The following interview by Beth Anderson was originally published on Chic Galleria on August 1, 2016.
Full Name: Michelle Ann Pajak-Reynolds
Current Title/Company: CEO/Creative Director, Michelle Pajak-Reynolds Studios LLC
Kent State University Bachelor of Fine Arts in Jewelry, Metals and Enameling (2001)
Baldwin Wallace University Masters of Business Administration in Entrepreneurship (2012)
Michelle it's such a pleasure to meet you. Please tell our readers, what was your first job and how did you land that position?
My first job was as a sales associate/cashier at TJ Maxx. I worked in the women’s and junior’s departments in addition to my responsibilities as a cashier.
I started the summer before my senior year of high school and worked there for about a year before moving on to other opportunities in retail while pursuing my education.
How have your designs evolved since your first sketch?
I’ve designed jewelry since I was 5 years old so my work has evolved a lot over the decades. My first pieces in the early 1980’s were made with pop-beads and jelly bracelets. As I got older I spent my babysitting money on beads and jewelry supplies from craft stores and taught myself how to make the pieces I wanted to wear.
My formal jewelry design and precious metals training began in a 10th grade jewelry class at Mentor High School where I learned basic jewelry fabrication techniques. During my studies at Kent State, I made jewelry and art objects with a broad range of materials including precious metals, textiles, rubber, aluminum, found objects, and plastics. My current work is all handcrafted in gemstones, often one-of-a-kind gems, and recycled sterling silver.
What have been the biggest challenges or obstacles you’ve faced in your career and how were you able to overcome them?
The Great Recession of 2008-2012 was the biggest challenge I’ve faced as an entrepreneur. The luxury goods market really suffered during that period and it was a very scary time for many families as well.
In 2010 I went back to school and earned an MBA in Entrepreneurship from Baldwin Wallace University. When I registered for classes I didn’t know if my business would survive the recession. If it didn’t than having an MBA would make me a more valuable candidate in the job market, so going back to school was a smart risk to take.
BW’s program helped me reorganize my business and business plan. This included identifying new markets for my designs and developing and implementing new strategies to introduce my brand to those markets. The Great Recession was like a huge “reset button” for many entrepreneurs and coming out of it was similar to starting from zero all over again. All of that work has paid off with key product placements in a variety of media outlets, presentations at New York Fashion Week, and increased sales.
We want to hear about your inspiration as a creative! Where does your inspiration come from? Do you seek it out?
My inspiration comes from a variety of sources including couture fashion, nature, travel, and literature. My raw materials are also a major source of inspiration especially the unique colors and textures of gemstones and how they interact with precious metals.
Each collection has a unique focus and source of inspiration and I use Pinterest to organize my inspiration materials. My newest collection, Undina, is inspired by water goddess mythology and how mermaids transform into the foam on the ocean in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.
How would you describe your design style?
Feminine and ethereal
How did you learn the ins and outs of owning and operating your brand?
Earning an MBA was an essential step in developing my business management skills. I’ve also learned a lot about business operations from the variety of day jobs I’ve had over the years.
As a business owner, how do you achieve a work/life balance?
My art is my life. I can’t remember a time when being an artist or creating jewelry wasn’t the dominant part of my daily existence and I love being in my studio. Now that I’m a mom, my daughter Maeve was born last summer, work/life balance is a greater challenge than it was before.
Maeve has her own little space in the studio so she’s definitely growing up in the family business. My husband, Randy loves being a daddy. He and Maeve have “daddy-daughter dates” when I need alone time in the studio or I’m at my weekly yoga and cardio classes.
Mealtime is a big deal in our household. We cook and enjoy meals as a family and tech devices are not allowed at the table.
What do you see in the future for your brand?
I’m working towards adopting more environmentally friendly practices in my studio and using certified responsibly sourced materials in my collections. It’s a slow gradual process but small steps over time make a difference.
How do you hope to grow the business?
I’m focused on growing the wholesale side of my business by developing relationships with boutiques, specialty stores and museum shops that cater to confident charismatic women with a unique sense of style.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
It’s always rewarding to present a new collection with Nolcha during New York Fashion Week and seeing the joyful response people have to my jewelry. I also love editorial projects and collaborating with photographers, stylists, models and fellow designers to bring a story to life.
What is a typical workday like for you?
My day starts around 6am with taking care of Maeve before we go to the studio. Studio time is a mix of keeping up on emails and industry news, marketing and planning, and the design and production of new pieces and filling orders. The main part of the day ends around 6pm for dinner and “Maeve time” before she goes to bed. Then I head back to the studio for another hour or two before wrapping everything up around 11pm.
Best moment of your career so far?
Attending Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Lincoln Center in September 2013 was a defining moment of my career. This happened after meeting Melissa Shea, Co-Founder of Fashion Mingle, at Nolcha’s Fashion Lounge early that year. Melissa believes in my work and introduced me to several high profile stylists who generously offered feedback on my collections. These stylists work with the biggest fashion brands including Dior, McQueen, and Chanel, so it was an honor that they would even make time for me. Their insights were invaluable and helped me improve my work and business.
I also had the privilege of attending several MBFW runway shows in the tents that season. For years many people told me that attending MBFW would never be possible for a small brand like mine and I should “just grow up and get a real job.” Just being there felt like a huge victory over the naysayers. Experiencing runways shows are moments where I truly feel at home. Each designer was amazing and I’ll never forget the thrill of sitting 3rd row and being backstage at Naeem Khan’s show. I still get chills thinking about it and look forward to seeing the new collections each season.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Always know that you are enough. There will be many situations and people who will try to convince you that you are not good enough for this or that, but you are always enough. What you have to offer will bring joy to many people so never, ever give up. Use your talent and your voice to live your life on your terms and in alignment with who you really are and everything will work out just fine.
Go-to coffee order?
I’m a tea drinker and my two favorites, hot or iced, are Chai and Lapsang Souchong (Chinese smoked tea)
If you could have lunch with anyone, who would it be and what would you order?
I would love to have lunch with artist and musician Tori Amos. I think the perfect meal would be whatever fabulous seasonal local ingredient dishes the chef thinks two redhead women should enjoy during a conversation about art, creativity, motherhood and business.
Best advice you’ve received?
“When people show you who they really are, believe them” is something I heard Maya Angelou say in an interview several years ago. This advice has served me well in both my professional and personal life.
Who would play you in the movie of your life?
It’s flattering to think anyone would be interested in a movie about my life. While it would be nice to have an accomplished actress, like a Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchet or Tilda Swinton play me, I would enjoy seeing a new and upcoming actress get her big movie break in that role.
Photo credits: Julie Stanley/JuleImages LLC