Hi #BeautifulAndCapable! Today I want to share with you my story of becoming a woman entrepreneur. My hope is that as you see my journey unfold, you’ll understand why I care so much about YOU. Anna Balkan Designer Jewelry is a way for me to say: you are beautiful and capable. I believe in you. I am here for you.
I was born in a small town in Ukraine when it was still a part of Soviet Union (USSR)
“When did the word immigrant become a bad word?” As I was listening to the Hamilton Mixtapes, that song struck a chord in me. I am an immigrant and I am proud of where I come from. I’m proud of what I have overcome and the life I’m unfolding into reality each day.
I think it’s time to share my story.
Words are powerful, they cast spells on us, define us, and add color to our surroundings. They can form cages around us and separate us from others. Words establish boundaries that we don’t want others to cross. They can also open our eyes and shape our destiny beyond anything we could have ever imagined.
One word was all that for me: my cage and my salvation.
When I was just six years old, I learned a new word that not only shaped my world at the time, but also defined me. It separated me from everyone else and placed me in an invisible cage. This word shaped me more than any word I have ever heard. It set forth the events that changed the course of my life. This word was both a whip on my back and the wings that sprouted from the scars.
It was the ice that chilled me to my core as well as the fire that ignited my heart. That word forged my will and delivered my strength. It’s the word that separated me from my family and friends, but also brought new people into my life and opened my heart to more compassion and understanding.
That was the word.
Simple and short, this word I heard back in Russia as a child, was used by a little girl to label me. Although only three letters long, the word felt and sounded heavy and grotesque. It pierced straight through my young naïve open heart…
The little girl was my neighbor. We always played together. I called her my friend until the moment she threw that word at me almost as if we were playing a game of catch.
Completely out of the blue, this word did not bounce off of me. Rather, it landed with a thud and left its mark in that moment and on my skin. It was not skin deep; it was through and through.
Not understanding it at first, I knew that it was something bad, something I did not want to touch me. It felt ugly, and I was made immediately ugly by it.
Funny, but in that moment, I simply grew up.
I recall that moment even now. I gathered a bunch of poison ivy and wrapped it in discarded newspaper. Armed with that silly weapon, I chased the girl around the yard where we so peacefully were playing just a few minutes ago.
I was hurt, mad, and enraged. And I was blinded by my unstoppable salty tears.
I ran home to my parents, red-faced and with tears in my eyes.
My heart was pounding, and I could barely summon the words out of my chattering mouth… “What is a Jew? Why did Natasha call me that? “
In that moment, the look on my parents’ faces was of sheer horror and sadness.
I did not realize I could even understand such concepts, but felt them all at once in that moment.
I don’t recall the words they used to explain to me what that word meant, but I recall the sheer resolve in my six-year-old heart to NEVER make them feel that way again!
I couldn’t change anything about that word, that label, but I could keep it away from my parents and protect them from the pain I just caused them by sharing the label assigned to me by the neighbor girl.
That word tore me away from my parents and closed me off from sharing my struggles and pains with them.
I took that word that was perceived in Soviet Russia as ugly, painful, dirty, and shameful, and I swallowed it whole. It was mine. The pain from it was all mine, too. It was not going to hurt anyone in my family again. I decided to suffer in silence.
The irony of the word is that it wasn’t until the age of 25 that I experienced my first Jewish prayer service or even stepped foot into a synagogue. That word had power over me my whole life, but always lacked any kind of basis for understanding.
You see, there was no religion in the Soviet Ukraine, which was a part of USSR (Russa). The truth is, Jew was a nationality!
It was based on who your father was, which was a absurdly incorrect way of labeling anyone as a Jew. Yet, it was my reality. Jews at the time disappeared left and right. Being labeled a Jew was dangerous.
That word did have magic in it as it set a new course for my life’s journey.
It’s because of that word, I was able to create new dreams for myself. Those dreams were bigger than my cage and years later they empowered me to spread my wings and trust my destiny. They took me all the way across the ocean 14 years later.
But those 14 years were heavy and dragged on as if in slow motion. Everyone was in on my secret. I was no longer invisible. Many things took place to remind me to never relax or trust. I had to keep my guard up and have my defences ready at all times.
First main event that began shaping me happened the very next year, at my ripe age of 7. Although terrified by the new knowledge of my identity, I fully embraced my childhood and all its joy.
Winters were especially exciting for me. Snow covered the streets and each small hill offered us endless hours of sledding. At that time, in mid 70s, the sled we used was a simple wooden top atop of two metal blades.
How fun it was to catch the wind as you rushed down the slope, laughing and yelling of joy. I went down about 20 times, and my smile started to freeze into a semi-permanent winter kissed expression.
My newly-sprouted front teeth were white and shiny. I was happy.
And then I felt a smack!!! Everything became grey and blurry.
As I was rushing down in my sled, a kid decided to hit me with his sled right as I was passing him. Was it a hate crime? Or was it a cruel joke of an innocent child?
I will never know.
I spit some pebble-like pieces out of my mouth, and tasted blood. Because I had my mouth wide open and my head tilted back in delight, my teeth took on the blow entirely. They saved my face from it’s possible disfigurement. However, instead of teeth I now was left with gaping holes and pointy shards.
I ran home in tears, but there was nothing that could be done, no damage to the nerves and clearly just a cosmetic inconvenience.
In that country, in that era, teeth were only fixed if they would cause health issues.
