Hi #BeautifulAndCapable! Today I want to share with you the story of my jewelry business and how Anna Balkan Jewelry Gallery came about. My hope is that as you follow the journey, you’ll witness how from feeling doubtful, insecure, invisible, and fearful I stepped into feeling unique, smart, creative, accomplished, and beautiful. I feel seen and relevant, and you can, too, no matter the adversity!
I am a jewelry designer! Wow, never in my life have I thought I’d say these words.
I always knew there was something inside of me that would eventually find its way out and bring meaning to my life, but designing jewelry was never in my thoughts or dreams.
When I arrived in America at the young age of 20, with no job skills, no English, and only $100 to my name, all I could hope for was a warm meal, a shelter, and a friendly smile.
Eventually, my dreams expanded to some sort of a job, and after a few years of college, they became bigger and bolder.
That one job fair I attended back in 1995 opened a world of possibilities to me, and I thought that I knew exactly what I was meant to be and do.
An IT consultant. Sounds exciting, right?!
There are a few ways to evaluate your job choice:
- Does it pay you what you need or want?
- Do you feel proud to tell people what you do and where you work?
- Does what you do make a difference in the world?
I was a glorified order taker and whip cracker for 15 years of my “glamorous” corporate gig. I was paid well but felt drained and empty when I got home at night.
I was proud to tell everyone where I worked. I felt that what I did make a difference in the lives of people on the other side of the computer screen, it made their lives much easier.
So why did I feel so restless, especially the last few years?
I can point my finger to my pregnancy and its “nesting side effects,” but I think it was something bigger than that. I was sensing the urge to do something bigger and better. Let me share with you what exactly it was that felt bigger to me.
When I arrived in this country, I struggled with poverty, homelessness, and loneliness.
Immigration is a difficult journey for anyone to undertake. The only people who extended their hand to me in those first 3 years as an immigrant in New York were immigrants themselves.
They understood exactly where I was in life and what I needed the most.
I owned a forever-debt to those people. And the only way I could truly honor their selfless gifts and gestures was to offer the same selfless gesture to immigrants in need.
Since the day I started my business, I was able to help immigrants who were in need of a steady, safe, and honorable job.
Over the last 15 years, with Anna
Of course, I keep my heart open to helping all women, regardless of their origin. I just wanted to share with you here that I’ve been dedicated to helping immigrants because when I was an immigrant in need of help, many people helped me.
I’ve been able to help women in adversity by offering them an opportunity to be surrounded by other positive, loving, and strong women.
I’ve provided a work schedule that allowed women to take care of their families or school and I gave them what they needed to be able to survive and thrive. Many of them went on to pursue the American Dream.
Since I opened my doors as Anna Balkan Designer Jewelry Gallery, many customers have found support and help, kind words and open arms inside my store.
I hear amazing stories of people discovering their beauty within after experiencing our difference. I share with my customers my deep love and pass to them my understanding of how to look at themselves through jewelry. Each piece is unique. And each woman is unique. Each piece has a character. And each woman has a character.
The stories of how a woman walked by the windows of my jewelry store in Historic Norcross on the worst day of her life, came in, felt empowered, and experienced a transformation are my favorite stories.
Word empowerment means a lot to me. The feeling is a surprise, actually.
I wasn’t able to predict that the jewelry I design and the store I created would be a part of a bigger universal purpose and serve as a source of empowerment for women.
Now, if I had to pick what I should do with my life and the jewelry business was on the list of choices available to me, I would pick it as my top choice!
Why? Because I know what it’s truly like to feel powerless, to feel invisible, to feel worthless and lonely.
I lived through life situations where I felt like trash, like a non-human, like my life would not amount to anything and there was no hope for me...
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, I was risen by circumstances beyond my control and pushed into this place of visibility and worldwide audience.
I was empowered, and I want to empower you.
My story of struggle and survival now makes perfect sense to me. I suffered much but now I know that the journey was preparing me to understand your suffering and equipping me to help you leverage your inner power.
My story armed me with the voice that resonates with women’s hearts through compassion and understanding.
As I share more of my story, you will see how all along my path I had received messages from different people, including complete strangers saying stay the course.
As an immigrant, I received much help from women-immigrants, so I wanted my gallery to be a safe place for women-immigrants as well
Once upon a time, there was a girl. Her name was Anna, and she was lonely in a strange big scary country, hungry, homeless, and cold.
