2 female founders on supporting women and girls in need

Their jewelry brands focus on building community and giving back

This month, we’re highlighting community-focused businesses owned by women.

Etkie and Starfish Project — both part of the NRF Foundation and Qurate Retail Group’s Small Business Spotlight — are two jewelry brands that support women and girls in need. Etkie works with New Mexico artisans to create jewelry that combines traditional techniques with modern design, and Starfish Project benefits and empowers women in the communities that make its products.

We asked Etkie CEO and founder Sydney Alfonso and Starfish Project CEO and founder Jenny McGee to tell us more about their experience as entrepreneurs and what it’s like to run a business with a social mission.

Small Businesses

Learn more from other small businesses here.

What inspired you to start your business?

McGee: In 2006, after meeting a group of women in our city in Asia, my eyes were opened to their lack of opportunity. Girls were forced to work in terrible jobs to pay for their brothers to attend school. That just broke my heart. I realized I could’ve been in their very situation if I had been born in a different circumstance. They were no different than me, I simply had different opportunities. I wanted to find a way to help and provide an alternative. I saw Starfish Project as a way to create new opportunities for the women we met.

It was the women’s courageous decision to hope for something better that launched us full force into starting a business that would offer employment to our new friends — some of whom had never been to school a day in their life. Inspired by our vision to celebrate the value and beauty of each woman, our jewelry company was born. We didn’t have a business or jewelry design background; we all learned together. What we shared was a desire to restore hope and bring freedom. We never imaged that today our jewelry brand would be loved by so many and lead the way in on-trend designs and quality for ethical fashion.

Alfonso: I saw that Navajo women did not have access to the high-end market, despite being exceptionally talented in beadwork. There are so many Navajo artisans who have the talent and skills to succeed in the jewelry making industry, but are missing the resources like marketing, branding and design that are necessary to develop their work into a global brand.

Why is empowering women and girls a central part of your business model?

McGee: When the women we met in our city made the brave decision to leave terrible circumstances, it was only the first step to freedom. With the right opportunity and tools, each woman would have a choice in her future — for many, for the first time. These tools allow her to establish independence and develop a career that will impact her family for generations. The women of Starfish Project can now offer their daughters opportunities that they were never given. That is true transformation!

Alfonso: My mom raised me as a single mom in New Mexico and I was lucky enough to have someone who believed in me to create this business. Now we have a business that invests in other moms who are then investing in their daughters’ dreams. It’s a beautiful circle of life.

Group of women

Which female role models shaped who you are today?

McGee: I had a very impactful female mentor during my first few years in Asia. She lovingly pushed me to let go of my fear while learning and working in a new foreign language. She encouraged me to simply try my best and not let fear of imperfection become an excuse. This is a lesson that has stuck with me and that I share with the women of Starfish Project: You don’t have to be perfect to be effective.

Alfonso: My mom. It’s incredibly rare to have a relationship that works both in our personal lives and in running our business together. She’s really the person who has enabled all of my dreams to come true.

What advice do you have for others aspiring to start their own business?

McGee: Trust your gut instinct. I didn’t come from a business background, and I had to learn to trust myself with decisions about our company. At the start, I doubted myself and went against my instincts, and every time my instincts were correct. Of course, you can ask for advice and seek counsel from people who have been there before. But ultimately, if you have a strong feeling about something, trust yourself.

Alfonso: Just start. if you’re determined to run a business, you will succeed. Maybe your first idea won’t succeed, but starting with your first idea will get you to test your ideas and assumptions. You never know where you’ll end up, but the first step is deciding to try.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur during the pandemic?

McGee: We’ve learned to pivot very quickly during the pandemic. Our main goal was to keep every woman at Starfish Project employed. As a social enterprise, I felt we wouldn’t be true to our mission if we had to lay off even one woman. So we tried new things, took risks and weren’t afraid of making mistakes. We kept pushing forward and were able to not only keep all of our staff, but hire more women out of desperate situations.

Alfonso: The power of your business is fueled by community. We’ve been so blessed to be supported by those who support Etkie that we’ve been able to keep all of our artisans on board during the pandemic. It’s a true statement about the importance of building a brand that serves the community of makers as well as the community of buyers. We’ve created a true connection between who makes the product and who wears it, and living through a time of crisis has shown the strength of this relationship.

Learn more about all the companies selected for the Small Business Spotlight.

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