Design Intervention

By Sarah Gajkowski-Hill

When Emily Armenta left her career as a trader with Morgan Stanley to pursue her MBA at Rice University, she was prepared to focus on her education full time. Not oxidized silver or exotic gemstones or Spanish poetry. But an assignment in The New Enterprise course with Al Napier changed all of that. Within months of presenting a 'sweat equity' case in class, she had launched a future in jewelry design.

As a child, Emily grew up in a creative environment. Her dream was to make jewelry. She played dress-up alongside her mother, an artist, and drew sketches of rings and necklaces while her mother painted. "I can still remember standing on the dining room table and carefully removing hanging crystals from the chandelier to pretend they were earrings," Emily says. But she traded in her youthful aspirations for a bachelor of arts in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas and a few years with Morgan Stanley.

The time seemed right to take the next step in her practical business path. Enrolling at the Jones Graduate School where she could maximize her strategy, leadership, and creative credentials, she found herself in Napier's class, where that practical path took an unexpected detour.

As it turned out, her 'sweat equity' business was viable. "I didn’t know how to manufacture the product much less have product codes or techniques for testing product effectiveness figured out," Emily recalls. She used her instincts and simply experimented. For capital, she sold "everything that wasn't bolted down" to create the small and supposedly finite line called Phoeben, a childhood nickname from her father that originated in Greek mythology. With classic influences from the Spanish revolutionary, artist and writer, Federico García Lorca, the high-end jewelry began to take shape.

The gods were definitely smiling on Phoeben - now doing business as Armenta - and the MBA candidate who walked into a department store looking for feedback walked out with her first order.

She never dreamed she'd be lecturing about developing a business strategy in the same classroom in which she learned it, but as a frequent visitor to Napier’s classes since graduation, she’s doing just that. "I like to tell the story of how I started Armenta - how you can take a dream and make it a reality."

Entrepreneurship 101

The Rice MBA program's commitment to hiring entrepreneurs to teach entrepreneurship has changed Emily’s life and guided her through every step of her early career as a business owner. As that business took off, her classes and professors helped address actual problems she faced every day - such as product development and cost accounting.

Emily credits Leo Linbeck III with being instrumental in teaching her how to offer the best product available. After orders for more jewelry from her initial line started rolling in, she began getting calls from large retailers. She tapped Linbeck for advice on how not to lose the sale and make the most of opportunities.

"He told me, 'Turn them all down. You're not ready - you have to have the best product in place first.' And then he went on to explain that I needed to build the company’s foundation before going on to take orders that I wasn’t ready for. He said if I didn’t deliver, I'd burn those bridges."

It was the hardest advice she ever accepted. And the best decision she ever made. In an economy that has taken a substantial hit over the past year, the recipient of Town & Country 2008 Couture Jewelry Silver Award now has excellent relationships with Saks 5th Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and other high-end jewelry retailers across the country and internationally.

Building a Team

Continued emphasis on the attributes of hard work and passion that are taught in the classroom, as well as her own gift of discernment, has allowed Emily the rare ability to offer jobs to people who are often overlooked in society. Her first hire was a woman named Lida, who cleaned the building in which Emily worked. "I watched her for months as she sang beautiful songs while she worked," Emily recalls. “I saw passion in her."

Though Lida did not speak English, had no formal education, and didn’t know the first thing about jewelry, she was hardworking and meticulous to detail. Emily believed in her potential and offered to hire and train her. Lida accepted. Today, Lida not only speaks English but also runs the production floor, manages Armenta’s training program, and analyzes the jewelry line’s efficiency operation.

"I refer to Lida as 'Sea Biscuit' and warn people never to bet against her," Emily says, laughing. "My goal is to hire people who are talented and only need an opportunity in order to succeed." Not surprisingly, most of her employees — women of all ages and ethnicities — have stories like Lida's.

When describing a normal day at the 10,000-square-foot Houston studio, Emily answers easily. "The energy at the studio is very high paced. There is a buzz in the air, like on Christmas morning. Many of the girls sing as they work, music is playing in the background, and everyone is excited about the work they perform. We're really a team. When a pressing order needs to get out, the girls stay late to get it done. No one goes home unless everyone goes home."

Romancing the Gemstone

Each of Armenta's lines has its own theme. Emily admits that the themes are heavily influenced by the poetry of Federico García Lorca. In his work, he speaks of a mischievous muse-spirit which embodies duende - the painful beauty of life.

"Duende is the soul of my workers who have overcome their personal hardships as well as the muse of every artist who yearns to express him or herself through creative works of beauty," the self-taught designer says. The passion for her work, her employees and her company are clear and unwavering.

It is the very thing that Professor Al Napier recognized in her. "Emily went with what she loved. That's the key to entrepreneurship. You have to be passionate about what you do. And how you do it."

Armenta's pieces range in style from delicate to bold, from feminine to gallant - stately gold Maltese earrings, handmade diamond toggle necklaces with London blue topaz, marquis stack rings, and wings of fortune bangles. Emily acquires her stones and different materials from Asia, Africa, and South America, and her methods through trial and error. When she wanted to experiment with chemical reactions and fine metals, she set up a small lab in her office, called engineers who worked with industrial paints, sealants for the insides of pools and even antigraffiti paint, and then tested it for a year. Finally, she developed a distinctive technique that resulted in the strong metallic quality of the “Midnight” collection and the 2009 Couture Design Winner for Best in Silver for her use of oxidizing sterling silver.

At this point in her career, stars like Halle Berry, Glenn Close, Lisa Kudrow and Miley Cyrus, and royalty, such as Queen Rania of Jordan, have worn her designs. "I have to pinch myself every day," Emily says about Armenta’s success. Her advice to young entrepreneurs, which she gleaned from Leo Linbeck, "Follow your heart and the money will come. It has to do with what you want to spend your time doing."

Currently Armenta oversees employees in Houston, Los Angeles, and Tennessee and produces over 6,000 pieces of high-end jewelry annually, including international distribution.

While Emily concedes that her creativity to design jewelry came from her mother, she maintains that her business acumen came from her Rice MBA and the entrepreneurship classes that taught her how to find the business in her passion