Boss Lady - Melinda O'Keefe

Bella Vita launched a blog titled "Boss Lady" in March 2017 after years of being inspired by the women that we are friends with, work with, or do business with, that are building their empire doing what they love. Running a business takes work, and getting started takes courage. At Bella Vita, we wanted to take this opportunity to praise and encourage some of the great female entrepreneurs we have met over the years and we hope to inspire more young women (and men) to follow their instinct/talent/passion and become entrepreneurs. 

My team and I are reaching out to the woman owned businesses that inspire and amaze us on a daily basis. We will start with a brief background, then dive into the nitty gritty of running a business, what keeps them inspired, and everything else in between.

I learned of Melindesign back in February of 2011. I read an article about the company in the back of a trade magazine and immediately reached out to Melinda to see how we could work together. Initially she offered coaching, then we were able to utilize her jewelry production services. She has had a front row seat watching and helping Bella Vita grow over the years! Melinda is full of wonderful advice. She introduced me to the SCORE office which I still use to this day and recommend it to all my entrepreneur friends. ITS FREE! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR :) 
And from time to time we call on her team to help us with our production work. I wish I could call on her more, but its wonderful to know that if I ever got a huge order, she would be right there waiting to help me! I love her "Go Getter" attitude and find it very motivating. I can't wait to meet Melinda in person one of these days. Until then, enjoy this interveiw and meet Melinda of Melindesign!

I was born and raised in Cherry Hill, NJ. The day I graduated high school, I went to NYC to pursue the dream of modeling I'd had since I was 15. I lived in Europe and NYC working as a model for 23 years, then took a break from modeling to follow my artistic yearnings. I went to college at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, graduated with a degree in Graphic Design, but I went back to modeling because it offered more fun, world travel and adventure! 

I met my husband, Michael, in my first graphic design job in NYC, but it wasn't until I left that company that I realized I liked the guy. I had guest list privileges to many clubs in NYC at the time and I took him to a show at the old Ritz and I liked him more. We got married and just celebrated our 27th anniversary. We have one son, Simon, who is about to turn 24 years old. I modeled until I was 5 months pregnant with him, then I got him into Ford Children when he was born. We did a commercial together when he was only 5 days old! He worked non-stop for the first 5 years of his life and that paid for his college. He went to film school and is just starting out his career shooting film, and he also plays piano with the band Ronald Reggae. He has shot several videos for my company, promoting what we do - you can see his work at the end of this article!

It was during this time, when Simon was young, that I began making jewelry of my own. I did local craft shows on the weekends but when 9/11 happened, so many fall shows cancelled and I needed to find new sources for work. I found an ad on Craigslist for wire wrapping and jewelry assembly help, answered it and got hired! We're still great friends and have helped each other 12+ years in jewelry assembly.  Through working with this designer, people started asking about needing help. Michael built me a website and off I went, helping designers from all over the USA fill orders. By the reputation of my workmanship, other jewelry designers found me and so began Melindesign. At the beginning, I was just working from home, assembling jewelry from my kitchen table. 

Now my skilled team of Jewelry Assembly Chicks operate out of an assembly studio in my town. We have workers of all levels of expertise that can assemble jewelry with great skill, technique and consistency from one piece to thousands of pieces. We work with American designers on wholesale and retail orders, getting them through busy seasonal market shows. We love the satisfaction of helping their businesses grow without having to go overseas for production. We work closely together to achieve the highest quality of craftsmanship in jewelry outsource here in the United States. Our moto is, Keep it Made in the USA! 

  1. Give us your elevator pitch. Why Us? Do you need help in filling orders and getting them out in time for shipment? Are you are just starting out but getting overwhelmed by orders? Do you not want to go overseas for jewelry outsourcing? If you answered yes, you need expert, hand made, quality work done in the USA by Melindesign.
  2. What is your business? Melindesign offers expert jewelry assembly of all your designed components of earrings, necklaces, bracelets - from expert wire wrapping with micro tools and free form wire wrapping, to packaging up all your goods for shipment, we do it all! Assembly, bagging, boxing and labeling all in one place!

    For the charity side of my business, IMGRL Alliance, we donate bracelet making kits to domestic abuse shelters in my area: Hope's Door and Putnam/Northern Westchester Women's Resource Center. We've been doing kits for 2 years now and also donate 10% from our birthday parties, and I'm currently developing a charm that a percentage of sales will go towards girl causes.
  3. When did you start your business? I started Melindesign in 1997, but the jewelry assembly company started in 2001.
  4. What inspired you to make the leap? I had so much fun making one piece of jewelry perfect, from piece number one, to piece number 5,000.

