We’ve been groomed to believe that success comes to those who work the hardest. But what if you reframe that narrative? What if, rather than honing solely your own trajectory, you invested equal amounts of energy into others around you? For Shilpa Yarlagadda, this pay-it-forward ethos was paramount when co-founding her jewelry label Shiffon back in 2017. It began with a simple yet profound idea: create one core product—the Duet Pinky Ring—and direct 50% of its profits toward funding female founders through a nonprofit venture capital arm she would name the Startup Girl Foundation. At that time, less than 2.2% of venture capital funding was going to female founders and Shiffon was an impactful way to close the gender gap while also creating a beautiful piece of fine jewelry crafted from ethical and sustainably-minded materials.
Yarlagadda knew that her approach the Shiffon jewelry brand would need to be different than most, which is why she carved out a mentorship board from the get-go. One of her earliest advisers was stylist Sarah Slutsky, who would go on to play a pivotal role in the brand including providing design input, sustainability insights, and an all-around seasoned expertise that is crucial (yet often missing) for a young entrepreneur to have when getting started.
Shiffon’s jewelry products launched with the Duet Pinky Ring, set with a petite diamond beside a larger diamond, representing one woman supporting another through a ‘pinky promise.’ The reception was what entrepreneurial dreams are made of—it’s been worn by Michelle Obama, Emma Watson, Serena Williams and most recently by Meghan Markle on the cover of Time Magazine. Shiffon has also been included in initiatives ranging from Women in Film to When We All Vote. It’s a shining example of what can happen when women are empowered and support each other.
We recently caught up with Yarlagadda and Slutsky over Zoom to discuss Shiffon jewelry brand’s inspirin story. Ahead, hear from these two powerhouses on everything from the necessity of mentorship to the importance of working with natural diamonds.
On Coming Up with the Idea for Shiffon Jewelry
Shilpa Yarlagadda: Jewelry was something I really loved and has always been a big part of Indian culture. Having a nonprofit in high school, I realized how much nonprofits actually rely on for-profits and individual donors to make an impact. With Shiffon being a for-profit company with a social mission, I felt like we could really control the impact we wanted to make. From the very beginning, we wanted to donate 50% of profits form our hallmark product and it was really through Sarah Slutsky and our incredible mentors and the women who supported us early on that I came up with this idea of a Pinky Promise ring.
On Uncompromising Sustainability
Sarah Slutsky: I said to Shilpa in our early conversations that I only wanted to be a part of this if we could make sure everything we do is clearly focusing on the impacts on the planet. That can mean environmental earth but also human sustainability; being able to move forward and grow and build yourself up. So from day one, that was rooted in the mission and core beliefs and would be a principle we never bent on.
SY: I remember when I met Sarah for coffee she said to me, ‘if we’re going to do this, we have to make sure everything is sustainable and everything is sourced ethically.’ I hadn’t even really started making anything at the time so it was such a good place to start. I think per the concept of what the Pinky Ring embodies of paying it forward and spiraling women upward, it was so lovely to experience that even before I had started.
On Female Entrepreneurs and Women-Empowering Companies Shiffon’s Supported
SY: One of the companies we’re so proud of that just finished closing their seed round is called Break the Love founded by Trish Goyal. We were actually their first check and their first female investor. Within all of the sectors of where women are receiving capital, sports and fitness is actually one of the sectors where women are receiving a lot less capital. Trisha wanted to democratize sports and build the Bumble of sports where individuals are able to match people of a similar skill level who can be a regular fitness partner. There’s also Pepper, a bra company that is focused on body positivity and making a couple of signature bras that could support women with smaller breasts. They were struggling initially to raise capital and we were actually their first female investor and we brought in their second investor. We also helped them hire some key people in their creative and marketing team. It’s been amazing to see the journeys these founders have had and we’ve learned so much from them too. We’re open to supporting people in any vertical and any space.
On the Power of Women Supporting Women
SY: It’s really amazing building a community that supports itself. We’ve seen the founders of these companies we’re funding build their own relationships. I know the founder of Pepper and the founder of Break the Love have become friends and been able to support each other through their fundraise, too.
On Shiffon’s Pivotal Moments
SY: Our first really big moment was when Sarah styled Emma Watson. She was wearing our Pinky Ring and things from our secret menu and it was really beautiful. And she wore it for so many different outfits! We also really admired everything Emma did with He for She and sustainability. The next big moment was Big Little Lies with Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley who wore Shiffon to the Emmys. This was before #MeToo and the Golden Globes in 2018 when they had the blackout carpet, but we could definitely sense that women wanted to support women. There was this sort of energy in the industry.
On Shiffon’s “When We All Vote” Partnership with Michelle Obama
SY: About a month before the election, Meredith Koop, who is also one of our mentors and Michelle Obama’s stylist, was working on When We all Vote to create these capsule collections from designers that could help get out the vote. I pitched the idea of making a pair of hoop earrings that represented all of the hoops women have had to jump through for our basic rights to equality, including the right to vote. It was something Sarah and I were so passionate about so even though there wasn’t very much time to get it together, we pulled all the stops and it ended up being incredible. We loved seeing pictures of people at the polls with their voting hoops!
SS: When the idea started formulating it was essential that it was a forever piece. The message needs to be this is not just ‘we vote now’, it was really important that the design and the eternity of the look lasted so the message could be cohesive. We have worked really hard to achieve this and it needs to not just be a one-time emergency situation, this is a lifestyle, right? This is a lifestyle change that we are taking on and making sure that every election big and small, local municipalities to the federal level, we are standing up for what we believe in and voting.
On the Importance of Working with Natural Diamonds
SS: Thinking about how impactful the diamond is on our story as people and as humans (especially in the United States); we exchange diamonds as the most meaningful vow of our lives but to know that and then not think deeper about where a diamond comes from is unacceptable—we have to know! A diamond should be an incredible, beautiful, valuable, symbolic piece and you should also be proud of where it came from and every step along the way. There’s a whole story behind your diamond and where it comes from and the value of that good is magnified when you can tell the story of the pieces you’re bringing into your life.
SY: We were so inspired when we learned how a natural diamond can economically empower women throughout the supply chain. We only work with natural diamonds and all the diamonds we use are ethically sourced. Fair trade gold is used for all of the gold we use, and we only work with recycled gold and local artisans in New York.
Having accomplished in a short time what some entrepreneurs can only dream of achieving in the span of an entire career, Shilpa is taking Shiffon’s success and using it as a tool to empower other women. Living by the symbolism of her flagship product—The Pinky Ring—she offers an inspirational example of what a diamond brand can look like; one that’s marked by integrity and intention.