She thought she was completely alone until she opened her eyes and realized how many people around her were exactly like her.
She found help and understanding, and she made that big, once scary place, her home.
I am that girl.
As an immigrant, although a political refugee status gave me plenty of “perks” others don’t get, I felt all alone and had no one to turn to for help.
In many societies, especially socialistic ones, asking for help is forbidden.
If you’re offered food, you have to decline it at least 2 times, and only say yes if offered the third time. It took me a few hungry moments to forget that one!
In many cultures, any signs of weakness would lead to you being arrested or taken advantage of, or even worst – killed.
But what I witnessed in America when I lived in NYC really amazed me. The homeless on the streets and the beggars on the subway were not immigrants!
I recall experiencing some sort of confusion when I could hear people’s perfect English or even a multiple language usage! They had a passport, a social security number, a legal right to work… Why would they not find a job when they had the most important gift of all – they spoke English?
I thought it was the most important gift because I didn’t speak the language and I struggled. Frankly, even today I have nightmares where I wake up in cold sweat thinking I forgot English.
The people who truly saved me were the people who offered me shelter, food, clothing and help to find my way in NYC and get enrolled at school.
I feel deep compassion for immigrants and feel in debt to my life’s heroes.
The first opportunity I ever had to truly help someone was with my first employee.
It was a girl from Brazil who came here on a temp work visa sponsored by another jewelry company. After thousands of dollars she had to shell out and difficult journey to Atlanta, she was at the mercy of those people.
A few months into her stay that mercy had expired.
I met her at the store while buying beads during my first month after I was let go from the corporate job and had a chance to fully focus on my business.
She sat in a corner of the store stringing beads. I engaged in a small conversation and learned that she made jewelry, has lived in America for a few months, and her goal was to learn the trade. She had to travel to trade shows to set up beads and work long hours. She did that almost every week.
The only day she didn’t work, she couldn’t do much as she didn’t know anyone. The girl shared that her dream was to be doing something else.
I wanted to help her.
We agreed she would work for me 1 day a week when she was free to help me.
And so we started that way, 1 or 2 days a week now and then, until 3 weeks went by and she came over covered in tears.
She was told her contract was being terminated and unless someone else was willing to sponsor her in the next 15 days, she would be sent back home.
I didn’t have to think twice and stepped up offering her the sponsorship, as well as everything that went with it.
I had to get my business registered in a special way, get special compensation and insurance, sign an agreement that guaranteed her 35 hours of work every week and a specific rate of pay.
I was not in a place to do any of that yet, but I believed that “If you build it, they will come!”
And that first opportunity to help someone made me fall in love with my business way beyond me loving to just make the jewelry.
At once, I saw the bigger purpose I could live.
Fast forward to today, that girl is now living the American dream, happily married with a child and a stable career.
In 15 years, I was able to help at least 12 other immigrant-women to get back on their feet and have an honorable job with fair compensation. I helped women acquire job skills they never had since many of them had never made jewelry before.
Many women who worked for me improved their English and went back to school, built a safe place for their families and are now thriving.
I didn't take this lightly. Helping women-immigrants in America is a personal mission for me. It is close to my heart. I was a homeless, wounded, vulnerable, and lonely woman-immigrant once, and I needed a lot of help.
Compassion toward immigrants has been watered down lately by the divided political camps in our free country. The only people who feel the impact of this division of opinions are the people who truly had no other choice to survive other than their migration to this land of freedom and opportunity.
I am one of those. And I’m forever grateful for the freedom and for the opportunity.
At Anna Balkan Designer Jewelry Gallery, we view everyone as equal. We’ve been incredibly honored to play a small part in many amazing women’s journeys.
Every person who ever purchased my jewelry has helped me put food on the table for immigrant-women. If you’re reading this and you’re my customer, you personally gave women-immigrants an opportunity to experience this amazing country and pursue their dreams.
We as women have one thing in common, regardless of our backgrounds. It’s loneliness. Through this experience of making beautiful designer jewelry for women, all created by women, we all connect, heart-to-heart. And each of us is better because of such a special connection!
How Anna Balkan Designer Jewelry Gallery came about
Are you my customer? Have you been to my store? Imagine yourself there right now: Historic Norcross, glass windows, beautiful place, plenty of light, bright colors everywhere, and you feel empowered.
