Priya Vasan’s golden opportunity
Launching one of the country’s only woman-owned Indian jewelry stores wasn’t easy. But Priya Vasan knew she could do it.
Priya Vasan’s kids call her the Kamala Harris of business. Like Harris, the country’s first South Asian vice president, Vasan is a pioneer. Both near her Bay Area store in Sunnyvale, California, and in her native South India, women-owned jewelry stores are remarkably rare.
Vasan, a seasoned jewelry saleswoman with over a decade in the industry, was already buying products, developing long-term client relationships, and making millions’ worth of sales each year. In 2019, she felt the “spark” to go out on her own.
“I feel powerful as a business owner. I feel like you can do anything with hard work and if you believe in yourself, and I completely, completely, truly believe in myself that I can make a successful business.” — Priya Vasan
Her husband and children believed in her, and she trusted her own vision. But not everyone was so sure.
She tells the story of talking with an acquaintance about the possibility of opening her own store. Unsure if she could be successful, he asked if she thought to open a salon or restaurant instead.
“I told him, ‘I’ll show you. I’ll show you what I’m capable of,’” she said.
Today, Vasan is about to celebrate the first anniversary of her fine jewelry store, Priya Jewelers.
“I feel powerful as a business owner,” she said. “I feel like you can do anything with hard work and if you believe in yourself, and I completely, completely, truly believe in myself that I can make a successful business.”
A ‘very, very rare’ business
Vasan walked into a Wells Fargo office in Santa Clara, California, in December 2020 to make a transaction, but walked out with a contact who put her in touch with Geetha Natraj, a regional business relationship manager, who could help her get the business loan she needed to open Priya Jewelers.
“It was like voila! This is what I was looking for,” Vasan said.
Natraj and Vasan actually knew of each other prior to her loan application. The two live in the same area, have mutual acquaintances, and are originally from nearby cities in South India. They also share an understanding of just how unique Vasan’s vision was and how important gold jewelry is in Indian culture.
“It’s very, very rare to see a women-owned fine Indian jewelry business,” Natraj said. “Usually, these are family-owned businesses that get passed on from the dad to the son. Women usually work in design, but now things are changing.”
Gold is treasured by many Indian families, both as a gift to commemorate milestones like birthdays and weddings and as a long-term investment. While Priya Jewelers serves a diverse clientele, many of her customers are Indians. And because there are so few Indian jewelry stores in the U.S., Vasan finds customers coast to coast.
“The thing I like most about this business is the interaction with customers. In the past decade, I’ve had customers who got engaged, then married, and then had their child, and now I’m helping them choose jewelry for their kids. Jewelry is intertwined with their lives." — Priya Vasan
The store offers a wide selection of traditional engagement rings and gold pieces, as well as many kinds of Indian jewelry. For example, Vasan carries moon-shaped Chandbali-style earrings, temple jewelry adorned with Indian goddesses, jingly jhumkas earrings, and tinted antique gold pieces.
“In India, traditionally, gold gets passed on from one generation to the other like homes or property. Gold is very much intertwined with our culture,” Natraj said.
Natraj’s intrinsic understanding of Indian culture and its importance to Vasan’s business model was crucial for the underwriting process, where the lender evaluates an applicant’s business plan and their ability to pay back the loan. Natraj worked with Brian Wilken, a Small Business Administration (SBA) business development officer, to coordinate with the SBA to secure its guarantee for Vasan’s loan. This type of credit is designed for small business owners who may not otherwise be able to secure financing.
Women entrepreneurs report that access to capital is their biggest barrier to profitability, and 22% don’t think they’d be approved by a lender, according to a recent study in collaboration with Wells Fargo, the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, Penn State University, and Fair Pay Workplace (see infographic).
The efforts of Natraj and Wilken proved successful, and Vasan used the SBA loan to secure a retail location and open Priya Jewelers in May 2021. The two also helped Vasan launch her first business accounts, and John Errecalde, a merchant services sales consultant, helped her with taking payments. The team continues to stay in touch to serve as a resource along Vasan’s small business journey.
“Brian and Geetha have been with me, holding my hand every step of the way,” Vasan said. “People would tell me the SBA process is so long and grueling, but I thoroughly enjoyed the process.”
‘I can conquer anything’
Vasan has outfitted 33 bridal parties since opening her store. Indian weddings, which are typically lavish five-day celebrations, are perfect opportunities for Vasan to see customers wear her most elegant pieces. It’s not unusual for Indian wedding parties to adorn themselves in jewelry from head to toe, even switching pieces out for each day. A gold haar necklace, a maangtikka headpiece, payal anklets, several rings, and intricate earrings may all be deemed essential for some brides.
Vasan takes great pride in every step of the process, from ordering and curating collections to modeling her own wares for social media. But getting to know her customers and community is the best part.
“The thing I like most about this business is the interaction with customers. In the past decade, I’ve had customers who got engaged, then married, and then had their child, and now I’m helping them choose jewelry for their kids. Jewelry is intertwined with their lives,” she said.
It’s this deep understanding of her customers, along with carrying exclusive products and working with unique suppliers, that sets Vasan’s store apart.
With its first anniversary nearing, Priya Jewelers has already beaten the estimates Vasan submitted to the SBA.
“My parents have been behind me. My husband, my kids, everybody. Wells Fargo, as well. I feel very powerful walking into my store. I feel like I can conquer anything with kindness and compassion. I’m not talking about arrogance. I’m really humbled that people choose to come to my store when they have other choices,” she said.