Priyanka Murthy of Access79: “This was a hard but useful lesson to learn”

This piece of advice was not given directly to me but I read it in an article about Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. She said that the decision whether or not to get married and who you marry is the most important career decision you will ever make. I read this when I was […]

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This piece of advice was not given directly to me but I read it in an article about Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. She said that the decision whether or not to get married and who you marry is the most important career decision you will ever make. I read this when I was single and it stuck with me. I heeded that advice and married a man who was not only supportive of my career decisions but also my biggest champion and advisor.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Priyanka Murthy.

Priyanka is the CEO and co-founder of Access79, a tech-enabled try-before-you-buy fine jewelry service that helps women discover pieces from today’s most talented independent designers. She’s also the founder of Arya Esha, an award-winning and celebrity-favorite fine jewelry brand, which counts Jennifer Lawrence, Kerry Washington, Jennifer Lopez, and Julia Roberts as fans. Priyanka holds a law and undergraduate degree, cum laude, from Northwestern University. She’s also a former Fulbright Scholar, which took her to Denmark to study European foreign and security policy. Before entrepreneurship chose her, Priyanka was a litigator, specializing in high-stakes and high-value cases. She lives in Florida with her husband Ragu and their almost 4-year-old guy Raaghuv. Though she has settled in Florida, Priyanka has the soul of a nomad — she has traveled to 73 countries and counting. She likes her sandwiches hot and her coffee cold.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I am a lawyer by training. By all accounts, I have an illustrious legal resume — I went to a top-10 law school, was an editor on the Law Review, worked for two renowned federal judges, and litigated at white shoe law firms. The longer I stayed in the law, the more I realized that I loved the law but I didn’t care for the practice of law because I wasn’t building anything. I come from a family of entrepreneurs and always had an interest in jewelry. So, as I was practicing law, I started a side hustle of designing and selling fine jewelry. I was pleasantly surprised to see my pieces sell and to learn I could make a living from this. The idea of being my own boss also appealed to me. So, I quit my day job as a lawyer and launched my own jewelry business. As an outsider in the jewelry industry, I found myself learning a lot and also questioning a lot of the way things are done. I skipped the wholesale route and went direct to the consumer early and this allowed me to learn a lot about my client and what she wanted. I learned that most women do not like the intimidating and drab jewelry shopping experience and were looking for a more relaxed and personalized way to shop. On the supply side, I learned that 80% of the fine jewelry produced were by small independent jewelry designers who didn’t always have the know-how, resources, and temperament to market and sell their jewelry in a way that could earn them a good living from their craft. Based on these learnings, I launched Access79, which is a tech enabled, try-before-you-buy fine jewelry service that matches clients up with a personal jewelry stylist who curates pieces from independent designers based on each client’s individual taste and needs. Then the client can try the pieces for 7 days before she commits to purchase. We are giving independent jewelry designers a sales channel and giving our clients a tailored, convenient, and fun way to discover and purchase unique fine jewelry they wear everyday. I think it is the analytical training that I have had as a lawyer along with the experience in and insight into the jewelry industry that makes me uniquely qualified to build and lead this company.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We are the only company out there that allows women to try genuine, fine jewelry from the comfort of their own home before committing. We send clients 3 pieces of their choice and they get to live with it and flaunt it for 7 days and have the time and space to make a decision. Moreover, our clients have access to fine jewelry brands from across the world; they are not limited to just one brand when they access our try-before-you-buy experience, and we do not send them ‘fake’ pieces that they can later order in genuine diamonds and gold. Our business model is upending the traditional fine jewelry retail landscape such that consumers are no longer forced to brave intimidating jewelry stores and high-pressure sales, nor do they have to scroll endlessly on an eCommerce site trying to figure out if something is right for them. We are giving our clients the time and space to make an informed decision about their purchase. It’s really empowering and fun for them!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I tried to recruit jewelry designers to work with us and be part of our platform based solely on their work and without paying attention to whether they believed in the concept and the disruptive nature of what we were doing. It’s kind of funny because in retrospect it is so clear that because we are on a mission to upend the industry, we could never launch and grow this disruptive company without having our designers ‘buy in’ to what we’re doing. I learned that this also extends to other people we worked with — employees and other vendors and contractors. We want to know that they can see the vision and believe in the brand. This was a hard but useful lesson to learn.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I worked for a brilliant and powerful federal judge straight out of law school. Even though I was so green, she insisted on giving me an exceedingly large amount of responsibility, even when I was nervous about taking on such heady tasks — like recommending sentencing in criminal cases — etc. in her chambers. Her philosophy was one of learning by doing and leading, so she forced me to jump right in. This mode of operation impacted me greatly because it taught me how to take on responsibility quickly and lead from the get go. Although my job was in law, these skills and way of working is translatable to so many jobs, especially entrepreneurship.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disrupting an industry when the disruption favors the consumer is almost always positive. So, for example, our try-before-you-buy model of shopping for jewelry from home favors the consumer and makes their experience better and I think that is a good thing, good disruption, even though the old guard of the jewelry industry may be against it (i.e. owners of traditional jewelry stores). Regarding when disruption is not positive, I think it is a matter of nuance. Social media is an example of a form of communication and “gathering” that started off as a positive for the consumer — it connected people. However, over the decades social media companies have not prioritized the privacy of consumers or policed misinformation. So this is an example where disruption is not positive and traditional institutions like branches of our government need to step in and police.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  1. One of my friends who is a very successful entrepreneur has this mantra (not sure if it’s his quote or he got it from somewhere): “The great are free.” This really resonates with me in my journey as an entrepreneur. I read it to mean that doing great work and prioritizing excellence is the way to feel truly fulfilled in one’s career. I try very hard to live these words by shutting out all the noise and flash and focusing on the work and doing the best I can.
  2. A mentor of mine, who’s a startup investor and runs an accelerator, has a quote that he always shares. In fact, it’s on the wall of the building his accelerator operates out of: Think big, start small. I’ve really embraced this advice. I keep reminding myself of the big picture and the big goal for the company I’m trying to build because it’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day grind and details of running a startup. On the flip side, sometimes a big goal — like disrupting the 80B dollars jewelry industry for both the consumer and the designer — can seem really daunting, so it’s helpful to remember that several small steps, i.e. starting small and doing things nimbly and lean fashion will provide us with a sustainable foundation to grow.
  3. This piece of advice was not given directly to me but I read it in an article about Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. She said that the decision whether or not to get married and who you marry is the most important career decision you will ever make. I read this when I was single and it stuck with me. I heeded that advice and married a man who was not only supportive of my career decisions but also my biggest champion and advisor.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