I was told that there will be nothing done and that chapter was forever closed.
I spent next many years hiding the pointy triangles of my remaining teeth. I learned not to smile, not to talk much, and always cover my mouth.
Few tricks of learning to smile without moving your upper lip were perfected over the years. That’s why you won’t see me smile much. I’ve had years on training not to do it.
My teeth were my Achilles’ heel. They were another aspect of forming my impression of who I was on the outside and how I needed to hide all that I was on the inside.
The teeth taught me how to become invisible.
Fast forward a few years. Although not popular and often lonely, I lived in a cluster housing of domino-like apartment buildings filled with families and children. I got to join in on fun roaming around, as it was easy to disappear in a large group.
You know how sometimes we want to be a fly on a wall and observe things from another’s perspective?
I got to experience it first-hand.
Late one evening, in the dark of the moonlight, as we all roamed the streets, I heard one kid yell the next fun thing we all should do.
“Let’s throw eggs in windows!…”
That’s all I actually heard and was eager to join on that fun idea. And not until I traced the trajectory of that first egg, I realized to my complete shock and horror, that it was my window that was the aim of this game.
Egg after egg, my “friends” were splattering yellow stars all over my bedroom window.
I slipped away unnoticed and hid behind the building to let the pounding in my heart subside and tears in my eyes stop running.
I went home after midnight and slipped into my bed, afraid to look out the window.
I never said a word to my parents and just washed off the eggs in the morning.
As my torment by my frenemies continued, usually fueled by boredom, I have learned to fall in love with books and the fantasy worlds they so vividly painted.
I learned to be creative. Playdough was one of my favorite ways to pass time.
Sculpting faces with my fingers, I became great at creating any shape I wanted.
I even created beautiful life-like roses with curled petals and added a few beads to them to make them sparkle. I put them in the oven and baked them to the solid form. Then, I glued them to an old pair of clip-on backs. They lasted just a moment. Then, my creative mind found another fun activity to focus on.
Much later in life, the image of these rhinestone encrusted rose clip-ons came to the front of my memory from back then.
Adversity and its purpose can only be understood backwards. Only looking at things from the distance of time and wisdom, are we able to see the path and agree that it was the only way the life would unfold to its potential.
My first marriage was my trap and my release
My self-image was ever-changing and always unfair.
In my mind’s eye, away from the mirrors, I would forget what my smile looked like, and I was finding joy and opportunities to share myself with the outside world.
I developed an obsession of sharing with my classmates the stories I read.
I became a storyteller at school during breaks. I stood in front of the class and shared in vivid detail everything I read. I added color and life to those stories.
Every year end, my school report was filled with accolades from my teachers of how well I did in school and special mentions of my terrific storytelling ability.
Although I was never asked on a date or had a boy smile at me, I developed love for dancing. You can express yourself without talking or smiling. As I got older, I was frequent at many local disco clubs for teens and always had a dance partner during slow songs.
One day, a very cute boy, whom I had never met before, asked me out on a date after an evening of dancing at the club. I was about 16 then, so I was beyond excited to go on my very first date.
We went to the park for a stroll. He took my hand as we talked while looking ahead.
My teeth and insecurities about them were momentarily forgotten. The boy was getting to know me and enjoying my personality and stories.
The day was bright and happy. And then, like a gunshot fired on a quiet street, echoing all around, it was that word again…
Since we met at a disco club, he was completely unaware of who I was, where I went to school and of my family “situation.” He was truly an innocent bystander in it, a complete product of his family, the Soviet society, and our time.
He was innocently sharing a story of these stupid ugly Jews he hated who lived in his neighborhood. As he continued his story, completely unaware of my cold sweat and lack of blood in my face, I became acutely aware of the pounding heartbeat in my temples.
As if it was an out of body experience, I came out of myself. I had risen above that moment, in complete peace and strength. Words filled my ears, and I realized that they were spilling out of my mouth, but they were not controlled by my insecure mind any longer.
I stopped, looked straight into his eyes, and said without a trimmer in my voice: “Before you tell me anymore of your story, you should know that I am Jewish”.
My sentence suspended and colored that moment.
It took a moment for the meaning to sink in, but I could see a transformation occurring in his face right before my eyes.
Surprise, confusion, discomfort, and disgust.
He pulled his hand away. Apparently, I was unaware of our hands still being connected. He ran his hands across his face, took a deep breath, and stepped away from me.
He actually had a nerve to wash his hands in a fountain right in front of me.
I ran away, faster and faster, until I reached a bus stop.
I got home and hid behind my bedroom door, away from my parents inquiring eyes, and I cried like I never had before.
I felt hollow.
This first date and its unfortunate turn of events added another layer of fears and insecurities.
That was the first time I combined two strikes against myself – my teeth and my Jewfish origin. It was a double-whammy.
I was undatable and, therefore, unlovable.
As the years were shaping me into a young lady, whammies against me were mounting. My pale white skin was becoming a map of freckles as each summer passed. My growth spurt happened all at once over the summer, turning my awkward 16 year old frame into a lengthy stick, making me all of a sudden very visible. My question-like posture and lack of desire to ever wear heels, left me feeling more and more out of place. There was both irony and beauty in this.
Just like a camouflage, my awkward shape, my pointy teeth, my freckled face, hid me from predators that were roaming the streets and halls of our school.
Gangs of young roofless hormone-crazed thugs, sons of local government officials, who were unteachable, were hell-bent on finding girls to rape and mutilate.
