Maya Brenner is the type of woman for whom the word inspiring is an understatement. As CEO of the eponymous jewelry line Maya Brenner Designs, she’s the brains and creative force behind a company that has graced the pages of big-time magazines such as Lucky, InStyle, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour. Her designs are timeless; classic and chic with a hint of whimsy—and they’ve caught the eye of some of our favorite starlets from Rachel Bilson and Mandy Moore to Anne Hathaway and Salma Hayek. Even leading ladies have donned Maya’s jewelry on a number of TV shows including The Everygirl’s favorite, Sex and the City.
So what led her to where she is today? A leap of faith. Once a young social worker spending her days with substance-abusing teens, Maya turned to jewelry-making after hours for stress relief. It wasn’t long before people started to take notice of the one-of-a-kind pieces Maya was sporting—and soon after, her fledgling business slowly and steadily began to take shape.
Now, a veteran in the field, Maya shares with you the road to discovering her passion, the business of running a start-up, and the importance of living what you love.
Name: Maya Brenner
Year you started Maya Brenner Designs: 1998
Educational background: Bachelor of Arts in Social Science from UC Irvine and a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Hunter College School of Social Work
What was your first job out of college and how long did you hold that position?
Just out of college, I took a job as a waitress at a beer pub in my hometown of Berkeley, California. I lived at home for a year and figured out that I wanted to move to NYC to pursue a higher degree in social work.
How and why did you decide to switch careers and pursue your creative passions?
I was a 25-year-old social worker living in New York City working with drug-addicted adolescents, so I started making jewelry at night to calm my nerves. I wore the necklaces and started getting stopped in the street with people asking to buy them. From that a business was born.
Switching from a professional career to a creative one was quite the leap! How did you find the courage to make the transition?
I did both jobs for a while since I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to support myself as a jewelry designer. Luckily (or unluckily) I wasn’t making that much money as a social worker so I didn’t need to sell too many necklaces to match that! The more accolades I received from my designs and the more money I was starting to make from jewelry sales, gave me the push I needed to fully leave my job.
Within a year I quit my full-time job and launched Maya Brenner Designs. I didn’t know anything about starting a business, but I knew that I had made the right decision because I was happy and relieved.
Please share with us about the process of starting your own business from the ground up. What should an Everygirl know about becoming her own boss?
I did everything myself in the beginning. I designed and made the jewelry, took the orders, shipped, and kept the books. I was working off of my kitchen table for about 14 hours a day. And it was awesome… until I literally herniated a disc in my neck from being hunched over for hours and was forced to hire help. So, it’s best to do as much as you can on your own, but don’t hurt yourself doing it. My best advice to the Everygirl looking to start her own business is to start small—don’t feel as if you have to have a huge business overnight—and take help where you can and call in favors from everyone you know.
How did you overcome the financial hurdles of starting your own company?
Prior to leaving my full-time job, I borrowed $3,000 from my grandmother and moved in with my boyfriend. I also grew my business slowly and did not make larger financial investments until my business could afford it.
How were you able to successfully market your line of jewelry? We often hear struggles from Everygirls about trying to make their products well-known. How were you able to get MBD out there?
I quickly learned the act of the “schmooze”—giving away tons of jewelry to people I knew would wear and talk about it. I also began working with stylists who are the key to getting the jewelry on celebrities and then the magazine placements came from that.
What are the biggest rewards from being an entrepreneur? Biggest challenges?
The biggest rewards are seeing positive reactions to something that I’ve created. The biggest challenge is learning to not work all the time at something you are so passionate about.
What is the most important thing you have learned over the course of starting and running your own business?
Start small and let your business grow organically.
Did you face any significant hurdles when starting Maya Brenner Designs? How were you able to overcome them?
There are hurdles every single day. From sourcing, shipping, rising price of metals, staffing, quality control, etc. I try to stay calm and repeat to myself, “It’s just a necklace.”
What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs?
Believe in yourself and be passionate about your product or idea. And hire people who know more than you.
What does a day in the life of Maya Brenner look like?
I’m up early to check emails, social media etc. Then I get the kids to school. Since, I run my own business, I’m always working while at the same time taking care of my other responsibilities (kids, house, dog). My offices are in downtown LA but I try to work from home as much as possible or even in my car! I spend a lot of time in my car on my iPhone, answering e-mails, etc.
How do you balance your career, creative passions, and family?
I’m not sure I balance it all! I try to explain to my kids that even though I’m home with them that I might need to check an e-mail or make a phone call, and my office knows not to call me during dinner time. But it’s a constant work in progress.
What has been the most rewarding experience since starting Maya Brenner Designs?
My jewelry was featured on The Today Show last year, and we sold 25,000 necklaces in one day! I’m also particularly proud of my design partnership with Stella & Dot.
What advice would you give your 23-year-old self?
Your passion or hobby can actually be your career!