Founder, Startup Investor and Designer: How Payal Shah Has Built An Empire

Words Serena McSweeney | Image Katharina Mueller

Payal Shah is an internationally recognised jewellery designer that is constantly, and successfully, leaving her mark on the jewellery industry. Recently featured in Forbes,  what started as a passion for jewellery when Shah was younger has now turned into a global brand worn by Michelle Obama, Rihanna, Shay Mitchell, Celine Dion,  Zendaya, Chrissy Teigen, Katy Perry, Nick Jonas at the Met and many more! Uniting her Indian heritage, Chinese culture and background in architectural design, Shah’s collections embody sophistication, heritage and beauty. Launching L’ Dezen in 2011, Shah is the perfect example of a woman that has fought to overcome adversity and shown how far hard work and dedication can get you.

HER What inspired you to pursue a career as a jewellery designer?

PS Once I was back from University in 2010, I worked in a hospitality design firm for a year. During my spare time, I would go to my parent’s office and help assort stones, putting aside the stones that really excited me. I would then go and sketch design ideas on how I’d like to set those pieces and get the pieces made for myself to wear. I would always get complimented on the pieces I would design for myself and occasionally get asked if I would sell the pieces I would be wearing. There was a jewellery company that my parents would supply diamonds to from Singapore. They would too love the pieces I would design for myself and proposed to me that I design a capsule line for them.

I thought of it as an exciting opportunity and did a small capsule line of 40-45 styles. They then flew to Vegas with my collection to showcase the designs at a huge jewellery convention there. To a pleasant surprise, the pieces did really well, and I got some really great feedback. That was also the moment I realised not only did I love designing jewellery but also the business behind it. A few months later, with some more experience, I quit my job at the architecture design firm and started my own near the end of 2011 – and that is when L’ Dezen was born. I guess what I can gather from this is that I was always drawn to telling a story through an expressive form and jewellery just happened to be the medium. As a brand, you’re a storyteller – I am so passionate about it.

HER What does a typical workday look like for you?

PS A typical day 2 to 3 years ago has changed from a day today. When I first started my business, for many of the first few years I was constantly on a plane travelling the globe and capturing as many markets, seeking new opportunities with retail stores and doing pop-ups at various locations around the world. I would sleep in one area of the world and wake up in another and it would just be on the go. But as the way businesses changed and how consumer patterns changed, I changed my business and lifestyle accordingly. I am now continuously looking to grow online and want to move my operations as virtual as possible. This means I get to live in Hong Kong (my home) for most of the year and only travel for important business meetings and events.

Otherwise for leisure. It also means I have a much steadier schedule. I wake up, try to do some positive self-affirmations, go to work, have lunch with my family on most weekdays, work till the evenings and always do one form of workout/exercise in the evenings. It could be a long run, Muay Thai, a HIIT workout, a mixed gym session. I like to work out at least 4-5 times a week.

I mix my weekends with some downtime and I will arrange to meet some friends for drinks and dinner in the evenings and spend quality time with them. I sometimes like to catch up on shows and podcasts too. Sundays are for family. Sundays are also great for getting out to the beach or a nice hike if the weather permits!

HER There are many behind-the-scenes difficulties in creating a start-up that many people can forget about, such as costs, regulations and marketing. What was the hardest part for you when starting your business and turning this passion into a functioning and successful enterprise?

PS Design is important but definitely not the only element that drives the business. It’s all the behind-the-scenes elements that make a successful business. I have a wonderful team that looks at all elements such as production, customer service, accounting, or sales roles – so it is really important to make sure you hire the right and functional team that makes sense for you and you can to cover the costs of having them on board. A big part of our business is predominately logistics as we are running a business that sells worldwide and we aim for this to be seamless – this is something that can be a problem-solving task on its own as there are taxes, custom costs and handling fee’s you may not even consider. We take all of these nitty-gritty roles just as important as the jewellery designs.

My role in the business today is ‘Creative Director/Designer’. I still do all of the jewellery design and handle most of the marketing and creative side of the company and I think this is really important to remember for most founders. Anything to do with the brand, product, or activation I head up. I am constantly thinking of campaigns around new collections that lead to organising pop up events, shows, website, activations, consumer engagement – you really have to be prepared to wear many hats and it does get overwhelming but nevertheless exciting.

To test new markets, we usually participate in jewellery conventions and for the markets, we are established with retailers carrying us as a brand – we end up doing pop-ups events a few times a year. This is usually a great time to meet our consumers in person and understand what our consumers would like to see more of. I use every single opportunity to grow bigger and better.

