Tiller’s founder, Kathleen Sheppard, sat down with Simi Khanduja to continue our Female Founders/Creators spotlight. Simi launched her jewelry brand, Akoya Atelier, to bring make high end Akoya pearls accessible for women outside of Japan. Her pieces are all extensively vetted and hand-picked so she's ensuring the highest quality for every pearl she delivers.
Tiller: Tell us about yourself!
Simi: This is always such a hard question for me to answer. If I were to describe myself I would say I am motivated, friendly and easy-going yet neurotic.
Motivated. I am always looking to do something. Whether it is growing my business, getting in better shape, exploring a new city, or speaking a language better, I always have something on my mind and something I want to accomplish. I now am conversational in Japanese and I strive to get better! I may sometimes take on more than I can manage, but I always figure out a way to make it work!
Friendly. I love to speak with people. I love to learn from their experiences and share my own. If I am home all day, I feel a bit lost and need to get out each morning and get the day going and I think sharing experiences with people is so beautiful.
Easy going yet neurotic. I really try and not sweat the small stuff as life is just too short! But I hate to be late (even though I often am!) and I NEED things to be organized and in order. If things are messy, I can't sit until it's clean.
My personal background. I was born in Mumbai, India and at the age of 4, we emigrated to the US. I grew up in a small suburb in New Jersey about 25 minutes from New York City. I went to college at Boston University studying International Relations with a minor in Spanish and then continued to go to law school at Villanova School of Law. I have always loved to travel. And growing up and through my 20s, travel was always part of my life. I always thought the idea of living overseas would be exciting, but I didn't think I would make a long-term home so far away from my family. Having lived in Tokyo for over 6 years now, I find that is my reality. It is exciting and nerve-racking at the same time, but I wouldn't trade it for the world.
I am always up for some good music and a glass of champagne. I love exploring new places and learning about new cultures. And I hope to be best friends with my daughters as they grow up! I hope I can inspire them through my dedication to my work and raise them as strong, independent, and free-willed women. I hope anytime they have any type of problems, even through their teens, they want to call me first to help them sort it out.
I truly believe that women are incredibly strong, resilient, and inspiring. I am doing my best to keep up with the women I meet who make me want to do more each day.
And that is me!
T: What sparked your interest in starting something of your own and what was the inspiration that led you to start Akoya?
S: I grew up in a family business. My father ran his own business and later my brothers joined him. The passion and dedication they have to their business yet inspire me. I always knew I wanted something to call my own and as a mother of two girls, I want my girls to know they can do whatever they set their eyes on. It may not be easy, but if at first, you don't succeed, try again.
When I first came to Tokyo 6 years ago, I struggled quite a bit career-wise. After about a year, I was settled in a role I loved at a major Japanese internet giant, and I was pregnant with my oldest daughter. So I took my maternity leave and when it came time to go back, it just didn't feel right. I think it was the actual week I was scheduled to go back that I listened to my instincts and resigned.
As far as the inspiration for AA, I always loved jewelry and as a child growing up we would go back to India and I would visit the jewelers with my mom and was always fascinated. Then, when I came to Japan, I loved how classy and elegant Japanese women were. And for most special occasions, women in Japan mainly wear pearls.
I really wanted to take something from Japan and make it accessible to women outside of Japan and that led me to Akoya Atelier. Akoya is actually a type of pearl that is harvested in Japan that are known for their incredible lusters.
T: Tell us about Akoya - when did you start the brand and how did the process go?
S: I was really a fish out of water when I started AA. I knew very little about the industry, and I am still learning! But I started doing research and reached out to a few of the larger pearl distributors, then I visited a few trade shows and started talking to more and more people. Anyone who would talk to me or show me more about pearl farming, I would speak to. I didn't know the lusters to look for, or what the grading meant, or really much else. I just had a vision of what I wanted the outcome to be and I worked from there. It was nerve-racking, but I knew I wanted to keep going. So I kept digging and researching until I found the right people to work with and learned every step of the way.
Everything about the business is self-funded. I took some of my savings and invested in pearls and production. Because we use the highest quality pearls and everything is set in 18 karat gold (not plated), costs are high but I believe in quality and I won't compromise on that. I then take the majority of profits and re-invest in inventory.
