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Lee Gelb: Ditching Corporate Life For A Sparkling Passion (PHOTOS)

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One of the reasons I started my website, Marlothomas.com, is that I wanted a place for women (including me!) to come together and dream. Women should know that they don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing them -- that there is always time to start a new dream. In that spirit, I'm so excited to introduce a new series called "It Ain't Over," profiling women who have pursued -- and fulfilled -- their dreams and passions, no matter what their age or circumstances. I find these stories endlessly inspiring. I hope you do too.

By Lori Weiss

In her open-air studio -- where the floors are a deep shade of red, the walls a brilliant tangerine, and sparkling strands of gems form a rainbow of color -- Lee Gelb has created a space that will make you feel as if you've been transported to another continent. And in a way, you have.

From her converted garage on an island off the coast of Seattle, just a twenty-minute ferry ride from the spacious office she once occupied as a Senior Vice President at Starbucks, Lee is changing lives a world away, one bracelet, pendant or pair of earrings at a time.

"I asked myself, What would you do if you knew you would succeed?" Lee recalls. "I was at a point in my life where I simply needed more meaning. I had the cute sports car. I had the great beach house. I was very lucky, and I knew I wanted to do something that gave back to people who were less fortunate than me."

So Lee did what many people think about, but few have the nerve to do. At 47, she walked away from her big corporate job to find her passion. "I literally said out loud, 'I'm giving you permission to take some time off and figure this out and find out what inspires you.' But I was a single mom with a 14-year-old boy, so I couldn't sit under a tree and meditate. Instead, I did some consulting, but at the same time, I started making lists of the things I loved."

That list led Lee back to her days in college, where she began her career as a relief worker in Third World countries like Bangladesh and Haiti; and to her childhood, when she played endlessly with her grandmother's jewelry and roamed the woods surrounding her family's home -- in search of rocks that sparkled.

"I kept thinking about the artisans I'd met overseas," she says, "and how beautiful their crafts were -- yet how they struggled to get by. And I knew I could help."

So Lee recruited her former boss at Starbucks, Shelley Milano, to help her build a business plan, one that would be the foundation for a gem and jewelry business that would support struggling artists in developing countries. They formed Zavida Gemstones and, along with it, a mission: to give 25 percent of their profits back to the areas where the gems they sold had been mined, and where the artisans worked.

"I started doing research and calling friends who work for non-profits around the world," she explains, "and they led me to the village of Bhuj, India -- an artisan community known for its exquisite work -- that had virtually been destroyed during an earthquake in 2001."

While relief organizations had helped many of the artists get back on their feet, the silversmiths there were still struggling. "It was thought that many of them were well off, since silver is more expensive than materials like mud or leather," Lee says sadly. "But their homes, just like everyone else's, had been destroyed, and everything was looted. For generations, these families had created beautiful silver pieces -- it was all they knew -- and now they were working in brick fields."

It wasn't long before Lee sold her beloved sports car and beach home. She and Shelley then compiled their frequent flyer miles, and the two set off for India. Their plan: to offer micro-finance loans to the families, so they could upgrade their tools and equipment and begin selling their wares beyond the immediate region.

"Let's be clear," Lee says laughing, "this trip did not include five-star hotels and gallery visits. For five dollars extra, we got a shower curtain in our hotel room and, on a good day, we got hot water!"

With the help of a kind stranger named Meera, who at the time was involved with the village's weaving project, Lee and Shelley met with families who had lost their homes and businesses. They talked with them about fair trade and helped them redesign the nose rings and ankle bracelets they'd sold locally for generations -- turning them into earrings and bracelets that they could sell around the world. And then they returned home to write a check.

"It would have taken us three years to fund this project if we'd waited until our business was up and running," Lee says with a hint of frustration in her voice. "So we decided to go into our own bank accounts. I was driving to the bank, saying out loud, 'How much do you believe in this project? I believe! How much do you believe? Do you believe $20,000 worth?' And I did believe. We'd only met these families in India once, but I believed."

Five years later, that belief has paid off. Fifteen families are now supplying Zavida Gemstones with beautiful handcrafted silver jewelry and selling their crafts around the world. And Meera, the kind stranger who'd helped Lee and Shelley find their way in a new land, now oversees Zavida's partnerships in India.

"In 2006, the kids of the artisan families had no interest in pursuing the family business," Lee says. "Why would they? They had no assets. But now they're seeing that there is a future. We've played a part in saving a disappearing art form, but just as important, we've inspired a disappearing generation, showing them that there really is a livelihood in this."

And that inspiration continues to grow, as does Zavida. The company is now importing gemstones and working with more than 30 artisans from around the world. They've established a scholarship for the children of the artists they work with, and Lee is creating her own designs.

"I don't want to try to convince anyone that running a small business in America is easy these days," says Lee, "but if you work hard and persevere, you can make things happen. We've proven that what's good for business can be good for people.

"I get such a sense of well being from this, and isn't that what we all want -- for our friends, for our kids and for ourselves? Don't we all want to find the meaning in life?"

The work of the silversmiths of Bhuj and Zavida's other artisans from around the world is available at ZavidaGemstones.com.


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