As you stand there now, in the jewelry store that’s been well-known for the last 10 years as Anna Balkan Designer Jewelry Gallery, it’s hard to ever believe that once upon a time I was only 2 days away from never having it.
Making jewelry turned from a hobby into a business opportunity outside of my direct control and I was walking that path one step at the time.
I created a lovely studio space in my home. I and 2 employees made jewelry there. Everything was easy and good: we created jewelry, had lunch together, made more jewelry, and that was going to be my life. Twice a year I would invite customers to come and shop in my studio. Easy and predictable.
But my neighbors didn’t see it that way. They had a bigger vision for what my small business would become… I have to give them the credit for following their fears.
They called the police to report that I was running a business out of my home.
Even though I had all the right approvals and papers, where I lived, that did not matter. All a person had to do was to claim that I was increasing traffic in the neighborhood, and there I had it: a cop at my door.
He was rather polite and informed me that I had 24 days to stop everything I was doing, or at a minimum make sure no one saw that I was still doing it.
Rules are rules, and I had no choice but to figure it out.
Having responsibility for others gives one strength and bravery.
I knew that if I closed my doors, I could always go back to my corporate gig, but the girls who worked for me would struggle, and one of them was a single mom.
Destiny would have it, but the next day I had dinner with an old co-worker in Historic Norcross, only 5 miles from my home.
As one conversation went to another, I met a guy, Dwayne, who was renting one of the spaces for his Web company and was about to end the lease.
I saw big welcoming windows of darkly lit space that previously hosted a bakery. I felt new hope.
I could see the potential looking right at me. And even though I did not know the first thing about opening and running a retail store, I took this as a sign that I was meant to build it right there.
I received a call from Dwayne letting me know that he was moving out and just notified his landlord, and before for-rent sign went up in the window, maybe I should speak with her.
Fifteen minutes later I was there, holding my breath and ready to sign the lease.
But someone beat me to it and asked the landlord to please wait until she got with her business partner to agree. I had to practice one thing I do not have a gift for – patience.
Week after week, it was the same story of waiting because they had not yet finalized their decision. I got to give it to my most honorable and honest landlord, Karen. She did what very few landlords would do, and was honoring that verbal agreement for over 3 weeks.
Finally, I heard back from Karen: come on over to sign the lease.
I flew there with my wings spread wide, excited and ready.
And can you imagine that the very people who made Karen wait on their leasing decision for three weeks, now decided to show up and sign the lease as I was in-route?
What in the world?
I walked into freshly signed papers and a clear understanding that space was NOT going to be mine because the new renters were moving in within a month.
That’s what I felt. I was completely deflated and exhausted. I went next door to Mojitos, my almost-future-neighboring business at the time, and had a few shots of vodka – something you will never see me do!
Lois, the owner, petted my shoulder as he gave me my second shot, and told me “Just have hope, things will work out.”
Immigrant himself, he was no stranger to such moments as I was going through, and I could feel the sincerity of his promise.
I spent the following weeks looking for other options and even tried to rent another, much larger space in the area, but to no avail.
I made a mental note to quit my silly idea of having a jewelry gallery and begin closing my business if I could not find something by June 1st, 2010.
You’ve got to hand it to God and the Universe.
I had to show my complete commitment and try until I exhausted all my options.
And right as I was about to step off my path and pass the baton to the next hopeful dreamer, on May 30th, 2010 I received THE call.
The renters decided to go with a larger space (one I could not get either) and if I came in within the next hour, I could sign the lease and space would be mine!
Thank God there were speed traps on my way to the store that day, I floored the pedal and was clutching my checkbook.
The rest was history.
I had to overhaul a lot: turning an industrial bakery setting into a beautiful jewelry store was a challenge! Removed ceiling tiles to accommodate dim lighting needs for web developers were not a fit for the welcoming environment of a gallery where women could feel at home. The walls, doors, utilities - all had to be reimagined into space I have now. It took 3 months. Frankly, until 5 pm on the opening night we were painting, remodeling, fixing, and cleaning.
The space you see today is beyond my dreams! It’s filled with so much love and hope, everyone who walks in feels its positive energy.
Anna Balkan Designer Jewelry Gallery was indeed my destiny.
