New York City’s Fashion District is the home of many luxury brands, like Kara Ross New York, an exotic destination known for its one-of-a-kind pieces, like Opal, the Octopus and her equally diamond encrusted friend, Lola, the Lobster. For two decades, Ross has made a name for herself that transcends its Madison Ave. location. In Hollywood, Oprah Winfrey, Anne Hathaway, Kate Hudson, and Alicia Keys have worn her pieces. Also, the Chief of Protocols office at the White House reached out to Ross to create custom jewelry using blocks of wood cut from the famous magnolia tree President Andrew Jackson planted. The result? Sterling silver cuffs and earrings for former First Lady Michelle Obama. She wore them during the 2011 State of the Union Address.

From the brands inception, Ross has elevated the world of fine jewelry using alternative materials including jet, titanium and lava; while masterfully turning them into wearable works of art, like the iconic “Puzzle Piece Necklace.” Crafted with diamonds, irregular shaped ebony and gold plaques, this necklace is showcased at Boston’s prestigious Museum of Fine Arts, as well as the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.

In fact, if you ever visited Ross’s store, you’ll notice that she upholds the same level of intricacy in all of her designs. From the stargazing diamonds carved from volcanic ash to the gemstone necklaces shining vibrantly in fuchsia, it won’t take you long to realize why Ross is regarded as the Queen of Diamonds. But after closing the wholesale side of business, Ross is looking to empower women in a different way. Que in UNLEASHED, a socially conscious brand that helps women unlock their potential. Founded in 2015, Ross commissions local artisans who live in underdeveloped countries to design merchandise and in return, they are paid above minimum wage and given a bank account. The brand currently sells collections of beaded tops and cocktail napkins designed with girl-power motifs on its website.

 

After witnessing how successful this was when she traveled to South Africa, UNLEASHED will be headed to India next. They’ve already employed a team of women living in a town called Bareilly, who will create a ready-to-wear line, made of organic cotton and embroidered with a BINDI design. The BINDI is an important part of Indian culture, as it represents the universal connectivity of women.

In addition to helping women abroad, UNLEASHED also donates its funds to girls educational charities in the U.S. This year, Dress for Success, as well as Girl Up will receive $20,000 collectively. But, Ross is only getting started. Thankfully, we were able to get a hold of the jewelry connoisseur for a Q&A, where she spoke about her gleaming career, the importance of giving back, and what it’s like to be a woman of power and substance.

TTL: When did you open Kara Ross New York? How long was it in operation for?

KR: I started my company about 20+ years ago as a single mom, supporting my two daughters. I had no employees for five or six years. I sold to Neiman Marcus under my maiden name. I was selling to five Neiman Marcus stores, I was doing my own designs, and I was doing everything–sourcing, marketing, design, invoices, trunk shows, etc.. It just came to the point where I couldn’t maintain what I was doing with such large volume for department stores.
I then focused on exclusive private clients and began making custom, incredibly expensive pieces. This is where I really learned about the model making and the stone setting [process]. It was all about quality and precision—the aesthetics had to be perfect. I did that for a while before putting together another collection. Eventually, that collection was launched at Bergdorf Goodman. I have designed more engagement rings than I can count.

TTL: When and why did you decide to close Kara Ross New York for good?

KR: I’ve been in the jewelry world, as well as the handbag world, for quite some time. I achieved a certain level of “success” and wanted to use my passion and skill sets to empower women. I closed Kara Ross NY in 2015 to focus on UNLEASHED. I enjoy getting up everyday and thinking about what I need to do. I really feel like I have a purpose. I’ve always worked in my life; I’ve been working since I was fifteen years old. But now, I feel so good. I feel like I’m on a mission with this great purpose and I’m very excited about it.

TTL: What positive contributions have you made in the lives of the women who work as artisans for your business?