It was a dark and dirty secret not many ever spoke of, except young friends I knew that fell victims to the gang.
Beat-up, pregnant, or left half-dead and mutilated, without ever being able to conceive children, these victims were the living evidence of horrific crimes against women.
I only had one encounter with the gang in dusk hours on my way to an afterschool activity. We all knew who they were: their faces and names still plague my dreams.
So, I was acutely aware of the shapes of a small group ahead and quickly recognized the leader. I took off running way before they noticed me and gained just enough of the distance to outrun them.
I keep thinking of that eve and feeling terrified. Yet, I know how lucky I was to survive the gang encounter. They never noticed me in the halls of the school before and I was sure they would not remember or recognize me.
There was a safety in knowing that I am that insignificant and that mediocre.
Fast-forward to my time in college, I was finally exposed to new people and even befriended another Jewish girl. She grew up in another part of town with many other Jewish families. She developed keen intellect and sharp humor to combat any Jew jokes or comments against her. She was fierce, and I was happy to be in her presence, learning more about myself and developing a thicker skin.
I was able to focus on my school and develop my three-dimensional skills.
I went dancing and met new people. I was looking forward to meeting someone who could like me.
The college was a 5-year Mechanical Engineering program. We were all the same people taking the same classes, from the very first day until our graduation.
To my surprise, my competitive spirit was rising. My desire to be the top student was greatly rewarded by school. We had what was called “pay for good grades” subsidy.
The only true competitor I had was a Jewish boy. Actually, he was not really Jewish according to his passport. His Jewish mom married a Russian guy, so her children were able to have Russian listed under “nationality” in their passports.
But I did not know any of that, even though it is very, very important to note.
To me, he was another boy in class, and he annoyed the crap out of me!
My fourth year of college ended with a few dramatic memories and several heartbreaks over boys I liked. They didn’t want to go out with me.
After that one fateful date, I was never asked out again. My dreams of romance and a Prince Charming were becoming more of a distant whisper.
I had a college to finish and a job to find.
Only when you stop looking and create the space between yourself and your ideas for what you should be or have, can that space get filled with answers and opportunities.
This is when I was caught completely off guard by that annoying boy. His name was Sergey. And he asked me to take a walk together outside.
We talked and laughed, and I found out that he was half- Jew. That made my heart skip a beat few times… Somehow that evening all my dreams and ideas of being liked and even loved felt close and real.
Over the following week, we saw each other a few times and each time I was surprised that he still liked me. I was experiencing love.
Young love is so innocent.
I forgot all that I was and wanted to be with Sergey. I was 19, and my whole life ahead was looking bright!
But no story is that simple, and mine threw the biggest test at me.
Sergei and I had only been dating for over a month or two.
We sat one evening on a swing outside and he looked very somber and nervous.
Something was wrong, and I was trembling with fears. He shared with me right there and then that his family has applied for a political refugee status 8 years prior, and that the status was granted to them.
They were moving to America where they had a distant uncle with cerebral palsy who petitioned for them.
And it was all happening in just a few months.
I felt the crushing words like a blade of a guillotine slamming into my neck.
I smiled weakly and asked: “What about me?”
He was the only boy I ever dated, and the only boy I probably loved. He was probably the only boy who would ever love me.
After a minute of silence, he said to me: “Well, let’s just get married and you can come with me!” And so we did.
We told our parents that same evening, and scheduled our wedding just two weeks away.
Everyone in our college class was surprised that we were even dating. Getting married was a big news.
Papers were swiftly filed, and my wedding day approached.
If this were a fairytale book, it would end right here and say “And they lived happily ever after.”
But this is not a fairytale book.
And life has a sense of humor with an occasional moment of cruel sarcasm.
My papers went through in a record time, and in just a month I was on my way to Moscow for an interview with the American Embassy.
I did not know, but that pain-stricken cerebral-palsy uncle, who never met me, decided to travel from New York to Washington, DC and submit my immigration papers in-person.
I was approved on a spot, pending an interview with the Embassy in Moscow.
I had no expectations about my future in America or timing of being able to join my husband there. I did not prepare myself and did not work on learning English or gaining useful job skills.
I was 19 and naïve. I was in-love and thought that he was the only man who could ever love me.
So, when the papers came, I just went to the interview without any preparation.
But they did not need me to speak English. The school grades were sufficient to demonstrate my ability to learn. My papers were stamped, and my fate was sealed.
Onto America and away from my parents, final rip that physically separated me from them and placed a vast ocean between my childhood and my future.
But my story was not going to unfold that easily.
As our papers were signed and Pan American Airplane tickets donated to us, my one and only bag was packed. I quit my college just 4 months short of graduation from a Masters Program. And final countdown was on…
And then two things shook us back to reality.
It was 1991, and the world was changing outside of walls of former USSR.
Firstly, Ukraine has risen in a civil revolt, cutting cords with former USSR, issuing its own currency and government, immediately burning all Russian language books and kicking all but Ukrainians out of the newly-forming country.
The country added a promise of the Jewish blood to be the red in the new flag and black stripes to represent the death marks.
Secondly, Pan American Airlines went bankrupt, making our tickets a worthless piece of paper overnight.
Shall I stop now and quit all that dreaming and hoping?
It could have been the end of my story.
But as I keep mentioning, when you do not have fears, and when you do not have exact idea of how to proceed, you leave that space for the unknown open, and the universe may step in and fill it with something you could not have even imagined.