My goal is for Access79 to be the world’s largest virtual fine jewelry store without ever owning a single brick-and-mortar store. I think our disruptive business model lends itself to achieving this so I intend to double down on that.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Convincing both our male and female colleagues that women can run thriving disruptive companies that increase shareholder value and importantly, improve the lives of the consumers via the disruptive endeavors. The traditional notions of disruptive leadership favor a masculine brash and emotional ‘cowboy’ approach. Women, on the other hand, lead in a more collaborative, methodical, and cool-headed way. This lack of pomp and circumstance creates the appearance that women are not as ‘tough’ to lead disruption, but data shows it’s actually the opposite — women leaders, particularly the visionaries who focus on disruption, are better stewards of capital and make better ‘bet the company’ disruptive decisions.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

I’m really inspired by the NPR radio show/segment This I Believe. It was a modern reboot of Edward R Murrow’s show from the 1950s, where notable and everyday people read personal essays about what they believe. These essays, read aloud by the authors, are so poignant, powerful, and instructive. I’m a deeply analytical person — I’m great with logic, data, and science but it’s not natural for me to be spiritual or pay attention to the soul of something. Listening to This I Believe is amazing because a person’s belief system is an amalgamation of what they think in their mind AND feel in their soul. One essay that had an impact on me was from a NASA scientist — he talked about how he got to the heights of his career and was mesmerized by the science of outer space only to be equally mesmerized by love and kindness and even god, things that, to him and other people of science, are inexplicable. His essay implored me to also pay attention to and give credence to the inexplicable, and I think this has made me a better leader and parent.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think I would start a movement that would encourage adolescent girls to raise their hands and speak up and actively give their opinions. Somewhere along the educational path, young girls stop raising their hands and stop expressing themselves with gusto and candor and we need to change that. All the data shows that when the women in a society are empowered the entire society is lifted and does better. So, what better place to start than with young women.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradicts everything you said to-day.” Ralph Waldo Emerson. This is very relevant in my life as an entrepreneur because the quote espouses the belief that one should stand for something and be passionate about what they believe and what they are doing yet be flexible and humble enough to change their heart and mind and pivot if change is required.

How can our readers follow you online?

@access.79 on Instagram for my company

@aryaesha on Instagram for me personally

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