“When it comes to your career, play a long game.” Someone said this to Erin when she was leaving a job she’d held for eight years, and it really stuck with her. In our experience it’s absolutely true. And we love seeing women who not only play a long game, but who also jump at opportunities to reinvent their careers. Women who are brave enough to change course when they realize their old path isn’t right for them anymore.
Today for the second installation in our May series, we’re talking with Lili Geller, one such brave woman. Here’s the story of how she founded her company Gemtye.
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WorkKidsWine: Thank you for speaking with us! Let’s kick it right off! We understand Gemtye – and being an entrepreneur in general – was not your original career. Can you tell us where you started off?
Lili Geller: That’s right! I was in the mortgage industry before I had kids. Specifically, I was a wholesale rep who sold to brokers.
WKW: Why did you end up leaving that job?
LG: Right when I got pregnant with my daughter, the FDIC pulled the plug on my company. This was right before the bottom dropped out – when the financial crisis really got underway. When my company folded, I went to work for a small Morgan Stanley subsidiary.
WKW: Did you like that role?
LG: Very much. But then that smaller company got shut down, too, and the financial crisis was suddenly in full swing. So I decided to stay home with my kids for a while.
WKW: We hear you. That time was no fun for anyone in finance.
LG: Nope. When things finally started to improve a bit, my daughter was three and my son was eighteen months old. I almost went back around then. But my husband decided to start his own company during that same time period, and it was just crazy. He was working nights and weekends – you know the entrepreneurial drill – and it didn’t make sense for me to go back full time then.
WKW: And then you decided to start your own company too! How did that come about?
LG: I’ve always had product ideas, and finally I had one that I loved enough to make me want to do the entrepreneurial thing too! It sprung from a personal experience. I am the kind of person who always, always has a hair tie around her wrist. I was going out to dinner for a friend’s 40th birthday, and I realized my hair tie looked awful. I didn’t want to wear it with my fun party outfit!
The next day I ended up looking online for an alternative, but everything I found was still pretty ugly, and still looked like a hair tie. So I decided to make my own.
WKW: We love this. We hear this from so many women entrepreneurs: they started their business to solve problems in their own lives.
LG: Yes. I believe it’s what makes female business owners so well-rounded; they tend to really care about the problem they’re solving.
WKW: And how did you know how to make a hair tie that looks like a bracelet? That’s a pretty specific skill!
LG: I didn’t! But I love logistics. Before I was in the mortgage industry, I worked for a while in business development at a tech company, and the research part of that role was my favorite part. So I started doing research.
My in-laws are in the jewelry business, so they initially had some suggestions about where to look in downtown Los Angeles, but that ended up not working out. Everything was priced too high. People won’t pay $100 for a hair tie!
But then I found an amazing wholesale company with lots of manufacturers under one roof. I got tons of samples and spent a long time checking the quality. After a lot of work, I was able to get the look I wanted at an affordable price point. Plus I didn’t want my product to always look the same. This way, I’ve been able to have fun working with new designs.
WKW: This sounds amazing, and like it’s a lot to take on. Do you have employees?
LG: Right now I have contractors. I’ve been doing a lot of consulting-type situations – strategically outsourcing things like my website build, PR, stuff like that. I have an acquaintance who’s been helping with social media marketing, which is really critical for getting a business like mine off the ground.
WKW: Makes perfect sense. We hear you on the social media. That’s big marketing business these days. So how are you going about getting Gemtye into retail locations?
LG: That has been a fun challenge! I basically walked into a few local boutiques with samples, and some of them picked up my line. Some of it is also networking: I was lucky enough to have a friend introduce me to the buyer at Ron Herman, so now you can buy my product in their stores! And I’m also doing trade shows to get more exposure.
WKW: Has anything about the distribution process been surprising?
LG: Yes, definitely. I’ve had some buyers come to me who I might never have thought of myself. For example, hair salons want to carry our hair ties! We’re also available in a very high end dentist office. I’m thinking about doing a spa trade show later this year.
WKW: This all sounds fantastic. OK, now tell us the dream shot. Where’s your business in five years?
LG: I’d love to be in big retail stores, places like Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus. And I’d like to be able to get there without taking investor money. This is part of why I’m so focused on growing the business online; so I can dodge the bullet of needing venture money.
WKW: Good luck! We bet you can get it done. Any words of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
LG: Yes, I have two suggestions. First, make sure you have a partner who is supportive and willing to pitch in. My husband has flexibility at his job to leave early and help with childcare, so we don’t need the expense of a full-time nanny. That’s been a big deal since I’m trying to keep business expenses to a minimum. And second, you have to love your product. For the time it takes away from my family, it needs to be worth it. It needs to be rewarding both personally and financially.
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Gemtye bracelets are available online at www.gemtye.com and in various boutiques throughout Southern California, Denver, Dallas, and the UK. And you can find her on social media @shopgemtye!