I love the quote: “Worry is a prayer for something you don’t want.”
It is now so clear to me that that was exactly what I no longer had in me – I no longer worried, I just had peace in my heart.
After a short period of time, Delta Airlines stepped in and provided assistance to the political refugees impacted by Pan American situation. I will forever be a loyal Delta customer as it helped me in the time of dyer need.
During the time we waited for the tickets, I learned a lot about getting married at 19 to a complete stranger and what stress can do to a young hot-headed guy.
I knew during those early days that I made a mistake and my Prince Charming and the idea of our romance were just that – an idea.
But I also knew that the path I was on could not be undone. So, I kept all my newly-found understanding of what was ahead a secret. I numbed myself to everything around me and just kept my focus on the future, which was America.
Like a bird, I was trapped in a cage to be taken across the ocean to the new land and to be released there. I did not know what my life would be like and had no fears. That’s the beauty of youth and its undying sense of adventure and fearlessness.
I also knew what monsters and fears I was leaving behind. So, the small fears and the unknown ahead could not possibly be any scarier!
So many of us take a chance on love, opening our hearts and hopeful for the fairytale to be real.
My journey to America would never have happen if it wasn’t for that crazy young naïve open mind and lack of fears.
And to that young Anna I want to say: “I am so proud of you and for the strength of character you had to find in yourself alone to go to another country with a family of six whom you barely knew. I am so proud of you! Thank you.”
My immigration journey from Russia to America resulted in homelessness
America is truly the land of opportunities and a place for the dreamers.
New York was my first home away from home.
I went from life as a sheltered only-child in a small town, to the hard-brutal concrete streets of NYC.
I did not speak a word of English, except “My name is Anna” and “The weather is fine today.” What a funny selection of words I had at my disposal!
The year was 1992, February 24, to be exact.
When you leave your country as a political refugee, you forgo all your rights and your passport gets stamped with a word “Stateless.”
The only things you can take with you are your bare necessities and $100 in currency.
For the following hours, your country becomes that airplane.
Delta was my country for my 15-hour journey. The lovely, smiling flight attendant was my first impression of the happiness that awaited me in this new land!
I did not belong anywhere any longer, I was free!
When we landed, we were taken away to get “processed.” After hours of waiting, I received my Social Security and proper papers to begin my new life in this new land.
Upon release from the immigration, we were greeted by the uncle and taken to a restaurant for dinner.
He ordered for us the meal that was out of this world and paid for it with something I have never seen before. It was a small rectangle plastic with a 3d bird shimmering on it.
I felt mesmerized by the image and its significance to me.
Over the new three weeks I learned a harsh reality of my new family situation.
The $100 I was able to bring to America were taken away from me. I was required to go out and find a job. But how?
I wrote on my hand a simple phrase that I just could not memorize: “I am looking for a job.” The sentence didn’t make sense in Russian.
I stepped onto the streets and began my pilgrimage from door to door of local businesses, searching for any kind of work.
My first job was just two hours a day at a deli cutting meat for sandwiches. It only lasted for four days.
I spent hours walking countless blocks and knocking on countless doors, looking to make a living.
Next big break came from a small nail salon in need of someone giving out flyers.
My second job was rather humiliating as I look back at it: I had to wear a sandwich board and give away flyers while standing on a busy street for three hours a day. I was paid $3 an hour.
All I could afford to spend was $1 per day on a street vendor hot dog. I gave every penny back to the family, helping them to settle in their new home.
I felt like a Cinderella during those days, spending my mornings in a temporary assimilation program learning about America and its culture, afternoons – giving away flyers, early evening hours – walking the streets in search for more jobs, and evenings – cleaning up after family dinners.
Days bled into each other, and my unrest was rising in me like a tidal wave.
That was not how my story would continue! I knew I was worth more than that!
There were more twists of faith and tests of my resolve over those first few months, but one thing I was confident in and it was that I had to change my path.
I learned about a distant relative on my father’s side who lived in Brooklyn. So, I reached out to her pleading for a room or a bed. I did not get either of these things, but a little sofa in the entryway of her home was my next home-base.
There, I could pull myself together.
An hour train ride each way from the jobs I had in the city was followed by 20-minute walk in the darkness of the deserted streets.
Memories of staying invisible were coming back and I did my best to disappear from any predator’s eyes as I walk-ran home each night.
I was 20 years old and I was free.
Within a month or two, it became very clear to me how much my aunt did not want me in her entryway. I was not given the keys to the house, not allowed to use the refrigerator, and couldn’t go beyond my entryway sofa.
I lived out of my bag and that had to change. That same month I found another job
My new role required me to give out flyers for a small clothing boutique for $4 an hour. I also helped them open and close the store. One evening, after the closure, I felt hollow and exhausted, unable to move and go home. I sat on a sidewalk, crated my head, and for the second time in my life I wept the deepest darkest tears of despair.
I had nowhere to go.
I felt once again unwanted and unloved, away from my parents and completely alone.
Poor girl, how I wish I could hug her right now and whisper to her: “It will all be alright.”
But it was not my whisper that got her off of that concrete. It was the voice of a store owner, Oved, asking very softly” “Are you ok?”
He was 25 years older than me, with grey hair that made me feel safe, immigrant himself, he offered me help.
His girlfriend, a refugee from Peru, was out of town for 3 weeks, so I could stay at her place until then. I didn’t even ask another question.
