2011 Specsavers everywoman in Retail ‘Woman of the Year’: Harriet Kelsall, Founder & Design Director, Harriet Kelsall Bespoke Jewellery

Harriet and Dame Mary Perkins, Founder of SpecsaversTo celebrate the forthcoming 2012 Specsavers everywoman in Retail Awards, The NextWomen spoke with last year's winners in the "Entrepreneur of the Year" and "Woman of the Year" categories.

Now in their fifth year, these awards recognise the achievements of women in the retail sector. The awards are open for entry until 14 May 2012. To submit a nomination, click here.

"Entrepreneur of the Year 2011" Ann-Maree Morrison, MD Labels4Kids was featured in this article on Monday. Today we bring you "Woman of the Year" Harriet Kelsall, Founder & Design Director, Harriet Kelsall Bespoke Jewellery.

Despite the challenges caused by dyslexia, Harriet Kelsall was propelled out of university with a first class degree and awarded the University Prize for the highest marks ever achieved.

She started her business from her kitchen table in 1998 and now runs Harriet Kelsall Bespoke Jewellery, the UKs leading bespoke jewellery design company, with 30 employees and thousands of happy customers internationally.

Widely recognised for her work in revitalising a flagging industry, she invented the aptly-named “Proposal in a Box” – a revolutionary process to allow couples to personally design a bespoke ring whilst having something tangible and romantic at the time of proposal.

The everywoman judging panel were bowled over by Harriet's absolute commitment to staff development, including a rigorous career structure and bespoke training programmes for her motivated and vibrant team. Her determined and innovative attitude has been instrumental in driving significant commercial success during an incredibly tough climate. Bringing ‘bespoke jewellery into the heart of the high street’, with her award winning store in Cambridge, she now plans to roll-out other branches across the country, whilst running a successful studio and showroom on a working farm in rural Hertfordshire.

A committed champion of British business, she insists on retaining manufacturing within the UK, whilst the majority of other jewellers have moved their manufacturing operations abroad.

She does this and still enjoys steady yearly growth of 18% against a backdrop of static growth amongst many of her competitors.

She also was one of the first jewellers in the world to work with certified Fairtrade gold when it was launched in 2011 and is passionate about jewellery design, jewellery ethics and business. The Woman of the Year Award recognises the woman who is a truly inspirational and visionary individual and the judges felt that Harriet Kelsall was an exceptional role model for the industry.

We spoke to Harriet about how she started her business; the portrayal of female entrepreneurs in the media; and what it meant to be crowned "Specsavers everywoman in Retail Woman of the Year"

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Harriet Kelsall Jewellery and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

HK: I was taught how to make jewellery by my dad and I actually made my first ring when I was just 4 years old!  I was selling earrings that I had made to friends in my teens too. But I never really considered jewellery design it as a career direction until much later and thought of it more as something that I just enjoyed doing. I studied design at Brunel University and then went into the computer industry first of all as I thought I wanted to design user interfaces. During my career in IT I learned a lot about business and about managing people; I ended up as an Engineering Manager at a big IT firm but all the while I was also making jewellery commissions for friends in my spare time.

Then one day I realised that I had a waiting list of 33 people wanting me to make rings and the penny dropped – maybe I could actually make this passion into a business and a career (it actually hadn’t occurred to me until that moment!). 

So the idea rather evolved naturally in that way. 

I was working all day in IT and then in the evenings I would come home and get straight onto my workbench. I had set up a mini workshop in my garden shed. Then after having tested that I could make it work this way, I decided that the time was right in my life to give it a go in a ‘now or never’ kind of a way and took the plunge full time in 1998.
TNW: What makes your company different from your competitors?

HK: When I started my company there was no such thing as affordable bespoke jewellery really. You could get something made if you knew a ‘bloke with a bench’ or you could pay big prices to have something made in very posh jewellery shops paying high prices.

I started the business to bring affordable bespoke jewellery to the high street and to customers in a non pretentious way and that is still very much what we do.