T: What does your brand stand for? What is your mission?
S: My mission is really to bring the most stunning pearls to women across the globe at an amazing value.
As a woman who loves jewelry herself, I really believe in high quality and I love how I feel when I am wearing a beautiful piece of jewelry. It makes me feel confident and powerful and I hope when a woman puts on a piece from the Akoya Atelier collection, she feels the best version of herself. Whether she is wearing the pearls for an interview, graduation, a wedding, a baby shower, or just daily, I want to bring that feeling of being your best self to her.
I hope to build the brand further so that I can work with other women-run businesses and organizations and give back whether through charity projects or funding women entrepreneurs.
T: What was the most difficult part of starting your own business, particularly as a woman who is not native to Japanese culture? What has been the most interesting/rewarding?
S: A woman not native to Japanese culture/language, launching a business in Japan in an industry that is predominantly run by Japanese men... while this is my biggest disadvantage and frustration, it is also my biggest advantage. I don't have to do things how they have been traditionally done and no one is offended or taken aback by me asking questions (or if they are, they are too polite to say anything). More often than not it takes me breaking the ice, and laughing at my own broken Japanese. But doing business today with a translator in your palm is way easier than it would have been 15 years ago.
The most interesting and rewarding thing is breaking through. Or having an exception made (in Japan exceptions are rare). But I think the most rewarding is yet to come and I am excited about that.
T: How have your previous experiences shaped Akoya and what makes Akoya so unique?
S: As a woman in business, I would say what sets AA apart is my commitment to quality. Personally, I feel like each pair of pearls we ship out is a promise of a stunning piece of jewelry.
I don't always get to see my clients wear their pearls, but when I do and I see the lusters shining back at me, it makes me incredibly happy. Because I look at them, and I think "Wow those are really pretty pearls and they look gorgeous!"
I love it when a client will send me pictures from a wedding or event and they are wearing Akoya Atelier and I see them radiant and shining in their jewelry.
T: What does a typical day look like for you?
S: Right now, it's 10 pm and my kids are asleep. I am answering emails and thinking about tomorrow. The mornings are busy and we are working on getting better at them. Mostly my husband and I get our girls ready and out the door for school together- he handles drop off and I get them dressed and fed and try and keep their bags packed the night before. Once they are out at about 8 AM, I sit down and drink my chai. My day is incomplete without it. I then do a quick clean up and ideally squeeze in some exercise and try and get to my desk around 9:30. I try and laser focus for work until 2 or 3 pm when I have to rush for pick up. I try and drop off any products for shipment or production when I head out the door and then from 3 pm until about 7:30/8ish, I am with my girls. We are running errands, going to ballet, picking up, or putting together dinner. I will be on my phone to check an email, reply to a customer, see how many visitors to the website or whatever it may be, but I try my best to give my daughters my attention. And if I don't, they usually demand it.
Juggling motherhood and launching a brand is tiring and challenging, but it allows me the flexibility to have my afternoons with my daughters and I love that. Sometimes I wonder if I should just focus on being a mom and really give it all of my energy and I commend every single mother out there- it's not easy. But personally, I wasn't completely fulfilled with dedicating solely to my daughters and the household. I do want to be there for my daughters, but I have goals! And I don't want to lose myself completely. Akoya Atelier is in many ways my outlet and my space and in many ways it pushes me to be the best version of myself.
T: What advice would you give other women who aspire to leave a 9-5 corporate job to launch a brand/company?
S: Each and every step you take is progress. Do things at your own pace and try and block everything else out. You will have some really low days and you won't always have all the right answers. Things will not always be up and up, but just keep pushing.
And if you like being able to switch off, don't do it because you will always be thinking about how you can grow, what you can work on, what's the next step, and how do you get there, etc. But if you have a passion or the inkling to do something of your own, you won't ever know what could be, unless you give it a try. Whether it's full-time or part-time or on the side, building something of your own doesn't always feel like "work."
T: What does the future hold for Akoya? What are your goals and what's coming next?
S: Growth! At this moment, that's all I can say. I hope to continue growing and building. I hope to bring gorgeous pearls across the globe. I would love to collaborate with like-minded woman-run businesses and organizations and I hope to continue doing projects like our One pearl, One Promise bracelet where we donate to charity.