My English comprehension was getting a little better, but my ability to speak was none-existent. I was like a dog in a way, I could pick up on what was said, but all I could do was just smile and say “yes.” And so, I did.
I said YES. He took me to her place and I stayed there for 3 weeks without going back for my things. My aunt did not care where I was and I could not travel on a train with my bag after work, as I was working 7 days a week.
Nellie, that was her name. She was in the US on student visa studying fashion. She was my angel of grace and love.
She welcomed me into her studio apartment with the open arms and became my very first friend.
We spoke Spanglish to each other, somehow able to understand all the important aspects of our relationship and communication.
I would like to pause here and talk about the definition of the word “homeless.”
Homelessness is a circumstance describing a situation in which people go without a permanent dwelling. People who are homeless are most often unable to acquire and maintain regular, safe, secure, and adequate housing due to their unsteady income or lack thereof.
That word embodied my circumstances.
I was homeless, but I was unaware of that.
Innocence of youth is beautiful, and I only saw adventure and hope all around me.
This was my new sofa to sleep on for a few days or weeks, and that was all I could focus on. After a few weeks, Nellie suggested I get my bag so I could feel more at home until I found something else.
I took a day off and went to Brooklyn to pick up my bag.
Imagine a handmade canvas bag, with no wheels. All your possessions are in it: a cooking pot, a fork and a spoon, a pillow, a blanket, a handful of clothing items, soap, and few photos. Can you envision what I had in my hands?
It was heavy, and it was my treasure. Everything I owned was in that bag.
I took the only cash I had and yield a cab.
An immigrant cabbie was friendly and insightful. Without speaking much, he understood what place in life I was at. He carried my bag to my new apartment and refused to take money for the fare. “You need it more than I do, may you have a good life” – he said to me.
That’s what I recall from our interaction, and it made me cry.
I was in the land of immigrants, and we were all helping each other!
I felt at HOME!
One day, during my lunch break, I heard a familiar language and looked up from my little stool in a corner by the fitting rooms.
There stood two beautiful girls about my age, speaking Russian. I was hungry for any kind of interaction and communication in the language I actually knew. So, I forgot all the fears and insecurities and approached the girls with a conversation.
We all eventually became roommates! I finally was able to move into my very own room with 4 walls and a door.
I had nothing to put into my room, and sidewalk-discarded furniture became my treasure.
The best feeling was that, after a year of homelessness, I was able to have a room and a sofa, and a key to my place. I knew that this was a home for me.
I applied to college in Spanish Harlem, City College of New York, and could see a path into a beautiful future right in front of me. I survived my first real test in this new land, and the rest was truly up to me.
I could share a lot more about that time in my life, but in the end my lesson was this: trust and stay open, only good will come to you, you will survive you will not break if you have hope. The good that’s coming to you may not arrive exactly when you expect it nor will it look the way you expect, but that new good will be perfect for you.
My corporate job was in the way of my entrepreneurial dream, and I needed a sign
The biggest investment you will ever make is your education.
Investing in yourself is the best thing you can do, and I am incredibly grateful for that understanding during my early days in America.
Upon acceptance into the college, I was able to apply some of the credits from past schooling in Ukraine. Still, I had a long road ahead of me.
Language eventually came to me: like water flowing out of the faucet, one day words just poured out of me.
I had an opportunity to work at a dental office as a receptionist and go to school (that story in itself is rather interesting to share and I will, promise).
But for now, let me just tell you: guardian angels are always there for you watching and placing right situations in your path.
You have to recognize them and follow your inner wisdom.
Fast forward to year end of 1995, I was in the US for almost 4 years.
I was able to relocate to another state and study economics at Michigan State.
My grades were exceptional, and I was offered to stay on through PhD program.
I made the decision to go to one job fair and see what happens. I was fearless and bright, and that was clear to the recruiters at that fair.
I received a few job opportunities, each in itself was a job of a lifetime.
Marsh & McLennan strategy consulting, The Procter & Gamble, GE Capital financial management and Andersen Consulting (Accenture) in technology division.
Wow, this young naïve girl who has risen from nothing, just 4 years later was at a crossroads only a few have been on.
After a few deliberations, I chose Andersen Consulting and was relocated to Atlanta in 1996.
Consulting lifestyle was somehow perfect for me. Moving from project to project and city to city, I found a renewed sense of adventure and discovered that I had an amazing work ethic.
Fifteen hour days, or 7 days a week schedules were easy for me. My confidence in my ability to learn grew compounded.
Let me pause here for a second.
I fundamentally believe that school is there to teach you how to learn. You develop your very own style of comprehension and retention and find out your own limits.
My 900 level PhD courses in Game Theory were that test of my abilities and I knew I could learn anything.
Never had I used a computer before (remember it was the mid 90s), but I embraced a job in technology with open arms and thrived in the steep learning curve.
Technology was king in early 2000s, and anyone from top consulting companies was highly sought after.
I was recruited by an innovative entrepreneurial company, CheckFree, into their Project Management group.
Some of that first year was spent learning that I was no longer a hot shot highly-paid consultant whose every word people hang on. I was another young punk trying to fit in into a role with all the accountability without anyone reporting to me.
The first year of adjustment was brutal, but so many amazing lessons came from it!
I had to learn about being humble and engage with people from the real place, aka my genuine heart, not see them as widgets to be directed, but rather get to know them and let them get to know me.