We put ‘bespoke jewellery’ into the industry’s vocabulary (a term I pinched from the clothing industry as my grandmother was a bespoke tailor).

Also, as I knew about IT, I had my jewellery website up on the internet since about 1996 (long before Google even existed!) and so this early web presence really helped at the right time for the growth of the internet.

One of Harriet's engagement ring designs, inspired by Ayres RockNow, following in our path, many jewellery offer some kind of bespoke service of other but nobody is quite doing it in the way that we do.  We offer a clean sheet design service whilst many others only can work on CAD or assembling cast parts or making something from a list of options.  We only employ graduate designers who really know what they are doing and we train them meticulously.  They chat with our customers in a consultation and the customer sets the budget and gives any ideas they may have.  They may want something really simple or something that tells their own story of how they met on a sailing holiday for example.  We then design the piece and make it for the customer within what they want to spend.  This design led service with impeccable hand craftsmanship and great customer service is something that no other jeweller can beat.
TNW: When you built your team, what are the key qualities you looked for to ensure the success of your business?

HK We are lucky because when we advertise a design vacancy, a flood of CVs come through the door.  But when we interview people only very few stand out. We look for people who have a genuine passion for jewellery, an eye for detail and those who are willing to work hard and be really conscientious. We also look for people who we think we can teach to have customer skills. Also we will not employ anybody in our design team unless they have a degree in a design related discipline. We look for people who can think, solve problems and who have a good, friendly and non-arrogant attitude. It is surprising how few people like this there may be in a pile of 200 CVs. Also amazing how many young people come along to be interviewed and blatantly have hardly even looked at our website!  So the good candidates do stand out a mile.
TNW: What is next for your company?

HK: At the moment we are working on some exciting changes for our HQ in Hertfordshire to improve it vastly (can’t tell you exactly what we are up to as it is top secret!). We also hope to open more branches in the not too distant future. We have lots of exciting plans!
TNW: Do you have any tips or any advice for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs?

If you can begin to run your business along side a full time job (or/and being a full time mum) in your evenings and weekends, despite very long hours, then you may have what it takes to make it.

If you can’t or won’t put in these kinds of hours they you won’t succeed because when you run your own business you won’t just be working ‘normal’ hours but will be working until 11pm 7 days a week – especially for the first few years. So you really can’t underestimate how much you have to want to do it. You need a lot of passion for your chosen idea.

Also it is vital to do proper research and make sure the market really exists for what you want to do.  Don’t just imagine there must be a demand because you think it is a good idea and so do a couple of your mates. This is particularly important and relevant in creative sectors.
TNW: Do you have any role models or mentors?

HK: My very favourite role model is Gerry Robinson and very much enjoyed the documentaries a few years ago in which he turned around failing family businesses – he shows such clarity of thought. I also love his ‘I’ll show them Who’s Boss’ book.

I also really admire Mary Portas for her attitude, determination and the fact that she is prepared to stick her neck out and try to make change for the better.

I find that I share a lot of her opinions on how the high street needs to be for example. I also love the way she does things properly. Hillary Devey seems great too.
TNW: If you hadn’t chosen entrepreneurship, what alternative career path might you have pursued?

HK: That is a good question. I actually think I would have started a business somehow even if it wasn’t this business. I didn’t realise it when I was younger but I think I was always going to end up running something of my own; perhaps if I had never discovered jewellery I would have pursued one of my other passions, like growing plants or creating food. It is hard to imagine a path without my being an entrepreneur.  I possibly might have tried to go into retail management or something quite senior in a big and interesting store like John Lewis.
TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

Maternity has been by far the biggest challenge for me. When I started the business I hadn’t even thought about the fact that I might want kids one day.

I found myself a few years on with several employees relying on me, working until 11pm every night to keep it going and wondering how I was going to manage to have a family without letting down the people who were working with me and without having to fold the business. That was an *enormous* challenge.  One day I would like to have an opportunity to work with the government on some kind of support for female entrepreneurs in maternity somehow, as I’m sure there must be a way to help. At the moment this must be a big problem for others too.