HER What is the best career advice you have ever been given and by who?

PS The best career advice I have ever been given is by my parents. It is the simplest rule in the book, yet people seem to forget: ‘Always spend less than you earn’. They have always told me; your business is as good as it looks in numbers and make it your mission to involved with your financials because it will advise you best what your next moves in your business should be!

HER What has been the biggest lesson you have learnt within your career?

PS Evolution is constant. You should have a true centre but even the best of us can learn new tricks and tackle our own limitations. Your biggest limitation is often knowledge of yourself so never stop learning, because that is what has given me courage. For example, I seek knowledge from the people I meet during my travels, especially entrepreneurs that are successful in both their field but also the ones doing exciting and innovative moves: the way they develop, sustain and enrich their relationship to achieve business success and creativity.

HER Your collections are absolutely beautiful. Where do you draw your creative inspiration from and how hard is to constantly be setting new trends?

PS Inspiration to me is everywhere. I’m constantly inspired by learning, by experimenting, by conversations that happen especially during my travels. A lot of my collections are based around different architectures of the world and how I see the patterns, colours, textures and geometrics around me. You can see a visual diary of my travels on my Instagram – I use this platform to connect with my peers, consumers and followers sharing my journey.

Each collection represents a different story. For example, the Urban Jungle collection is inspired by hustling wildlife, like the culture I grew up in Hong Kong, and each piece has an animal print pattern using diamonds. We have sub-brands under L’ Dezen as well, which are Oly+Pie and Psylish.

These both are different price points and styles from L’ Dezen. They both came about with my understanding of various demands in the industry in specific trends in jewellery.

HER The coronavirus has had a significant impact on all businesses around the world. How have you managed to overcome the many challenges it has brought, such as 

changing consumer behaviours, lockdowns, business costs and future collection designs/releases?

PS We had started on revamping our user experience on our websites and had marketing campaigns initiated to push all consumers to start buying online. We listed out all the ways on how we could cater to our consumers virtually and scale globally online. We know the future and the only way to sustain a business is now online. The L’Dezen and Psylish website provides so many different features which makes shopping experience to be smooth with giving you confidence in what you are buying. When you land on our website we have to provide you transparency in all costs, including shipping, customs fees that may apply, and taxes your country may charge you with international shipping.

There is no element of surprise when it comes to what you pay which I believe is so important. When it comes to selecting the pieces, we provide HD quality images, three-dimensional videos with a clear quality of the diamonds, we provide videos of how the piece looks on a model and now we have added augmented reality to all the pieces on the website using CamWeara. This allows you to see how the piece looks on your ear, neck, or finger before you decide to purchase the piece, allowing the consumer to feel more confident when purchasing their piece.

You can also try your piece out with the outfit you intend to wear it with and try out different styles if you are confused between the two similar-looking pieces. There are so many other small elements on the website like layering guides and booking video calls with us in a house sales team that also build confidence.

HER As an incredibly successful businesswoman, you are deeply admired by many females around the world. You have shown women that you can turn a passion into a successful career with hard work, innovation and resilience. What started as an idea has grown into an efficacious brand, with recognition from celebrities such as Rihanna and Michelle Obama. To have women like you in these powerful leadership positions plays such an enormous role in encouraging other women to pursue their passions and careers and help to redefine the workforce and society. What do you think will be the benefits of having more women in leadership positions?

PS Ultimately, all I really want is equality. I want men and women to be recognised for their efforts, hard work and skills. There are so many advantages for businesses to consider female leadership positions. The more varied a workforce, the greater the opportunity for new approaches to optimising businesses. When we collaborate with people of different genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities and race in our workplace, I strongly believe we all do better work. Statistics even show that having increased female leadership on your team or board leads to increased financial results – like my parents would say ‘trust the numbers’. I also just personally believe, women make great mentors, and we could definitely use more of them around!

HER What has been your proudest moment since starting L’ Dezen?

PS My proudest moment since starting L’ Dezen cannot be put into one moment. But to summarise, it is one of the longest relationships I have had. I know that I can go through my archives when I am feeling down, and it will give me a reason to smile when I look back at all the memories I have attached to them. When I am confused, I can sketch my way and get lost into my thoughts and be creative as I would like.

When I feel unmotivated, I look at all the beautiful smiles on the faces of people I have had the pleasure of dressing in my jewellery and remembering why I started L’ Dezen in the first place.

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