Mariana Russo Chambers: “Take care of business first”

Take care of business first. No matter what industry you are in, if you are not focusing on supporting the day to day business functions like planning, cash flow, employee management, etc., no matter how great your idea is, you will never succeed. This became extremely clear during the 2008 financial crisis when many companies […]

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Take care of business first. No matter what industry you are in, if you are not focusing on supporting the day to day business functions like planning, cash flow, employee management, etc., no matter how great your idea is, you will never succeed. This became extremely clear during the 2008 financial crisis when many companies were closing down, and my boss at EU Design was seizing opportunities to buy and expand. He was able to do so because he had his house in order and always took care of business first, allowing him to take the opportunities as they presented themselves.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mariana Russo Chambers.

Mariana Russo Chambers is the CEO and Founder of Cut + Clarity, a woman-led, ethically sourced, and fair-trade jewelry company. Based in New York City, Mariana is a former language teacher turned fashion tech founder who focuses on the intersections of sustainability, social impact, and women’s empowerment to redesign the jewelry industry. As an immigrant from Argentina, who grew up in the suburbs of NYC, Mariana champions the value of community, heritage, and craft.

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?

Thanks for having me. Like so many people today, my path here looks a lot more like a squiggly line than a straight one. Through all my experiences, the driving force has been my love of languages and the value of hard work and community my parents instilled in me. I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the youngest of 3 children. When I was six years old, my family immigrated to a suburb of NYC, for a better life.

At Rutgers University, I studied Italian and Political Science. During my last semester, I received an offer to fill an emergency teaching position at our local High School. At the same time that I began a MA in Spanish Literature for my teaching certification, I also started an internship at an Italian product development firm, EU Design, allowing me to both continue practicing Italian and be in New York.

That summer, I fell in love with the process of seeing things come to life and the excitement of learning how to produce goods in both Europe and China, along with all the cultural nuances that came with it. I kept both jobs for a while, and the year I was offered tenure teaching, I ended up taking the product development job, instead. It was in this job that I felt most challenged and inspired. I felt eager to learn, and I was where I knew I could effectuate change.

As a product manager, I learned the ins and outs of the fashion industry and gained a deep understanding of how to develop and produce products for brands. I learned not only about the products, but also how to run and maintain a business and profitable client portfolios. After about five years at EU Design, I joined a brand in-house as Production Director to focus specifically on jewelry.

During that time, friends and previous clients began reaching out to me for my expertise in the field. I then took the leap to start my own niche consulting company, MRC Consulting, a creative agency for jewelry design, development, and production. With a small team, we drove collaborations with companies like JCrew, Neiman Marcus, Urban Outfitters, and many more.

It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my first child, seven years later that I understood my life was not wholly fulfilling. I wasn’t satisfied working within the status quo of our industry, and I had to make the changes I saw desperately necessary. That’s when I founded Cut + Clarity, to lead by example.

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

Fast Fashion has made us lose sight of the fact that there are real people that make our products. It feels like today most people think that their goods come from some massive machine with a magical button that, when pressed, yields their product. Jewelry, especially, is an artisan item, handcrafted by real people.

Cut + Clarity puts humanity back into the fashion business model by focusing on the people that want the product and those who make it, rather than solely the product. We strike the difficult balance between consumerism and conscious consumption.

We have changed the business model from mass-producing goods and hoping to sell, to producing only what the customer wants. By leveraging technologies, the customer gets to design and customize our collections with their style, and we then invite them to journey with their design through the production process.

Our Custom Design Tracker gives our customers real-time updates on where their item is in the production line and why we chose that specific production method. We peel back the curtains on our industry so the customer can appreciate the people that make their goods, create an affinity with their product and understand where their money goes.

The journey doesn’t stop when they receive their piece. Fine jewelry can have a circular product life, which means that we can recycle it post-use and so we encourage not just buying products from us but to “reincarnate” their jewelry through our Gold Buy Back Program.

We emphasize creating sustainable jewelry with recycled metals and ethical stones and also focus on sustaining our local community. We produce everything locally in the NYC Diamond District. We are creating an apprenticeship program not only to reinvigorate our workforce but as a way to break with the gender disparity in our industry. Our apprenticeship program will put underserved women of color at the helm of meaningful, beautiful, and safe work making jewelry.

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?

When I was a teacher, I applied for tuition reimbursement for my master’s courses and received a denial letter from my boss, the Superintendent, via email. I was so pissed off and felt so helpless at the bureaucracy of it all; I forwarded the email to my friends with scathing commentary on the Superintendent. When I received a direct response from my boss telling me to come in for a meeting, I realized that I had responded to him instead of forwarding the email.

I learned very early on to use email very, very carefully.

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’ve had some great business mentors, but the mentors that have left the most significant impact on me weren’t traditional business mentors. Growing up an immigrant in a predominantly white suburb was not easy. My best friend, Karri, and her parents accepted me as their adopted daughter. The love and support they showed me fed my soul and helped me navigate an unknown system.

