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Esther Fortunoff of Fortunoff Fine Jewelry Headlines Women’s Entrepreneurship Event

Women entrepreneurs filled The Duncan Family Sky Room for WE Succeed: A Women’s Entrepreneurship Celebration, sponsored by the Ignite Institute at Saint Peter’s University. The event included a panel, moderated by Kymberlee Norsworthy, a strategic communications professional and adjunct professor at Saint Peter’s University, and keynote presentation from Esther Fortunoff, president of Fortunoff Fine Jewelry, and a woman pioneer in the diamond and jewelry business. The panel of women entrepreneurs included Nina Johnson, co-founder of Singularity LLC, Vicky Llerena; founder of Social Vibes Media; Cheryl Mack, co-founder of The Bridge Art Gallery; Maryanne Tolentino Marcos, founder of Sugar Supply JC; and Karen Castaneda ‘18, student entrepreneur and founder of Pup Pawps.

Johnson’s company, Singularity LLC, is a concierge technology services firm that has increased the impact the company has had on the business community in Hudson County.

“I have always had hustle,” said Johnson in response to a question about how she became an entrepreneur. Johnson’s advice for students, “Know who you are first. Learn the goals and the values that you have and then these values will be reflected in your business and in your clients.”

The biggest obstacle she faced was what she called “imposter syndrome” and the voice inside her head that would ask her, “what are you doing?”

Marcos had the same apprehensions when she quit her 9-5 job that she enjoyed to pursue baking for Sugar Supply JC full-time.

“You have a lot of highs and a lot of lows,” Marcos said.

Some entrepreneurs have many lows before their business becomes successful. Llerena admitted to making a lot of mistakes on her journey to becoming an entrepreneur. She admitted to getting into unnecessary debt by buying equipment that she did not need and making the mistake of funding purchases on her personal credit card.

“At first, it was difficult to figure things out,” said Llerena, “But I soon found my stride. I rented an office space where I could connect with other entrepreneurs. I started attending free networking events. I learned to collaborate with people and organizations that align with my values and I found a mentor. Find a mentor. During this process, you need people who are smarter than you.”

Many of the entrepreneurs agreed they had faced difficulty and obstacles at first, but they motivated themselves to keep going.

“Entrepreneurship is passion,” said Mack.

Castaneda is a student entrepreneur who founded Pup Pawps, a fun company that creates desserts for dogs that can be shared and enjoyed by their owners as well. She admitted she almost did not start her business because she believed she had to have everything in place first: she had to have a storefront, a clientele, supply, etc. Now, Castaneda is thankful she started her business and continues to think of ways to expand. Saint Peter’s provides her many opportunities to learn about entrepreneurship through the Ignite Institute and events such as WE Succeed that allows students to meet with successful entrepreneurs such as Esther Fortunoff.

Fortunoff was a woman pioneer in the diamond and jewelry business. She has served on the board of directors of Jewelers of America, the Jewelers Vigilance Committee and the American Gem Trade Association. She is the granddaughter of the founders of the Fortunoff retail chain and learned from her family first-hand the importance of service and customer experience. Early on, Fortunoff became a shopping mecca, but continued to operate as a small business, hiring locally and promoting from within.

“The Fortunoff family wanted to create an atmosphere that was warm and welcoming for our clients and employees,” said Fortunoff, supporting the fact that the company was progressive in many ways including, hiring women, promoting from within and providing benefits and HR policies that supported the needs of many different people.

Unfortunately, in 2005, the Fortunoff family sold the chain to two private equity firms who put it into bankruptcy. Determined to revive her family traditions of service and value, Fortunoff led efforts to reestablish its brand and used what she had learned previously to open an online jewelry store and eventually a storefront in Westbury, NY. She rebuilt her business using the values she had learned growing up and working for the Fortunoff business of her parents and grandparents.

In addition to her work ethic and belief in hiring locally and promoting from within, Fortunoff is dedicated to giving back.

“Give freely of your time, expertise and money within reason,” she said. “Life well-lived includes a life of service.”

Her wise words resonated with the audience, especially because of Saint Peter’s Jesuit values and dedication to cura personalis.

To view pictures from the event, click here. For more information on the Ignite Institute, visit saintpeters.edu/ignite-institute.