Also maternity of my own staff has been challenging at times and I am trying to continually think of better ways to bring my own designers back to work slowly when they have kids; coincidentally all of my design team are currently female.
TNW: Do you think that attitudes towards female entrepreneurs are changing?

HK: I hope so. 

The trouble is the media are always so keen to portray female entrepreneurs as strange creatures with huge shoulder-pads and aggressive attitudes. 

I struggle to think of a business woman on TV who isn’t portrayed as conforming to that stereotype (even if the individuals aren’t actually like that – like the lovely Hillary Devey for example). But not all female businesswomen are really pushy. I worry about that a lot. When you watch shows like ‘The Apprentice’ for example, the ones given the most air time are often appalling  I know this is great TV (I love it actually!) but really – we aren’t all like that! It would be great to have some role models who are a bit less pushy as actually I believe that pushiness is not the right way to go when you are running a business.
TNW: What do you think could be done to increase the number of women entrepreneurs?

HK I do think the media can help, as these days society is so impressed and influenced by TV in particular. I’m not criticising this because I’m sure I’m just as influenced by it all as everybody else! It is great that there are now female entrepreneurs on the TV at all (not long ago there were none or hardly any ever in the public eye!). But it would be great if they could highlight some successful female entrepreneurs who aren’t the shoulder-padded pushy stereotypes – perhaps showing different types of personalities that can work in businesses. And maybe showcasing a variety of different women rather than it always being the same ‘female entrepreneur set’ that are brought out to appear in business programmes.

I can imagine if you were a young woman now wondering about being an entrepreneur and on the TV only seeing successful female entrepreneurs with whom you had nothing in common, it would be hard to imagine it could be the correct path for you.

So it would be great if they could bring some interesting non-pushy successful business women into the public eye more because I do think that good role models are important. 

I have a dream that I’d like to turn around a failing high street jeweller (sadly there are many at the moment) so if somebody wants to make this into a TV show I’d love to help!

I didn’t set out to ‘be an entrepreneur’ and neither did many of the people who run businesses who I meet. Sometimes talking about encouraging women to be entrepreneurs somehow suggests that there are women out there who want to be an entrepreneur and are just trying to choose a field but of course it isn’t really like that. I set out to achieve a goal of bringing really good bespoke jewellery to people and that was the passion that led me to be an entrepreneur.

So I suppose that I am saying that sometimes I think there is too much emphasis on ‘being an entrepreneur’ rather than on  ‘starting a business’ or better still ‘following your passion’ in a field that you really love. 

For example it would be great to see a TV series following some passionate female directors who show their enthusiasm for their field and talk about how they made it work, the problems that they overcame and perhaps how on earth they juggled kids in with all that too. Showing the kind of passion that exists and how it can make a business happen. 
TNW: How do you feel about being chosen as the Woman of the Year in the 2011 Specsavers everywoman in retail award? What impact did it have on your business? Would you encourage others to enter?

HK: Winning the Specsavers Everywoman award was absolutely brilliant and at the time I was flabbergasted and couldn’t believe I had won it, especially with such amazing women in the same competition. It has been absolutely fantastic for me personally and for the business. Being able to say that I am “The 2011 Specsavers Everywoman in Retail Woman of the Year” makes people listen to what I have to say much more than they did before! It has given me confidence and given others even more confidence that perhaps I actually do know what I am talking about. It has given points I want to make in the jewellery press (for example talking about Fairtrade Gold or Responsible jeweller practices) more gravitas. And opportunities like doing this great interview are brilliant too! The press that this has helped to achieve has been incredible and really had a big positive boost and impact on my business.

I didn’t think I was ever putting limitations on my ability before this award - but somehow winning this has given me a new boost and now I feel even more positive than ever about my business.

We have so many great plans to continue onward and upward!

The 2012 Specsavers everywoman in Retail Awards are open for entry until 14 May 2012. To submit a nomination, click here.

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