KR: Over the past 2 years I am lucky enough to have employed about 140 female artisans, and I hope to see that number grow each year. We have provided work, created opportunities and contributed to these women’s self-worth. In India, we even opened up bank accounts for each artisan within the collective (which is unheard of), as these women are mostly illiterate and sign their name with their thumb print. I am able to help teach these women financial literacy and self reliance.hat is pretty powerful.
What new discoveries have you learned about philanthropy thus far?
I am discovering new things every single day, this “ social entrepreneurship” is a new way of thinking about philanthropy and giving back. I have learned that you do not have to be a 501c3 in order to make an impact, you can make money and inject it back into your initiative and partners to help support and create a sustainable chain.

TTL: What is your favorite piece from your past and current jewelry collections and why?

KR: My favorite piece of jewelry is a green tourmaline ring that I designed at 13 years old. I was on a trip to Africa with my family, and each of us got to pick out a stone. I choose a green tourmaline.My mother took us to jewelers row in Philadelphia [and] I was able to work on a setting. I still have that ring to this day. It was my very first piece and it’s special to me.

TTL: What new projects are you working on now?

KR: Currently, I am very focused on our 2017 initiative, UNLEASHING INDIA. We have identified a collective of women in India in a town called Bareilly, which is South of Delhi. The product (organic cotton + beaded/embroidered ready- to-wear) will be created by a collective of artisan women. The women are empowered through beading because they get to stay home, take care of their family and become completely self-reliant. We even opened up bank accounts for each woman. Each artisan is paid over minimum wage. The design inspiration is the BINDI, an important part of the Indian culture. The Bindi is an everlasting circle, representing endurance and strength. We like to say it represents the universal connectivity of women.

TTL: What methodologies do you use to run your business and why?

KR: I believe in an open door policy, where everyone’s opinion and ideas are valued from consultants, to colleagues and interns. We work together as a group, and everyone is treated with respect and feels valued, it’s all about the power of creative collaboration. I lead by example and wear many hats. There are no “divas” in my office. We all roll up our sleeves and get the job done. I also think when you give your employees responsibility and value their opinions, they feel appreciated and work harder.

TTL: How are you making an impact in your field?

KR: Over 2 years ago I transitioned my business to become a vehicle for philanthropy. Our mission is to UNLEASH women’s potential globally by creating opportunities to break the poverty cycle through education and job creation. We are designing product for the Western Market, commissioning talented female artisans and bringing it to market with top retailers. We consider UNLEASHED a profits with a “purpose” company, as we are taking the net profits and giving them back to our nonprofit partners and Micro finance funds. Our 2017 non profit partners are Dress for Success and Girl Up. All Micro finance funds for 2017 will be dispersed to Indian Female Artisans + Entrepreneurs through KIVA.

TTL: Can you name an experience that has shaped your values?

KR: Last year (2016) I was visiting my youngest daughter who was studying abroad in Cape-town, South Africa. I had the opportunity to visit two extremely impoverished townships and found the most BEAUTIFUL clothing line for little girls, all handmade by a fabulous group of talented women. We commissioned over 18 women within two townships to customize a line of children’s clothing which we sold here in the US online and in my boutique. We saw the direct impact of employing women, giving them opportunity and strengthening their self-worth. This initiative inspired me to focus all of my energy and resources on helping female artisans globally.

TTL: Given how influential social media has become in shaping consumers need to buy now, how can consumers become more conscious?

KR: I know that sustainability and social impact is on the mind of almost every consumer now, especially the millennial + GenZ generations. It’s a big part of the conversation, people want to know what their clothes are made of, WHO makes them and HOW they are made.

We are using social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat, Youtube) to tell the story of our product and journey from initial concept to execution. Social media is such a wonderful platform to connect with your customers and show them all the behind the scenes moments packed with knowledge and stories.

I believe it’s all out unique and genuine storytelling. Our next step is planning a trip to India and profiling and shining a spotlight on our female artisan collective with Bareilly and telling their stories in a documentary series.

TTL: How do you challenge women to persevere through obstacles?

KR: Running a business always has it’s ups and downs, nothing is perfect. I always say you have to be able to “pivot”, when nothing is going right go LEFT. You have to be able to think outside of the box and really big.
Just don’t stop.

TTL: If you could describe your life in two words, which ones would you pick and why?

KR: CREATIVE COLLABORATION!