“Do what other people won’t so you can live and give what other people can’t” has long been my personal motto, and indeed, the motto of every entrepreneur out there who takes responsible capitalism seriously, but for many, philanthropy can be a complicated world to navigate. Two decades ago Joan Hornig, then a financier and longtime hobbyist jewelry designer, had the inspired idea that giving can and should be simple, and established her own jewelry brand, Philanthropy is Beautiful, to both incentivize philanthropic giving and provide a sustainable alternative to more established brands with long histories of deeply unethical practices.
22 years later, Hornig’s business has done exactly what it set out to do. But starting a business around something as personal as your own art, even when the outcome is so obviously positive, is an emotionally difficult process. I sat down with Hornig to talk about her experience, her background, the transition from finance to philanthropy and art and the challenges of starting a business for your second act.
Liz Elting: Hi, Joan, thank you so much for your time. Can you please introduce yourself to readers in your own words?
Joan Hornig: My name is Joan Hornig and I am among the most fortunate people you will ever meet. I have had in abundance all the important things that make a wonderful life. Over the past two decades, I have been able to combine many of my passions with the creation of Philanthropy is Beautiful Jewelry. Through this 22-year-old social enterprise business, I design and produce jewelry that empowers each purchaser to determine where I direct 100% of my profit on each sale to the registered charity of the buyer’s choice as a charitable contribution. Moreover, my business highlights the power of the purse, the growth of conscious consumerism, the requirement to be respectful of workers and the planet in all phases of production. Equally important, my model involves helping consumers considering what social issue matters most to them and which organization best helps address that need. I am a passionate advocate for the advancement of women, economically marginalized individuals and saving the planet, and I have demonstrated that fashion is one of the most effective ways to communicate and effectuate advancement in these areas.
I had two other careers prior to founding my company. I began in academic administration as a professional major gift fundraiser for my alma maters, Harvard College and Columbia Business School. I then spent 19 years in the financial services industry in a variety of positions—management, sales and strategic planning. I worked in full-service investment banks, hedge funds and as the sole proprietor of a fundraising consulting business. I never left the work world to raise our family, but this was only possible because of my husband’s shared and effective hands-on role in raising our children.
Elting: That’s a really important thing to underscore: what becomes possible for working parents when both share equitably in what’s often called invisible labor—all the work that goes into raising children and managing the home—which was traditionally and often still is expected of women more than men. What led you to pivot from Wall Street into a social enterprise like Philanthropy is Beautiful? Where did the idea come from?
Hornig: In the mid ’90s, our youngest daughter took a beading course, and it was something we could enjoy doing together. I had always loved jewelry, collected it and, on occasion, reworked some antique and vintage pieces. Sourcing the materials I used for our projects sent me into New York’s diamond district, where I started looking at supplies, raw materials and findings with a new appreciation. I also noticed that the fashion aesthetic was getting bolder and more colorful, while the best boutiques and retailers were turning to semiprecious stones for runway designs. I was further impressed with the range of gemstones available and thought about reimagining them with gold artistic accents. So, I began playing around with the combinations of ideas, size, scale and price points for my own enjoyment.
Concurrently, I was also attending many charity events, particularly women’s luncheons. As we would gather, a lot of our conversations revolved around our fashion choices, including jewelry. It was easy to take off a ring, a necklace, a bracelet or earrings and pass them around for others to try on. I thought that too often we spent more time talking about what we were wearing or acquiring rather than the non-profit we were there to support.
Then I thought: What if when complimented on a fashion item, the wearer was able to tell another story that began a different kind of conversation, one that was directed at the power of the purse to make a positive change? Wouldn’t it be great if our significant purchases always had a positive societal impact?
September 11 was also a contributing factor in my decision. I wanted to be home more with our children. I changed my focus to work more with local asset managers. As it happened, my main clients were not far from New York City’s diamond district, and it was easy to incorporate getting supplies for what started out as a hobby but later morphed into Joan Hornig Jewelry.
For a number of years, I actually pursued both a financial services consulting business and the social enterprise jewelry business simultaneously. Because Bergdorf Goodman was my retailer for the jewelry, there was a built in sales force so I could focus on designing—before work, after work and on the weekends—without having to sell the pieces myself to individual customers.
Finally, as my reputation as a designer with a social enterprise business gained notoriety and accolades, I realized that I wanted to devote myself to building it full time and get increasingly more involved in philanthropy.
Elting: How did your background in Wall Street inform your decision to start your own business? What was that transition like; was it hard to walk away after two decades in finance?
Hornig: My background as a highly regarded, well compensated financial services professional certainly contributed to my ability to start a business as did the full support of my husband. I did not have financial pressures. I also understood pricing, niche markets, inventory costs and commodities. Because I only used precious metals and gems, and since jewelry takes little real estate and storage space, it was a viable business for me to consider. What I didn’t sell I could melt to reuse, and I often made money on my inventory as gold prices rose. Gemstones could also be repurposed as well.
The transition to doing something artistic with a pay it forward model was easy. What was hard was adjusting to the retail sector. There were times when my ego was wounded. It is easier to sell or promote something that is not as personal as one’s art. I had to toughen up, which was a surprise after my experience in the Wall Street world where just being a senior woman with too few role models was challenging enough!
Elting: That is definitely one of the challenges in making a business out of a passion, especially one as personal as art. What would you say to others considering a career change, especially one that involves leaving a steady career with a good deal of security in order to strike out on one’s own, which of course carries more risk?