I had a few roles in that company and gained new skills, like Six Sigma process re-engineering, Program and Project Management skills, Consumer and Marketing Analytics, Public Speaking and Training.
I made many new friends, and Atlanta became my real home.
I married a good man, bought a house in suburbs near my job, and was pregnant with my daughter. My long-term future was as clear as day. I was living the American dream.
And then it all changed for me. I went into a complete nesting phase.
Oh, boy, if you ever experienced that you will understand me completely!
I was a completely different person.
Inspiration and creativity poured out of me just like it did in my yearly teen years.
I wanted to create in any medium I could find and my imagination was limitless.
I learned to reupholster furniture, create unique window treatments, I cooked and cleaned like a machine, I mosaicked, and I made jewelry.
And for the kicks and giggles, I started a wedding consulting part-time business helping brides to have stress-free amazing weddings.
I was still at my corporate job, but I could feel the tides were changing.
If you read The Alchemist, you may recall that conversation the boy had about signs and how you must follow them or you could end up like that lonely sad merchant, no longer able to see the signs and stuck in his regret of not acting upon them.
Sorry, I’m getting a bit ahead of my story.
My sign became clear as day: jewelry-making.
Right after my daughter was born, a friend randomly invited me to a gem show that was literally 2 miles away from my home. I never knew how to make jewelry, especially with wire, but I studied engineering and was rather innovative at my approach to connecting pieces.
My 3D-trained mind was not bound by color or form.
I discovered I could create perfect balance rather than symmetry, focusing of shape, color, and texture.
Just a month after creating my very first necklace with wire and gems, I was approached at Bloomingdales by a sales associate asking where I got that necklace.
The networking inquisitive mind of mine turned that moment into an introduction to a jewelry buyer and an invitation to hold a trunk show.
I had no idea what that meant, but I learned that if I just say yes, I can figure it out!
The next day I took my 10 pieces of jewelry and placed them for sale at a pool clubhouse.
The first customer purchased 7 of them and 2 days later called me to tell me that she was working with a buyer from Harold’s in Plano TX and they would like to do a few trunk shows with my jewelry.
By first week of September, 2005 – just 2 months later – my jewelry was at Bloomingdales and traveling the country with Harold’s.
A year later, after many editorials about my journey, I was introduced to another opportunity to have my jewelry at 2007 Oscars as part of a swag bag marketing effort.
I said yes and went to LA for the first time.
It was the world completely different from the one I knew, but it gave me another validation, and my first self-published “American Dream” press release went viral.
It was picked up by international press. My jewelry was featured twice in Instyle magazine, numerous other publications, and on TV.
I felt on top of the world, and orders for my jewelry were pouring in daily.
I felt both overwhelmed and excited.
I never for once imagined making a living doing this, as I was always taught that getting a job was the only way to make money.
In a meantime, my job that I loved so much was becoming dull and colorless.
Where entrepreneurial spirit shone before, now the walls of bureaucracy and structure were being built.
Each day I felt smaller and smaller, unable to spread my wings of ideas as I did before. The company was going through changes, but I was not aware of them yet.
There was a growing stark contrast between my newly-sprouting entrepreneurial wings with the jewelry-making “hobby” and my daily grind of the corporate “can” and “can’t” dos limits.
One day that stark contrast was called out by a complete stranger.
I was at a jewelry supply store right before closing and waited patiently for the wire to be hand-spooled for me. A man and a woman walked in, and I heard them say that they got lost on their way there and almost did not make it in time.
I turned my head and smiled at a man. He was an older gentleman with long black dreadlocks sprinkled with grey of his hair. He reminded me a shaman I saw in Africa and something about his eyes made me transfixed in that spot.
Out of nowhere he began speaking out loud, telling something like a story, until I realized it was my story.
Somehow this man was staring into my soul and telling me who I was on the inside, describing the path ahead for me. He was in a trance and all of us around were transfixed on his prophecy.
His final words still ring in my ears: “You are standing on an edge of a cliff on your tiptoes, it will only take a light breeze to push you over”.
He was answering my question that I have not yet formed for myself: “Do I follow this path and quit my job?”
I had a few unexpected messengers after that one encounter, answering the same unspoken question for me: “Yes!” over and over again.
I requested a leave of absence from work, and my first week off was November 19th, 2007.
I went to do a festival out of state. On my way back, as Thanksgiving holiday travel was at its peak, I willingly gave up my seat 3 times, and used these hours to leisurely browse the bookstore at the terminal and picked up the first book on a shelf: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
I could not have ever picked a better book! And the timing of it was perfect!
I read it cover to cover during my next 6 hours at the airport.
Fast-forward 3 months, many expensive lessons later, a few true miracles of reassurances from the universe about my path, and I was still not close enough to the brave decision.
One final time asked my guardian angels to send me a message.
It was February 2008, 7am in San Francisco, right as boarded my plane home, only 3 days away from either returning to work or saying goodbye to the corporate world.
I gave it 15 years of my life and my ties to it were forged in steel of security and stability, or so I thought.
As we landed, I turned on my phone and discovered a few cryptic messages from my boss. I returned his call before leaving my seat. I have quickly learned that during my leave of absence, the company giant I felt so sure about, was acquired and my position was deemed a duplicate function, resulting in termination with 6 months’ severance pay, vesting of all my stock options into cash at $100K total evaluation…
I was “re-hirable” at any other role within the company if I chose to pursue such option.
