“I was a young girl with a backpack in New York City’s Diamond District,” says Shilpa Yarlagadda, a 23-year-old senior at Harvard. Her company, Shiffon Co., makes ethically sourced jewellery to empower women, injecting a portion of the profits into the Startup Girl Foundation, the company’s non-profit arm that supports female-founded businesses through capital and mentorship. While nothing from Yarlagadda’s background screams “future jewellery designer”, the young entrepreneur is proving to be a born leader in the industry.
An Indian-American, Yarlagdda grew up in Silicon Valley where she was surrounded by founders (mostly men) working on innovative technologies. While in high school, she interned at NASA and Microsoft Research, both of which informed her decision to study Computer Science.
“Throughout my studies and work experiences, I never saw that many women, which is something that bothered me,” Yarlagadda told V.F. “You can’t be what you can’t see, which is why I wanted to create a new visible and transparent model of funding for female entrepreneurs.”
A Sparkling Gem
Leveraging the jewellery industry to do so seemed like an obvious choice for Yarlagadda.
“Fine jewellery was never an industry that was about women,” she says. “It has always been about men buying jewellery for women in an industry that was basically run by men. So if we can reclaim this multi-trillion dollar industry, then it’s that much more powerful and empowering.”
Yarlagadda founded Shiffon in 2017 after completing her freshman year at Harvard. She Googled everything there was to know about how to make jewellery, knocking on the doors of Material Science and Robotics departments to figure out how to manufacture the items in the most cost-effective way. From 3D printing to making a castable resin model, the solutions were manifold.
In the end though, Yarlagadda realised that New York City’s Diamond District—a bustling commercial stretch where jewellers come to find their gems—was her best shot.
“We had to go there to work with the best in the industry,” says Yarlagadda. She refers to the movie Uncut Gems, which illustrates how business is made in the world of diamond merchants, also known as diamantaires. “The double doors are definitely a thing,” she adds. “It’s such an undercover industry with deals happening in delis, bars and street corners.”
A Pinky Promise
Shiffon’s first fine jewellery item was the Duet Pinky Ring. Set with a tiny diamond beside a larger one, the spiral-shaped, adjustable ring represents one woman supporting another through a “pinky promise”. For every ring purchased, 50 per cent of the profits go to the Startup Girl Foundation, which has already backed a dozen female-founded startups, including Pepper, which makes bras for small-chested women; Eterneva, which turns the ashes of loved ones into diamonds; and Kinship, a clean skincare brand for Gen Z. SGF actually co-invested in Kinship with another one of its portfolio companies called Sea Star, which reimagines classic espadrilles as water shoes.
“Because we have built a pay-it-forward culture where one’s success can lead to others’ success, we are seeing our portfolio companies give back too,” says Yarlagadda. “We are starting to see our vision of a chain reaction come to life and making an exponential difference for female founders.”
The pinky ring prices range between $155 and $780, depending on the types of materials and stones used. Yarlagadda says she was adamant about making these items as affordable and accessible as possible.
“When I dived into the fine jewellery market, I noticed that the margins were very high,” she says. “By cutting out the middlemen [i.e. the retail stores], and selling direct-to-consumer through our website, we were able to significantly reduce those margins and sell at a more affordable price point.”
With the manufacturing and business model figured out, Yarlagadda was faced with yet another challenge—finding customers and ambassadors that would kickstart the pinky promise movement. Luckily, the young founder surrounded herself with key mentors, including fashion photographers Inez & Vinoodh, celebrity make-up artist Jeanine Lobell, film director Cathy Yan and superstylist Sarah Slutsky, who introduced Shiffon to one of her star clients, Emma Watson. The British actress sported the pinky ring during her press tour for The Circle.