How a jewelry designer went from launching her startup from her dorm room with $25k to partnering with Michelle Obama in just 3 years
- Shilpa Yarlagadda, 24, is the cofounder of fine jewelry line Shiffon.
- The brand is known for its spiral pinky rings, which represent the pinky promise to support and empower women.
- When she founded the business just three years ago, Yarlagadda had only $25,000 in startup capital, most of it from a grant won in her high-school days.
- Earlier this month, Shiffon teamed up with When We All Vote Foundation, co-chaired by Michelle Obama, to launch special edition hoop earrings that represent the hoops women had to jump through to get equal rights.
- In an interview with Business Insider, Yarlagadda talks about her career journey, the importance of mentorship, and her collaboration with the When We All Vote Foundation.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
When Shilpa Yarlagadda was in between her freshman and sophomore years at Harvard, she had an idea.
At the time, she was a computer science major with no experience in jewelry. She did, however, have the desire to make a change and to pay homage to her Indian cultural heritage.
In Indian culture, jewelry holds great sentimental value and is something that is typically passed down for generations. And as a Silicon Valley native, Yarlagadda grew up close to one of the US' venture capital hotspots.
Her idea was a jewelry business that would also "give women access to venture capital and opportunities beyond the capital." She told Business Insider, "there's so much work to do." Yarlagadda's initial idea was to take the good financial margins from fine jewelry and then continuously investing Shiffon's profits back into female-owned businesses.
Yarlagadda had her own capital to work with, and she cofounded her fine jewelry company, Shiffon, with $25,000, in 2017. She drew from $5,000 of her own savings and $20,000 from a grant she had won in high school. (The grant originated out of a nonprofit she had founded, which made video tutorials to help students understand various educational concepts.)
"Twenty-five thousand to me sounded like a lot of money, but now growing and seeing what other founders are able to do, I'm realizing it actually wasn't," she said. "We had to be really resourceful in what we did."
Now 24 years old, Yarlagadda's business is thriving and recently helped her win the support of Michelle Obama and her stylist Meredith Koop, whose foundation When We All Vote has partnered with Shiffon to launch a line of jewelry right before the election.
Shiffon rings have a symbolic meaning
Shiffon's most famous product is the Duet Pink Ring.
It's a pinky ring, Yarlagadda, says, to represent the pinky promise that women will pay it forward to other women. The ring is also adjustable so that it can fit everyone, adding that at the time, she didn't know her own ring size and that making a ring in one size helped cut inventory costs.
Its spiral designs represent how the company aims to help women spiral upward.
The rings range from $155 for sterling silver to $695 for 18-karat gold, and those who buy the rings unlock a secret menu that gives them access to more Shiffon products.
"That was kind of an opportunity to customize and build products around like what our customers wanted in a way that wouldn't always be so public or take away from the focus that our business had on this one product," Yarlagadda said.
Half of Shiffon's profits are given to the company's nonprofit organization, the Startup Girl Foundation, which then focuses on giving funding to female-owned businesses. They take equity in each company they invest in, with all returns going back to the foundation to then be used to invest again in more companies.
To date, Yarlagadda said, it has supported more than 11 startups, including the organic skincare brand Smoothie Beauty and the espadrille brand Sea Star Beachwear.
This kind of investment is sorely needed. In 2017, less than 2.2% of the $85 billion given out in VC funding went to female founders. That number is even more dismal for women of color, Yarlagadda said, adding that she wants to help inspire female founders to help support each other in the funding sphere.
"If we can create exponential growth and a chain reaction, it's going to help us reach equality in the venture capital and business ecosystem sooner," she said.
Mentorship is almost as important as capital
Mentorship has played a big part in Yarlagadda's career, and she said it's almost as important for young entrepreneurs to receive mentorship as to receive capital. This is one reason why Shiffon has a mentorship board which includes stylist Sarah Slutsky, Beyoncé's stylist Ty Hunter, and former Elle Editor-in-Chief Robbie Meyers.
"So often in business and in life, having key advice from people who've been there before and people that you look up to can just really make a huge difference," Yarlagadda said.
Yarlagadda's own mentorship journey began in the early days of her business when she just started reaching out to people she looked up to, including Slutsky, who is best known for working with the likes of Emma Watson and Tory Burch.
It was Slutsky who, in addition to providing mentorship, taught Yarlagadda about the Kimberley Process, a certification scheme which requires those who sign up to source conflict-free diamonds and helped her find ways to source her diamonds.
"I loved her taste in jewelry. I loved her focus on sustainability as a business," Yarlagadda said. "I just felt it's our duty to make sure that we're operating [the business] in a way that is really ethical and not causing more harm in the world."
Slutsky's client Emma Watson was one of the first to wear a Shiffon ring. Watson wore the piece in 2017 during a press tour for her movie "The Circle." Then, Nicole Kidman wore a Shiffon ring at the Emmys that same year.
Since then, many high-profile names have worn Shiffon, including Serena Williams, Cynthia Erivo, Jameela Jamil, and Shailene Woodley.
The biggest name, however, has been Michelle Obama, who wore the ring during her book tour in 2018.
Obama's stylist, Meredith Koop, became a big supporter of the brand, Yarlagadda said, and eventually became another mentor. Yarlagadda had reached out to Koop via her agent, and Koop told Business Insider that she was "completely taken with her drive, openness, resourcefulness, and ingenuity."
Yarlagadda's relationship with Koop and Obama eventually led Shiffon to its latest endeavor: a partnership with the foundation When We All Vote, co-chaired by Michelle Obama, that seeks to increase voter participation.
Koop started working at the foundation earlier this year as a creative advisor and thought Shiffon would make for a good collaboration
The foundation had been doing merchandising drops leading up to the election, with Shiffon being part of the second and final merch drop right before the election.
"We were looking for cool products and, also, cool stories of diverse brands, designers and founders," Koop told Business Insider. "Shiffon was an obvious fit."
Together, Shiffon and Wen We All Vote released special edition hoop earrings with the words "Vote" engraved on them. The earrings range from $150 to $1,280 and were promoted on social media by Hailey Bieber, Mandy Moore, and basketball player Sue Bird.
"Shilpa and I discussed the idea of beautiful, covetable hoops that would have a subtle yet striking nod to voting," Koop said. "And also connect aesthetically to the duet pinky ring with the double stones. Shilpa connected the idea of the hoops women have continuously had to jump through for equality and voting rights."
As a public figure in the realm of politics, Obama's style, Yarlagadda says, has a huge impact on young designers and designers of color, and with the presidential election right around the corner, Yarlagadda and the foundation wanted an opportunity to step in and help encourage people to vote.
The "Vote" earrings were officially released on October 7 and at the time of publishing, have been nearly sold out. Through November 3, half of the profits from the earrings and the pinky rings will benefit When We All Vote.
Yarlagadda said she hopes she can continue to do partnerships like this in the future to raise awareness about other important elections, such as the midterms. "There's so many that actually matter so much, as well," she continued.
It all, she said, goes back to her mission to help empower women and to help inspire and encourage the next generation of female entrepreneurs.
"In the boardrooms, women are still not given a fair and equal say," she continued. "I think we really wanted to do this as a way to inspire and remind women how hard they work to get these rights and that their voice matters."
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