and managers stay on the cutting edge and always accomplish so much.

Conference attendees also benefited from smaller breakout sessions.

Cindy Edelstein, owner of, led a packed room through “Tips and Tricks for Running a Successful Designer Business.” Edelstein stressed the importance of marketing your business while staying true to yourself. “When it comes to marketing, you have to tell them what to think about you. Choose words that define you and your business and use them often,” she said.

Amanda Gizzi, associate director for public relations of Jewelry Information Center, taught a session titled “Maximizing Media Exposure: Preparing You and Your Business for Media Success.” Gizzi delivered a public relations crash course including valuable pitching tips and building successful press kits. She also provided media training tips that included know-your-message points and the crowd favorite of “lean toward the camera to look lean.”

Jane Pollak, a certified professional coactive coach, shared tips from her book Soul Proprietor: 101 Lessons From a Lifestyle Entrepreneur on how she built an unlikely business out of her passion for painting decorative eggs. “Choose the vendors who listen to you” and “Even when copycats threaten your livelihood, keep doing what you do best” are two examples of her sage, upbeat advice to entrepreneurs.

Bailey Beeken, group vice president for National Jeweler Network presented “How to Use Both Genders’ Strengths to Communicate Successfully and Lead a Team.” Beeken said men have a different way of communicating and interpreting communication signals than women, so it’s important to learn to communicate with men in ways they understand. In doing so, create an environment to be heard, acknowledged, and to do your best work.

Douglas Gollan, editor-in-chief and cofounder of Elite Traveler delivered “Marketing to the Three Faces of Luxury: Unlocking Sales to the Super Rich” to a group of wide-eyed attendees. Gollan uncovered the three faces of the super-rich, which include the trendsetters, winners, and connoisseurs, emphasizing that the super-rich are the best targets for luxury marketers in an unsure economy.

An afternoon panel discussion featuring four of WJA’s Hall of Fame Award recipients from the past 25 years provided their life lessons on communicating, leadership, and tips to “becoming your best self.” The panelists included Peggy Kirby, retired vice president of advertising and public relations for Finlay Fine Jewelry and a founding member of WJA; Kathryn Kimmel, vice president and chief marketing officer for Gemological Institute of America; Laurie Hudson, cofounder and partner, Luxury Brand Group; and Anna Martin, senior vice president and regional manager, ABN AMRO International, Diamond and Jewelry Group. Ann Arnold, chief financial officer/vice president for Lieberfarb Inc., of New Jersey, and former president of WJA, moderated the panel.

David Yurman, Jewelers Mutual Insurance, and Platinum Guild International sponsored the 2008 event. “WITK sponsors allow us an opportunity to bring together women of all ages and levels of experience together in one place to learn from one another and provides tools to become strong and more successful,” said WJA president Yancy Weinrich, industry vice president of LUXURY by JCK.

“Women in the Know gets better every year. I’ve returned to work with so much drive and energy,” said Gena Alulis, CEO, Superfit Inc., King of Prussia, Pa. “So many women would think nothing of spending $500 for a spa weekend. It seems at least equally important to budget for the restoration of one’s career passions and dreams at an excellent event like this.”

WJA also honored 10 “Shining Stars,” women at the chapter level who have demonstrated outstanding service and commitment to their WJA chapters. Susan Elliot, dean of students at GIA, presented the awards to the following recipients: Tiya Asavarahapun, Bae Imports, Pacific North West Chapter; Sherrie Betham, Chippenhook, Southwest Chapter; Belinda Duva, Presentation Box & Display Co., New England Chapter; Diane Flora, American Gem Society, Rocky Mountain Chapter; Marilyn Liebman, MJSA Journal, Metro Chapter; Au-Co Mai,, San Diego Chapter; Karen McKinney, International Jewelry Manufacturing, Mid Atlantic Chapter; Arathi Ramappa, Jayati Technologies, Southeast Chapter; Janel Russell, Mother and Child jewelry, Twin Cities Chapter; Lisa Schoening, GIA, Los Angeles Chapter; and Julie Schwalbe, Forever Facets Inc., Midwest Chapter.

WJA, founded in 1983, is the preeminent association of professional women in the jewelry, watch, and related businesses. Through the national organization, headquartered in Chicago Ridge, Ill., and a network of 12 regional chapters, members benefit from educational and networking opportunities, scholarships, design competitions, annual women’s business conferences, and recognition programs such as its annual Awards of Excellence Dinner. For more information about WJA, call (708) 361-6000 or visit