Hornig: Making changes isn’t easy or natural for many people. It’s a very individual thing. Every time I wanted to make a change, my husband told me that the risk was only one of disappointment if it didn’t work out as I had hoped. He and I never characterized it as a potential failure. I would also remind anyone who has been successful in their past careers that there is a very good chance of finding success again in new endeavors. Success breeds success, as they say.
Elting: What challenges did you face in the early days of starting your business? What lessons did you learn along the way?
Hornig: There is always a steep learning curve at the beginning of any new endeavor. I had little leverage as a small startup business with the critical artisans, suppliers and retail partners. Trust is earned and paid for on a timely basis!
Proof of concept for a social enterprise business was also difficult for several reasons. First, I had created something that had not been done before by asking the purchaser to select the charity to receive the profits, not choosing one myself (not to mention that I was giving away 100% of the profits not 10%). It was a complicated story to make simple and believable, which was further complicated by my desire to instill certain fundamental brand foundations. I wanted my business to elevate the consciousness of the consumer to their own individual power to impact the future and at the same time demonstrate my commitment to using clean gold, ethical diamonds, sustainable materials and work with people of all different backgrounds—making diversity a core value of the business. There was also a great deal of administrative work to educate the non-profit selected for a donation to understand that the customer directed that donation and that the purchaser needed to be notified that the donation had been made in their honor. This transparency was and remains a critical hallmark of my brand.
Second, production was and remains a challenge, including managing delivery time, quality expectations and the fluctuation of gold, silver and gemstone prices. Making the choice not to be vertically integrated to involve more artisans from creation to completion meant more hands-on involvement and time from me and my team. That had to be built into realistic planning on my end.
I also learned early on that it is key to have people on the team who share the company’s vision and care about the company’s mission.
Elting: The central idea behind Philanthropy is Beautiful is that 100% of the profits go to a consumer-selected charitable partner. Why did you choose this approach? Was it a difficult idea to implement?
Hornig: The idea of asking the customer to select the charity to receive all of my profit on a piece of jewelry was novel when I started my business. Consumers were used to the Paul Newman’s Own model and Oprah raising awareness for a range of needs through her publications, but—to my knowledge—consumers had never been asked before to choose any organization, from the entire universe of registered charities, to receive 100% of the profit from their purchase. I am indebted to the media and the many writers who, from the beginning, took the time to really understand and clearly convey the business’ dual purpose of delivering high-quality, fine jewelry with a unique philanthropic component.
Elting: Can you talk about the decision to have customers select the charities of their choice? Did you face any challenges in making that work? And would you say it’s been effective in encouraging customers to give to a wider range of smaller charities?
Hornig: Because Philanthropy Is Beautiful Jewelry and Pave the Way Jewelry customers always direct the donations, the company and I remain agnostic about the size, overhead expenses, nature and sector of the services provided by the non-profits selected. I believe we have been able to have a greater impact on fledgling service providers and local organizations—most of which we had not heard of before our customers introduced us. Our customers become effective ambassadors for the non-profits they select. We list all charities alphabetically on our website with a link to further help build the community of caring and wearing individuals.
Elting: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs looking to incorporate giving into their business model?
Hornig: Never underestimate the consumer. They will spot performative marketing instantly. They will accept cause marketing, but you must be fully transparent about it. I am a major proponent of raising money through conscious consumerism. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that someone will make a purchase simply because there is a charity component. People only buy what they want and wear what they like. If the product’s design, beauty and quality don’t stand up on its own, it simply won’t sell, and subsequently, the charities won’t benefit.
Elting: Before turning it into a career, jewelry making was a longtime hobby of yours. And while I’ve always thought it key to have a genuine passion for something if you want to make a business out of it, it can be difficult to keep that passion alive when it’s also your job. Can you talk about the challenges of turning something you love into a business? What advice would you give to others who want to do the same?
Hornig: It’s nice to wake up every day and like what you do. But they call it work for a reason. There are tedious and boring parts of making anything a viable business—even designing jewelry! My business has two key things that amplify my joy—the creativity of designing and the intersection I have with the non-profits and the dedicated individuals who run them. They inspire me and help push through the operational challenges and expected business frustrations. When you own a business, it’s like being a parent—since it’s always on your mind to some degree. It is hard to take a break from it, but after 20 plus years, I continue to find designing very gratifying and don’t mind getting lost in it because I truly do love it.
Elting: Can you talk about your approach to sustainability and use of conflict-free materials? How have you been able to weave those values into your business? What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs interested in integrating their values into their business practices?
Hornig: Our goal is to build a world where every purchase has a positive impact. We work diligently to use ethically sourced, conflict free and sustainable materials which are meticulously sourced to respect workers and our planet. We use manufacturers that are members of the Responsible Jewellery Council. Our packaging is all biodegradable and compostable, and our pouches are made from scraps of fabric and sewn with love by political refugees who are being paid fairly and are building businesses as well as independence through this kind of work.
I would advise entrepreneurs to be very clear at the outset about the values they want their businesses to represent. They should factor in that there will be added costs associated with incorporating materials produced in sustainable and ethical ways. They must allow for that in budgeting and pricing their goods. I also believe that anyone who puts their core values into their business should recognize that things are changing rapidly in the sustainability arena, which means state of the art best practices need to be invested in to keep up with innovations over the life of the company. Once you’ve established your values, you can’t simply sit back; you must continue improving on them and incorporating them into new practices as your business grows.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.