  5. What helps you get started each morning? Coffee, diet coke, 10 mile jog, meditation?? I have no problem getting up and doing what I love. 
  6. Tell us about a day in the life of running your business. First thing I do is answer emails before going into the studio. I live stream WNYC until the other Jewelry Assembly Chicks come in, then we'll listen to an audio book while we work. We must have listened to more than a hundred books by now! I myself could assemble non-stop for hours on end, but I have to tend to computer related things, QA orders, ready them for shipment, so that pulls me away from assembling all day.

    Y
    ou never know what project we will be working on in the Studio from day to day. We just finished creating and assembling a Texas charm for a pair of sister designers from Houston, that donated the full proceeds from the necklace to Harvey Hurricane Relief. IMAGRL also donated $1 from each piece they sold. They JUST emailed me, telling me they sold out their first 200 pieces! You can check out this design here.
  7. What keeps you motivated? I love my work. I hope I keep doing it for a long time.
  8. Describe your dream day. I just got back from a vacation in the Pacific Northwest. What a beautiful part of the country! My dream day would be to go to a trail deep into the woods, sit in silence on a 500 year old cedar log, and breath in the spruce and Douglas firs in dappled sunlight, listening to river rapids over smooth rocks. I always want to touch that cold, clear water and I love swimming holes and waterfalls. The Pacific Ocean beaches along Washington state are quite stunning too. I could easily spend a day climbing around the volcanic rocks, petrified Sequoia timber and dip into those deep, dark forests along the edges. We also rented e-bikes in Portland and happened upon Bridge Pedal Portland, where they closed 7 bridges to traffic so cyclists can ride all over the city. That was a great day... we rode 32 miles, all day, all over Portland, exploring the neat, quirky neighborhoods. On a non-travel dream day, I would read several issues of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar in one sitting, uninterrupted!  I could stay up all night reading fashion magazines. I'm just a sucker for beautiful printed glossy pages and I have been since I was a teen. I read every issue cover to cover.

  9. What is your greatest strength/super power? Being able to clean my house to a spotless end game of 3 hours from top to bottom.
  10. Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat? Facebook and Instagram.
  11. What do you do in your free time? (ha! What is free time?!) Clean, lol! I love riding with Michael, especially in the fall.  This month we will ride to every Oktoberfest in the area, every weekend.  I've been riding for 15 years, and love to ride my 2011 BMW G 650 GS.  I also ride an e-bike to my studio, snowboard, swim across our lake to the dam and back, and canoe.
  12. If an investor gave you 1 million dollars to use toward your business, how would you spend it? Get a marketing company to find and reach out to companies that could use our services, help with social media and industry periodical placement to keep jewelry production in the USA, then hire more people to fill the orders. I'd hire an expert computer person that can do all my computer work, like design and CAD, keep up on my website, update all my social media sites constantly and get a 3-D printer and engraver that the expert computer person knows how to use. I'm not good on computers. I work with my hands.

  13. What's the biggest risk you ever took; how did it go? I said yes to a designer who was on the second Steals and Deals that NBC's Today Show had just started in November 2010. It was going to be both our big breaks, right? We thought she would get 200 orders, tops. Her website crashed and it took 3 weeks to get the numbers. It came to 14,766 pieces. For the next 2 1/2 months, we were buried in orders and snow! It was the biggest snowfall in NY that season and snow fell every day.  Icy, cold, snow. USPS and UPS kept coming with huge boxes of chains and stones, 100s of heavy cartons, and where were they all going to go? In my living room, ugh. I had to hire 30 people, who were in and out of my house (with snowy shoes that they had to take off!) at all hours. Some people had good skills, some, not so good, so I had to fire constantly. Then shipping all this? Thousands of small priority boxes had to be assembled, packed, labeled, taped, and out on the front porch for pick up or I had to get out on the icy roads to the post office to deliver. My postmaster never saw anything like it, lol! Today Show people were expecting their purchases for Christmas presents but the vendors couldn't fill the chain (250,000 feet of it) and stones (100 cartons of stones from India) until mid January! My holidays were ruined but what an experience. I still have some of the same employees that started with me.  I held on to the very skilled, passionate people from that job. We learned HARD lessons that, to this day, are still burned in me when a designer asks about doing a Steal and Deal show or huge order. I know what to expect now! I was a mess sometimes and I have to give BIG props to my husband, Michael, who really kept pushing me and holding me up when I wanted to crumble under the desk in tears. I tend to tread on the very cautious side now because preparation and supply of materials is very important. After that, my husband told me it was time to leave the house because the business was getting too big. That's when I started renting a space. That was scary too! More big time expenses! Rent, insurance, employment taxes (no more 1099 contractors!). It's been over 6 years now, and I never thought I'd be paying that kind of rent for 6 years, but here we are!
  14. Name something you hate doing but have to do for the good of your business. How do you make it tolerable? I'm bad at computers. I don't like the constant updating and learning new systems, so I avoid it as long as I can. Then I ask Michael how to do it. He's helped me a lot that way. I'm just not a techie like him, he's a whiz. I could wire wrap a thousand stones perfectly, but to go through layers of drop downs on a Mac leaves me teary and palpitating.
  15. How do you handle discouragement? Oof! It happens a lot. Like when you think you're going to get a big job and it falls though. Or you can't fulfill some sort of manufacturing project because it will take $100,000 to hire an engineer and build a new tooling machine, which most small designers can't do since it's cost prohibitive. We get requests for all kinds of projects, not just jewelry. We can assemble anything, really, so you have to get creative with how to solve the problem. Some disappointments are that you've spent so much time on prototypes, samples and send a beautiful piece, then THEIR whole chain of command has changed since this was all going on and no longer can do the project. Big corporations do that a lot. It's exciting to get tapped from a big company but it entails a whole other level of production, expense, patience, trial and error, and TIME. 

