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Female Founders: Vanessa Barcus Of Talisman Fine Jewelry On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Know your worth, and know what your non-negotiables are when dealing with other people. Don’t be afraid to walk away from a relationship or situation (in work or otherwise haha) that isn’t working for you. I’ve found that trying to stick things out in an arrangement that is draining your energy, rarely yields new or better results.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vanessa Barcus.

Vanessa Barcus is the founder, designer and goldsmith behind Talisman Fine Jewelry, a collection of sculptural, heirloom jewelry that is sustainably handmade in recycled 14k gold. Barcus began Talisman after working in the fashion industry for over 15 years, most notably as the owner of designer apparel retailer Goldyn. Taking matters into her own hands — quite literally — Barcus began designing Talisman as a means of bridging the worlds of everyday jewelry, sacred adornment, and art. Using traditional lost wax casting techniques, Barcus creates substantial, statement-making pieces that evoke an abstract, modernist sensibility with a decidedly ancient feel. The collection can be found at finer retailers nationwide.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve always been a little obsessed with jewelry, but what really led me to start Talisman Fine Jewelry was owning a women’s boutique for 11 years. My shop Goldyn stocked independent designer labels in clothing, as well as quite a bit of fine jewelry. So much so that after a while, the jewelry became a predominant source of our revenue. So after a while it seemed like a no-brainer to start our own line of jewelry basics. The collection has evolved a lot since then though, particularly after I closed the shop and started doing metalsmithing full time in 2018.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

A lot has happened in my life since the collection’s humble beginnings. A marriage, a cross-country move, a divorce. Two life-altering accidents. Working with my hands and making jewelry ended up being very healing for me on all fronts, which I think is pretty interesting and fortuitous, given that I had already started down this path before knowing what curve balls life would throw me. The jewelry has ended up being my saving grace, and seems to always provide just what I need.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The fashion, beauty and jewelry industries can involve a lot of puffed-up egos. I try not to be one of them, but apparently my own sense of self-deprecating humor isn’t appreciated by everyone. I remember, early on, that there was a retail buyer who knew me from my previous business and had been a fan of my work. She had all kinds of flattering things to say, to which I replied something to the effect of, “Oh goodness, no need to inflate my ego like that.” I never heard from her after that. Whoops.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

So many people have helped along the way, but one person I’d like to highlight is a man named John Vesowate, who was a pillar of the Portland, OR jewelry community, where I really got my start as a goldsmith. John owned a jewelry findings supply business called West Coast Findings, and he was always so gracious about taking time to help customers, share knowledge, and answer in-depth questions from newbies like me. In fashion and jewelry, most people guard their knowledge rather than share it, but John was a rare human who saw the benefit in helping others. John passed away unexpectedly this year, and I know he will truly be missed in that community and beyond.

I also have to thank my mom, because her support through all of my entrepreneurial ventures has been foundational.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

If you look at how many women start small businesses (these days women own around 40%), vs how many found *funded* businesses, I think the answer speaks to several things: First off, gaining investor capital oftentimes is an intimidating process that is much more easily navigated when one is already a member of the ‘good ol boys club.’ Many women are not educated in how to negotiate for money, let alone pitch to investors. Second, I think that more women are attracted to the idea of working for themselves, and all that that implies in terms of being able to make your own schedule, have flexibility, etc., without being beholden to the expectations of men. The expectations placed upon modern women — to be everything and do everything — is exhausting, and frankly impossible. Most larger companies, especially those who have to answer to investors or a board (oftentimes comprised of mostly men), tend to have a masculine approach to work, and lack an understanding of meeting women’s needs for childcare, eldercare, etc. Not to mention the way those organizations are run in general. I believe there is a new way emerging — one which is more balanced, non-hierarchical, and “feminine.” Perhaps then we’d see more female founders of “funded” businesses.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

I’m no political think tank over here, but I personally think that things like paid family leave for both sexes (funded by the government) would be a great step in the right direction. Movement towards new models of leadership that incorporate both feminine and masculine ways of operating would also help attract and retain women. And simply creating more opportunities for women to feel included in conversations around finance and investor opportunities would be great as well.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

You have one life, and a finite number of days to spend in it. Why would you toil each day to make someone else’s dream happen when you could be living your own?

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

It’s not all expense accounts and long lunches while your managers do the grunt work… Speaking to the fashion industry in particular, because that’s my expertise, I think a lot of people have misconceptions around how glamorous things are. I went to NYFW each season for 12 years, and trust me, it was way more hard work and much more exhausting than anyone realizes. Being a founder in general means that at the end of the day, the responsibility is on you to make sure things get done correctly. No one is going to care about your business the way you do, and oftentimes that can mean some late nights.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

Founders and entrepreneurs must, by necessity, be people who are naturally driven, have a high work ethic, and ideally are organized and good with time management skills. Not everyone meets all of these qualifications, of course, but these things certainly help.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Create boundaries around working hours and your personal life, and uphold them. No one is going to respect those boundaries if you don’t.
  2. Know your worth, and know what your non-negotiables are when dealing with other people. Don’t be afraid to walk away from a relationship or situation (in work or otherwise haha) that isn’t working for you. I’ve found that trying to stick things out in an arrangement that is draining your energy, rarely yields new or better results.
  3. That said, be sure to communicate your needs upfront, clearly, and be straightforward about your expectations of others. Employees can’t read your mind.
  4. “No” is one of the most powerful one-word sentences there is. We women could benefit from using it more.
  5. Conversely, when it gives you butterflies in the best way possible, even if it feels a little scary, I’d challenge you to say “yes.”

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

While I certainly try and incorporate philanthropy into what I do as much as possible, not to mention the whole “sustainability” M.O. of my brand, I also have a view that fashion and adornment aren’t just silly, superficial things in and of themselves. They have deeper meaning. Part of what I love about what I do is helping women (and men) express their truest selves, and really feel good about who they are and how they’re communicating that to the world. When someone feels confident, radiant, and happy, I think that contributes to making the world a better place.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I think what I’d like to inspire in others is just to be unapologetically yourself; that each person is at their best when they’re not trying to be anyone but themselves. It’s ok to be different, it’s ok to be a little weird, and it’s ok to do things your own way. Success isn’t always just money, and the path isn’t always linear. Stop trying to fit into others’ norms of status, productivity, beauty, etc. Our differences make the world interesting, and that’s what makes you the most radiant version of yourself.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’d love to meet Kelly Wearstler. She’s an icon in the interior design world, and an incredible businesswoman. I admire people who can straddle the worlds of art and entrepreneurship the way that she can.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Female Founders: Vanessa Barcus Of Talisman Fine Jewelry On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.