If you ever wonder how some signs are just shouting at you so clearly that you cannot ignore them – this was that for me.
I was so happy. I felt it was exactly where my life should go next.
Anna Balkan Jewelry was born. I became a woman entrepreneur.
My home-based businesses was reported and I was in trouble
I love reading books, and my favorite kinds of books keep me in suspense and have unpredictable endings. I was living one of these types of books, and each time I thought I could predict an ending or the next chapter, I was sorely mistaken.
Let me invite you to year 2008, early May.
I met a lovely young Brazilian girl at a bead store and asked if she wanted to work with me 1 day a week helping with my jewelry business.
One day a week turned into 35 hours a week for a 1.5-year commitment to her as her immigration sponsor. Had I not set up the 35 hour per week job opportunity for her, she would have been sent back home.
She did not have to plead with me, I had so many immigrants helping me, it was my absolute pleasure to do what I needed to do in order to make the beginning of the American dream a reality for her.
On May 26th, 2008 her papers were approved, and we were ready to kick it into the next gear. I was ready to grow my business!
The very next day, on May 27, my husband returned home early and somberly declared that he was let go from his job.
That was a big blow to me as I was quickly depleting my funds on tradeshows and inventory expenses. And, I had just added to that list a full-time employee.
I felt devastated and for the 3rd time in my life I completely lost it and cried the rivers of tears.
My daughter was only 3 years old. We had mortgage and bills. My business was too new to be anything other than a drain on our bank account.
As you may already have guessed, the tears eventually ran dry and I forged a new resolve to make it all work!
There is something about strong Eastern-European women I heard so many times about. We are like Phoenixes: rising from the ashes again and again.
I had no choice but follow that path myself.
I poured everything into as many tradeshows as I could, and my September NYC event was the last one for the year.
And oh, boy, what a show that was!
I wrote over $30K in orders and was ready for my business to finally get out of red and break even.
Haha, shall I remind you what happened on September 13th, 2008?
That was only one day after the show was over…
But ok, let’s say you’re reading this and you don’t know what happened that day. If you Google it, it will come up as “This Day in Crisis History.”
The economy of this entire country entered one of the worst financial devastations in history, with Lehman Brothers spiraling down and tanking the financial market along with them.
The entire banking industry of the United States hang by a hair, and we all held our breath to see whether or not the Federal Government was going to bail the banks.
Monday morning on September 16th, 2008 my phone began to ring practically every 10 min. Every single order I wrote at the show and all past shows were canceling.
I was looking at the bottom of my very own abyss. My husband had no job and no prospects at that point. I had a human and a legal obligation to the Brazilian immigrant for another year. My home and my child needed me to provide. Yet, my initial financial infusion into the business was dwindling down to barely $10k.
However, I did not cry this time! I got pissed instead!
No way this would take me down, I’ve been through worst and came out on top.
I picked up the phone and called the store owner of the first canceled order.
I asked her to be honest and tell me if she was canceling my order because she had no physical space in her store for my jewelry OR if she was concerned regarding her ability to pay the invoice.
I said to her: “I can help you with only one of these two reasons.” It was the money and her uncertainty about the future.
From that conversation, I completely changed how I run my business.
I offered her on a spot to ship my jewelry free of charge and let her keep it all through the holidays and pay for what was sold at the end, while returning the rest.
I repeated the same call 18 more times that day, saving every single order and ensuring some revenue back to my business.
That single moment and that decision, the kindness and creative solution that I offered to all of my accounts, turned my obscure jewelry business into the brand name people recognize and respected.
Every single account that year not only paid me for what was sold, they all kept the remaining pieces and many still remain my accounts up to this day.
In business, you can have your plans and your written rules, but if you wish to succeed, you’ve got to follow your heart and listen to your inner wisdom.
I wish I could stop now and fast forward to today, but there was still another obstacle I had to overcome.
I created a studio space in my basement, and although it flooded twice, each time we rebuilt and added another employee to my growing company.
Two employees and myself were the core of my jewelry business, and I couldn’t imagine anything more than what was already in place.
I held 2 home shows a year for my customers and frequented festivals.
I created jewelry ordered by other stores and kept up with my wholesale shows.
One day, as I was on my way back from a show, I received a call from the local police…
My neighbors reported my business as “impacting the traffic in the neighborhood.”
Although I had all formal in-home business permits, in my county, any personal complaint outweighs any legal approvals. So, I was given 24 days to shut down my business or move.
Even though I’m calling this section a setback, you can probably already guess that it was actually a setup for the next blessing.
I had to step out of what I imagined for myself and think bigger.
I went to dinner in Historic Norcross that evening and saw an open space right there on a street. If you’re thinking it was the space I am in now as Anna Balkan Designer Jewelry Gallery, nope, it wasn’t.
Why? Because this is a story filled with suspense and tests.
After a few attempts at securing a retail space, I failed and decided that June 1st, 2010 would be my last day to look. I committed to closing my business if nothing happened by then.
But faith would once again have it, so I received a call from a landlord of the space I so desperately wanted but had previously lost to another renter.
The call was to tell me that the renter had a change of heart and chose a different location, and that I had that day to make a decision if I wanted the space or not.
Do I even need to tell you how fast I got there and how fast I wrote my first and last month rent check? No? Ok, thank you. I promise, it was fast!