I never expected that my jewelry store would become the ultimate shopping destination for women
As girls growing up most of us imagine ourselves being princesses or some other types of beautiful creatures.
Playing dress up and borrowing moms’ jewelry to complete the look was part of the fun. I loved jewelry and how it sparkled in my mom’s special wooden jewelry box.
I would try it on when she was not home. I found all her gems to be beautiful and magical. And I wanted to share that with my class at elementary school. A little disclaimer: DO NOT ATTEMPT IT!
As we entered our school, there was an area where we had to remove our outside shoes and put on inside shoes. I know, makes no sense, but in my culture, we do not wear shoes inside the house or schools, as a sign of respect and also to keep it clean.
I entered the school, clutching the treasure box in one hand and my umbrella in the other. Backpack and change of shoes were hanging on my back. I was in a hurry, as a rainy morning and muddy street delayed me and the bell was about to ring for the class to start.
I swiftly changed my shoes, stowed my umbrella, raincoat, and backpack in one hand and change of shoes in the other, and I ran to my class.
Yep, you can guess it.
I forgot the box right there on a floor at the entryway of the school.
We did not have lost and found, but it was definitely LOST and FOUND by someone else. I never saw that box again and was devastated at the magnitude of that loss and fears of what my mom would say or do.
I was not afraid that I would be hurt or yelled at, I was afraid I would break her heart and hurt her. All the family heirlooms and treasures she had over the years were gone. All was left was the jewelry she wore to work that day.
As I sit here and remember that story in vivid detail, I am not surprised now to see that I re-created the magical treasure box feel with my jewelry store in Historic Norcross.
It is truly a place of wonder and color.
Each case at Anna Balkan Designer Jewelry Gallery is custom-designed by me and hosts a selection of handmade gem-encrusted beauties, uniquely setup based on color combinations of my customers’ complexions.
Subconsciously, I wanted to recreate that childlike excitement and freedom to try things on and play pretty for my customers.
I want every woman to feel inspired, connected, understood, accepted, beautiful, and perfect as she walks into my store and tries on my jewelry.
What my store turned into, I think, is my destiny. The gift to every woman is that you can let the beautiful princes in you shine every time you’re at my store.
I want Anna Balkan Designer Jewelry Gallery to be a safe place for women
I have been asked many times to describe my ideal Anna Balkan Jewelry customer, and I find myself always returning to one word: empowered. My #BeautifulAndCapable customer is an empowered woman, though many men shop with me as well.
I used to worry a lot about the way I sounded to people at work with my Russian accent, how they probably laughed at my poor grammar, how I was not taken seriously and yet was expected to lead in the 9 to 5 world.
Corporate life I lived was not for the weak, and it was even harder for women to thrive in it. Add accent and a baggage of insecurities the size of a truck, and you will understand my day-to-day struggles.
Empowerment did not come easily to me and my nerves made my eyes tear and voice quiver in corporate meetings.
My poker face was not doing its job!
Everything I felt and feared was splattered across my face and everyone could see my weaknesses.
Do you want to know what my trick to combat that was?
I would push my nails into the palms of my hands so deep, and I would twist and cross my toes until joints were hurting. I was able to stop the tears and the shaky voice and let it all out once in the safety of a bathroom stall or a cubicle.
I know now that I was not alone in my struggles as a professional woman fighting for her place in the world of corporate coldness.
As I began creating jewelry, I noticed that I was designing for myself the pieces that spoke of power through the colors and boldness of the form.
I was designing my answers before I could be asked the questions.
With Anna Balkan Jewelry, I was creating powerful reminders to all women like myself, who need something to hold on to in the difficult moments, something that could speak to them when they need a moment to check on their nerves and take in a deep breath, to pause before resuming the “fight” for being heard and seen.
My hope is that when you wear Anna Balkan Jewelry, you feel empowered, courageous, and visible. I hope my pieces can remind you that you are not alone and you are loved.
The story of my jewelry business and the story of my jewelry gallery in Historic Norcross is a story of hope and perseverance. It’s a story of how people help other people. I was helped and I helped others.
The story shows me that we are all connected.
You are perfect already. Nothing needs to change about you. I want my jewelry to remind you of this simple truth, every day, wherever you are, whatever you’re facing out there in the world.
I want the experience of wearing my jewelry to be the experience of a safe haven for women where they can feel connected, worthy, inspired, and perfect without the need to change.