In Argentina, we live the motto “it takes a village,” and it is common for families to split larger lots of land so that the extended family is all living together. I lived across the yard from my grandparents, so moving to a very independent culture with no family wasn’t easy. The Digesere’s created the community and “village” I so longed for.

They showed me that you could cultivate your community, which has today manifested itself in the importance I place on community and how Cut + Clarity contributes to it.

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?

We cannot look at disruption in a vacuum. Like most things, disruption has the potential for both good and bad. By definition, disruption is a disturbance and only when we are disturbing something that hasn’t been working, should we consider disruption a positive. Only time can tell whether the disruption will hold up as “good.” A perfect example is Fast Fashion.

Fast Fashion was an answer to unaffordable, laborious supply chain issues in the garment industry. It was a democratization of the fashion industry, allowing for affordable fashions to hit the streets “fast.” Thirty+ years post the disruption of the garment industry, and we see the problems Fast Fashion has created; it cannot stand the test of time as a positive disruption. Both pressures to cut costs and speed up production create continual environmental and societal issues, and so it stands that Fast Fashion is itself primed for disruption.

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

Know what you know and hire for what you don’t. The second company I ever founded was a bike bag line that would take you from your bike share to your office. The company dissolved because my partner and I couldn’t agree. However, the biggest problem was that my partner at the time wasn’t forthright in what they didn’t know. Instead of saying that they didn’t know, they did what they could to the detriment of the business. When you can identify that you aren’t good at something or that a particular task drains your brainpower, it is important to hire to supplement your deficiencies. We all have these weak spots, but identifying them is the difference between success and failure.

Take care of business first. No matter what industry you are in, if you are not focusing on supporting the day to day business functions like planning, cash flow, employee management, etc., no matter how great your idea is, you will never succeed. This became extremely clear during the 2008 financial crisis when many companies were closing down, and my boss at EU Design was seizing opportunities to buy and expand. He was able to do so because he had his house in order and always took care of business first, allowing him to take the opportunities as they presented themselves.

“Debt is not a four-letter word” — A few years ago, I met Nathalie Molina Niño at an event promoting her book “Leapfrog: The New Revolution for Women Entrepreneurs. In the book, Nathalie gives actionable information on how to “leapfrog” over privilege and how founders who do not come from wealthy backgrounds, like me, can still compete in a startup environment. Chapter 34 makes a case for “good debt” and how acquiring a business can give you all the benefits of that business’ cash flow at your disposal. This idea opened my eyes to obtaining a factory in the Diamond District in NYC. The deal eventually fell through due to an impasse in negotiations. However, this experience caused me to ideate and eventually to pivot to our apprenticeship program.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

I always place great value on genuine connections with people, which will naturally become the best way to connect with qualified leads. Industry events are always beneficial; however, they can sometimes become an echo chamber. I like to connect with folks not just in my field but also with those who intersect my industry — for instance, women in technology, NGOs that champion women’s health and Latinx organizations. A lot of the business lessons are universal, and I learn a lot from them, and instantly, I get to become the person they know for jewelry. Doing so keeps me top of mind and helps expand my radius.

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

BC-Before COVID, I had planned a coworking space for the jewelry industry and wanted to focus on creating apprenticeships as Phase II. Now, I’m more focused than ever on creating jobs first. As a daughter of immigrants, I saw my parents make ends meet with Blue Collar work — my mom was cleaning office spaces, and my dad initially worked in a junkyard dismantling cars. Nevertheless, they were able to clothe, feed us, and put a roof over our heads.

Today, people cannot make living wages because salaries have not adjusted to the rising costs of living. We are creating a network of trained professional Latinx and Black women from underserved communities with the skills and tools necessary to be independent jewelers through our apprenticeship program. On average, a bench jeweler makes three times the average minimum wage in a factory setting; however, an independent jeweler charges by the piece and can earn upwards of ten times the average minimum wage. The apprenticeship’s focus is to introduce Latinx and Black women to a safe, creative, and lucrative field they may have never previously considered or been able to enter.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

People and their unique stories fuel me, so I love the NPR podcast “How I Built This” with Guy Raz. Guy focuses not on the business itself, but on the founders’ experiences and how their success is a byproduct. My favorite episode is the 2018 episode on Haim Saban, who brought the Power Rangers tv show stateside. Saban went from being a refugee to billionaire media titan by identifying opportunities that others continually overlooked. He took big chances, had high highs and low lows, but his story is about finding opportunities and never giving up.

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

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” I mentioned early on that my journey is a big squiggly line, and this is because I was prepared to jump at the opportunities that arose. Some people call it luck, I like to shift the dynamic of luck from being a bystander to taking an active roll in luck where I am always prepared to take that leap of faith.

You are a person of great influence. 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 would love to end world hunger by returning to growing our own food and implementing a blockchain to create a bartering system. This system would allow each person to focus on what they know how to grow and trade what they can’t.

How can our readers follow you online?

They can follow me personally

IG @marianaRchamb

Twitter: @marianaRchamb

They can follow Cut + Clarity

IG @CutAndClarityCo

Twitter @CutAndClarityCo

Visit our website

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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