Women in Business Q&A: Carolyn Rafaelian, Founder, CEO and CCO, Alex and Ani

04/21/2016 06:34 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2017

Carolyn Rafaelian is the Chief Executive Officer, Chief Creative Officer and founder of ALEX AND ANI, an accessories and jewelry company that uses the power of storytelling to authentically connect and empower people through their products. Founded in 2004 in the basement of Carolyn's father's jewelry factory in Cranston, Rhode Island, ALEX AND ANI has stayed true to its roots by committing to creating eco-conscious, Made in America products. ALEX AND ANI has become a model for corporate-giving, providing over $30 million in funds, services and resources to worthy organizations in their backyard and around the world.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Having been born and raised in the jewelry business, I used to see my father produce signature American flag pins in his factory during the Vietnam War era where he donated the proceeds to charity. I think that's when I inherited his passion for making jewelry that positively impacts people. It's where I learned that hard work is a virtue, and that generosity is strength. As a leader, I have infused a sense of purpose into my company so that everyone is inspired by the same goal of creating something that will bring people together.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at ALEX AND ANI?
Working alongside my father and seeing him as a leader was the best education I could ask for. The hands on experience I received was what led me to create ALEX AND ANI. My life's purpose is to create beautiful things that connect the world. This has really been the force driving all the incredible things that have come in my time as CEO of ALEX AND ANI.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at ALEX AND ANI?
The greatest challenge, and opportunity, was building this impactful business, which started with only 25 people in a warehouse basement. I am proud to say that many of these employees are still with me. ALEX AND ANI has evolved incredibly to become a 1,000+ employee-strong company. We have a state of the art headquarters that remains in Rhode Island that also includes a subsidized company café that serves local and organic food. Maintaining a positive company culture is essential to success. We've created a sense of a tribe, as we're tied as a community from our connection to each other and our culture.

Beyond building this tribe, other highlights include opening nearly 60 retail stores and 1800 points of sale across the globe. These locations are more than jewelry stores, serving as platforms that encourage meaningful connections through product and story. The most important highlight in ALEX AND ANI's history has actually occurred this year, as we are celebrating over $30 million raised for a variety of charities around the world and the fifth anniversary of Charity by Design.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Find your purpose. It will keep you committed to the work that you do. Mine is designing jewelry and beautiful things that make people feel connected. Once you get on that path to knowing what your purpose is, the sky's the limit.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
One of the most important lessons I've learned is to stay true to your voice. When you can take your passion and turn it into a business because you were completely true to your vision, then you're in alignment with your life's purpose.

Don't focus on any of the background noise. Entrepreneurship to me is "I did it my way." I've heard so many times "the jewelry industry is basically dissolved" or "you don't have enough of a business plan"; if I listened to all of that noise I wouldn't be where I am today.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I maintain a work/life balance by trusting and empowering my ALEX AND ANI tribe. It's important to stay rooted in your core ideals and true to your vision, but it's also important to believe in the dedicated team around you to help it carry out.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I would like to see more people feel enabled to follow their passion. It's true for everyone, but especially true for women in the workplace. I think there is a lack of promoting and nurturing the individual spirit that young women have. All women need the opportunities to truly express themselves and their identity by creating, developing or finding something they love and sticking with it.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has made all the difference in our company. I believe that multi-layered support across the organization and peer-to-peer empowerment are life forces without which none of us can succeed. It allows true creativity to flourish and the next generation to take over and thrive.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire Michelle Obama because she uses everything in her power to make a difference in this world. She does an incredible job at sharing her experiences with young women and encouraging them to explore endless possibilities. I hope to inspire young women to not only share their experiences with others, but to create something unique they can share with the world.

What do you want ALEX AND ANI to accomplish in the next year?
I want ALEX AND ANI to impact others on an entirely new level. I believe that ALEX AND ANI is redefining corporate-giving, inspiring other companies and organizations to find their own path to making an impact. Through our CHARITY BY DESIGN collection, we have built a unique opportunity to impact others through our jewelry. We've partnered with more than 550 charitable organizations to-date and have given back over $30 million in donations since 2011. With the incredible charitable partnerships to come this year, I hope to see ALEX AND ANI become a vehicle that brings the world a little closer together and make us more conscious of one another. I hope that others will see what we're doing at ALEX AND ANI and feel inspired to set new boundaries for what we can accomplish together.