The Inspiring Backstory of Beth Gerstein, co-founder and co-CEO of Brilliant Earth
You truly do have the power to make change in the world if you are persistent.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Beth Gerstein, co-founder and co-CEO of Brilliant Earth, the leading retailer of ethically sourced bridal and fine jewelry.
Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
When I was about to get engaged, my now husband, Alex, and I experienced firsthand the challenge of finding a responsibly sourced engagement ring that represented our values. I partnered with my Stanford classmate, Eric Grossberg, who was passionate about the idea that responsibly-sourced jewelry could be an effective tool for social change in developing countries, and together we founded Brilliant Earth in 2005. In addition to our strong ecommerce presence, we have also pursued an omni-channel strategy with physical showrooms in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Chicago, Boston, San Diego, and Denver.
Yitzi: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Many years back, we were moving from our first office to our existing location in Union Square. The two buildings were only one block away, and since we were still a young scrappy company, we didn’t want to pay for an armored guard to move our diamond inventory just a hundred feet. I had recently had a baby, so I came up with the idea to transport the diamonds in a baby stroller — we loaded up our diamonds into the Bugaboo stroller, covered them with my son’s baby blanket, and wheeled them down the street to our new office. I can assure you our security has gotten much tighter since!
Yitzi: So what exactly does your company do?
Brilliant Earth is the leading global retailer of responsibly sourced fine jewelry. We focus on bridal jewelry, primarily diamond and gemstone engagement rings and wedding rings. Our jewelry is handcrafted from recycled precious metals and set with beyond conflict free diamonds and colored gemstones that meet high standards of social and environmental responsibility. We also donate five percent of profits to help communities impacted by the jewelry trade to build a brighter future
Our jewelry is sold online at www.BrilliantEarth.com and in our showrooms throughout the US, where customers can discover their ideal gemstone and ring setting in a fun and relaxing environment.
Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As part of our mission to create a more transparent and sustainable jewelry industry, we donate 5% of our profits to benefit communities impacted by the jewelry trade, focusing on education, environmental restoration, and economic development. Some of our recent initiatives include:
· Partnering with Diamond Development Initiative (DDI) to fund the launch of Brilliant Mobile School, a primary school serving children in a rural diamond community who may otherwise be working in or accompanying their parents to the mines. I’m proud to say that on a recent exam, 100% of the kids passed!
· Partnering with Pure Earth to help fund a program to teach artisanal gold miners in Peru a mercury-free gold mining technique
· Partnering with DDI to provide training in diamond valuation to artisanal diamond miners in Sierra Leone
Yitzi: What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why.
1. You’re only as good as your team. A significant amount of your time as a CEO is focused on cultivating a team — recruiting, retaining, and working hand-in-hand with HR. Your success as a CEO and as a company is not due to your own personal achievement, but through empowering others to carry out your strategy and vision. Finding and nurturing the right people is critical to your success and will take up much of your time and energy.
o For the first eight years of running the company, my co-founder, Eric Grossberg, and I interviewed every single person that joined Brilliant Earth — this close attention to our hiring ensured we would maintain the culture we were seeking to build. Ultimately we hired a HR team that enabled us to scale, but we still have remained extremely close to the hiring process. We also host a CEO breakfast with new hires shortly after they join the company, so they have early and direct contact with us.
2. Repetition is key. It’s important to over-communicate your message to ensure it is heard — whether reinforcing your mission and strategy, explaining a change in process, or implementing new best practices. You might sound like a broken record, but it can take 6–7 times of repeating the same message, in varying formats, for it to be heard by everyone in your organization.
o For example, our mission is a critical element of our company and brand, so we reinforce it in many ways. To keep our mission at the center of everything we do, we provide ongoing mission training to all employees, kick off our monthly staff meetings with mission updates, invite staff members to join our mission committee, hold educational “brown bag” lunches on relevant topics, and circulate a monthly mission newsletter. Each of these components plays a role in making it clear how important our mission is to how we operate.
3. Lead by example. You need to be intentional about both your verbal communications and your actions. Everything you do sets the tone for the organization, even day-to-day things, such as showing up to meetings on time, emptying the dishwasher, addressing customer inquiries with urgency and care, walking to work instead of driving, and being responsive to feedback and new ideas for improvement. Leading by example is key as a CEO.
4. You are always on — leaving challenges and problems at the office is not an option. The role of CEO means addressing the tough and unexpected issues, particularly when they are unchartered territory for the organization, and consistently being available to help and answer questions.
o About a year ago, there was a blackout in a large area of San Francisco, which resulted in a loss of power in our building. As a retailer with an international customer base, we needed to maintain our high level of responsiveness and service for our customers, so we quickly developed and communicated a plan B to our staff, designating alternate work sites throughout the city so we could continue operating with minimal disruption.
5. You truly do have the power to make change in the world if you are persistent. On your way, you will hear a lot of no’s and face a lot of resistance, but ultimately if you stick with what you believe is right, you can make a real impact.
o Over the past few years, we have been working with the Diamond Development Initiative (DDI) in Africa on a pilot program to introduce fair trade diamonds. Currently there are over one million artisanal miners that make $1–2 per day digging for diamonds in Africa. The goal of this work is to transform artisanal, or small scale, mining into an activity that benefits miners and communities — similar to the fair trade model that has been successfully applied to coffee, chocolate and tea. Bringing fair trade or “Development Diamonds” to market has been a slow work in progress given the political unrest, civil wars and Ebola outbreak in the region. I visited Sierra Leone last summer to meet with artisanal miners and learn more about the labor and environmental standards they have implemented in DDI’s pilot program. While there is much work left to do, it was encouraging to see the progress that has been achieved in this community, and the potential to transform the lives of artisanal miners. .
Yitzi: I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.
Because I love them both too much to just select one, I’d have to say Amy Schumer and Tiny Fey. They are confident, strong women who are not afraid to be their own person, and they use their voices and humor to draw attention to important social issues like women’s empowerment. And of course it would be really funny!