  16. Which iconic person inspires you? I just marvel at those type of personalities that can do EVERYTHING. Innovators like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerburg, Richard Branson, Sheryl Sandberg, and my brother in law who can do the creative AND business side at the same time. They can take an idea, sketch, patent, get angel investors throwing money at them, hire the tech designers, make the product happen, test, fail, test, fail, test. If it fails, they say, "Oh well." They can take the loss and move on to the next thing they have in their brains that constantly go nonstop. Then, with their wealth and ideas, they expand to helping other people with non-profits.
  17. Do you have a favorite, inspiring quote? I just toured the Boeing factory in Renton, WA. Boeing started in 1916 in a little field with $259. When we toured the plant, it was HUGE (1.1 million square feet where the 737-700, 737-800, 737-900ER airplanes are built, employing 35,000 people). They assemble 12 planes a month and orders are being taken into 2020. There were quotes written all over the plant. I so wanted to remember them, but we weren't allowed to take our phones or cameras, so no pictures! I highly recommend Googling William Boeing to read all his quotes because so many of them can be applied to your own business. NOTHING stopped him from creating this company... a product that is now creating a craft that will travel in space! For space travelers! Here's some of his quotes: "Things are changing all the time. There's no permanent goal. You keep going. You keep expanding." and "If it's not Boeing, I'm not going!"
  18. If you could choose anyone to pick as a mentor, who would you choose? William Boeing, lol!
  19. Who are you in your next life? Christie Brinkley 

  20. Any secrets on how you balance the ins and outs of running a small business? It never hurts to reach out for help. Don't suffer, just ask for help. Go through all your family members and once they run from you, hire help. And get robots to clean your house!
  21. What's the best advice you have for other women wanting to be entrepreneurs? Go to your local SCORE, which is run by the Small Business Administration. They have retired CEOs from businesses of all sorts that can help you get off the ground. They'll set you up with weekly meetings, go over your business plan, numbers, ideas and guide you into the right direction. I went to them when a designer I was working for owed me a lot of money to ask how to get a loan from the bank to cover my expenses because this designer was in arrears. You know what they told me in the first meeting? Call the designer and tell them to pay you or you're not giving back their material or assembling for another order till you get paid. I went back the next meeting and told them I got paid after I made the phone call, so no need for a bank loan, lol! They said, "See? That was easy! No need for a bank loan!" They were just a wonderful bunch of folks and such great cheerleaders for your business. Make the time and do it. It's better than a weekly manicure.

    As a woman, you have a little fear in DEMANDING what you want in business, which men can get away with. You also tend to get sick to your stomach more over losses and defeat. I still do anyways, but when you see men crashing, burning, spending investor money without losing a wink of sleep, you realize that's the sort of the head you have to get into. It's business, it's not personal. Just like in my modeling career, never take the rejection personally.  It's just business. If you have the drive and determination, don't let people talk you out of it. Stay small and quiet at first and keep building. Then knock them out with a killer smile and a great product! And if we can help you assemble it for worldwide domination, give us a call.

Just for fun... here's a photo of Melinda and her son, Simon,
in Parenting Magazine circa 1994

Follow Melindesign on social media:

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Watch a video of Melinda in action (produced by her son, Simon!) HERE 
and a video of her "It's A Charmed Life Jewelry Assembly Party" HERE


1 comment

  • great article… I know how proud Melinda is of her quality jewelry! She is a huge advocate of made in the USA and girl power!!!Keep up the good work!

    Joan

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