That was the answer!!! Even though I have never had a retail store and had no idea how to convert this old bakery with its green walls and industrial features into an inviting jewelry gallery, I was all in!
On Friday, August 20th, in the morning, my store was 100% NOT READY!
By 5pm that day, thanks to our crazy drive and creative thinking, all light fixtures were up, flooring fixed, windows cleaned, paint refreshed, and some simple tables were placed with jewelry draped on cheap festival displays.
Welcome to Anna Balkan Designer Jewelry Gallery!!!!
The doors were opening at 5pm, and I only had 15 min to get ready.
A few co-workers from my last company were helping me with the setup and stayed all evening helping me greet customers who were pouring in after receiving my email invitation.
By 5:17 pm my very first sale was to a sweet friend from my last company, Cynthia.
That day, in 4 hours, I was able to recoup my rent for the past 3 months of construction. And I had my first taste of retail.
What is the lesson here as I’m closing my ninth year at this very same retail space?
Trust and perseverance are a must in life and business.
Don’t ever let your value be diminished by people or circumstances.
Believe wholeheartedly that what you have is unique and worthy.
Look within to understand who you are and why you’re here.
Anna Balkan Designer Jewelry Gallery as my platform for blessing women every day
So here I am, 15 years into this entrepreneurial journey. Honestly, I couldn’t be more excited about my path!
I LOVE my store and the sacred space it has become for my customers and co-workers.
I am so proud to look at what I have built and feel gratitude for my amazing community of customers who are loyal to Anna Balkan Designer Jewelry Gallery in Historic Norcross.
My raving customers and fans spread the word about my work to their friends and family.
I have the best ladies working in my business, each is unique and beautiful with her own incredible story, and all with one thing in common – amazing, kind, open hearts.
I’m frequently asked: “What is so different about your store?”
I would love to tell you just a bit about that, yes.
My store concept is unique and simple. Each jewelry case is filled with the product that is perfect for a unique complexation type, and each lady working in my store is a stylist, helping you understand which colors, shapes, and styles best fit you.
I believe that if you select jewelry that looks great with your skin tone and overall complexion, that jewelry will look amazing with everything in your wardrobe.
You are the common denominator and the true center of your own universe.
My jewelry will help you feel complete and perfect.
Another thing you should notice is my tagline: “Be Beautiful. Be You.”
I was very intentional here and there is a reason this wording sequence is so important. From the time I felt like an ugly duckling till now, I found out that my own beauty was always there all alone and that it has so many facets, none of which are skin deep.
My teeth have been fixed and freckles faded over the years, but my awkwardness about my looks and my smile are still there and it’s a journey for me.
Some days, the memories of feeling invisible come back to me and make me feel unworthy. Those thoughts try to persuade me that I shall stand down and get back into the corporate world where I could hide.
But I simply remind myself again and again that I am strong and beautiful, that I have a purpose and my journey has led me here to this exact moment and this exact place for a big reason.
I remember in those moments that I have a voice and there is an audience of women who are just like me – vulnerable, doubtful, insecure, but very courageous and faithful – and my voice is important to them.
That’s why I call you #BeautifulAndCapable
I believe that you are beautiful. You are perfect. And I am beautiful and perfect, too.
There is a reason why I’m able to create these colorful treasures for you. And as long as my inspiration flows, I shall keep designing and sending out beauty into the world for you to enjoy.
There is a reason that on that fateful day of my very first gem show in 2005 I got connected to a stonecutter who had allowed me to custom-cut gems and keep the purity and innocence of each custom-cut gem, only touched by the hands of people who fundamentally love what they do.
I breathe life and love into each piece I create. Once you try my jewelry, you will feel it, too.
I was invisible before, and I know you may also feel this way, even now.
Put my jewelry on and the world will see you, because I see you.
I feel the beauty in you through my other senses, call it my inner wisdom or an intuition, but I see each and every woman in my store. I see through her own insecurities and struggles into her beautiful heart and capable spirit. I see you as I create each piece of my love-filled jewelry.
I pour all that stored love from my heart and strength from my own journey into the perfectly-balanced, happy colors, so you can feel inspired and soar.
I dream into each piece a happy strong secure woman who would own my jewelry and feel perfect and beautiful while wearing that piece.
Our outer packaging is not an adequate representation of our true inner beauty.
But people don’t see us same way mirrors make us believe we look.
We are multifaceted, 3-dimensional beautiful creatures with sparks of souls in our eyes. No mirror can ever capture our real beauty. The only person who has to fully believe in your perfection is you.
My jewelry is just a small token I bless with all my magic powers of hope. It’s a reminder to you to keep the focus on your inner uniqueness and let all the rest fall away against the power of your beauty!
This is the only life we have and this is the only moment.
Stay open to the universe and people around you, know in your heart that you are beautiful and the world will unfold for you in all its perfection.
There will be moments that will challenge your core beliefs and shake your trust in your purpose.
Stay your course.
My story is not unique. If you only saw me now at Anna Balkan Designer Jewelry Gallery in Historic Norcross, dressed in a beautiful dress and surrounded by all that marvelous jewelry, you would not have easily guessed how winding my journey up to here has actually been.
You may no longer see the invisible, weak, and insecure girl now.
But I hope that this exact moment, from which I can now share with you my heart’s story, is something that inspires you and helps you see that you can achieve things way beyond your wildest imagination.
Dream! Be beautiful! Be you!
p.s: as you wear my jewelry, remember that you are never alone, I am always with you.