Why Shilpa Yarlagadda is running rings around the world
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Aged just 24, Shilpa Yarlagadda has a resumé and an address book that most take decades to accrue. Four years ago, sitting in her Harvard dorm room, she co-founded Shiffon, a jewellery company with a single product – the Duet Pinky Ring. A spiral design with two stones – representing a “pinky promise” for women to support one another – it was worn by Emma Watson, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley on various red carpets before Shiffon even had a proper website. Better yet, it gives 50 per cent of its proceeds to female-led startups via its non-profit venture capital foundation, Startup Girl. Since then, many more names including Michelle Obama, Cynthia Erivo, Serena Williams and, most recently, the Duchess of Sussex on the cover of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” have been seen with the Duet too.
Yarlagadda has still not completed her degree because of Shiffon’s success; she shuttles between Boston and New York City, where she has an apartment that functions as an office. When I speak with her, she is with one of her jewellers and regales me with tales of a whirlwind week that began in Florence for the launch of Lavazza’s “I Can Change the World” 2022 calendar (she’s September), then back to Harvard for classes, and on to New York for a shoot. She speaks very quickly – sometimes it seems her brain outpaces her words – but always comes back to the brand.
“I love jewellery, but I don’t see this as just jewellery,” she confirms. “What we’re actually trying to do is to create a culture around entrepreneurship, around a community for women.” (Shiffon is so named because it is Yarlagadda’s mother’s favourite fabric – but also because it “sounds like ‘The shift is on’”.)
Startup Girl has helped fund 11 women-led companies to date, including Sea Star, a water-shoe company; Pepper, which makes underwear; and Bouches, which makes South African leather goods. It also boasts a board of mentors including photographers Inez & Vinoodh, leadership expert Ella Robertson of One Young World and star stylists such as Ty Hunter (who works with Beyoncé, among others) and Sarah Slutsky – in typical gutsy fashion, Yarlagadda cold-emailed the latter two to get the meetings.
Yarlagadda’s confidence and entrepreneurial nature was, in part, instilled and nurtured by her childhood in Silicon Valley: Los Altos Hills, her hometown, has a population of just over 8,000, yet still ranked fifth in Bloomberg’s annual “100 Richest Places” in 2020, with notable residents including Israeli-Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and Google co-founder Sergey Brin. The eldest of two daughters born to a VP of engineering at Yahoo and a doctor, she recalls taking typing classes in second grade and programming robots from an early age. But it was while visiting relatives in India that she learnt to appreciate creating and purchasing jewellery in a country which was, for centuries, the world’s sole supplier of diamonds.
“You’re not going to a store and seeing ready-made things – everything is custom-made. You’re selecting materials and really creating it yourself,” she says. “I have done that since I was a little kid – it’s a whole process. And it’s a really strong bonding experience for women.”
At Gunn High School in Palo Alto, Yarlagadda joined the Space Cookies, an all-girls robotics team sponsored by NASA and the Girl Scouts. “NASA donated half a hangar to our team for us to build our robot, and that’s when I got to meet so many incredible role models and mentors who were experts in tech and business,” she recalls. It spurred her on to found the ed-tech company Club Academia at just 15 years old, with a few friends from her chemistry class; this created videos by students, for students, to explain tough concepts they were studying. But by the time she enrolled at Harvard as a computer science major, women were very much on her mind – specifically the lack of them in prominent positions in tech. Bolstered by Emma Watson’s speech to the United Nations and, later, the then Meghan Markle’s, she made her mind up to “create impact” via “a for-profit organisation focused on doing right in the world”.
Her initial ideas were, she admits, “all over the place”. It was guidance from Slutsky – now the creative director of jewellery at Shiffon – that helped her focus. (The stylist told Yarlagadda that she would need to find a voice – it couldn’t just be, “I like jewellery, I like fashion, so I thought I’d make my own.”) Making a ring made sense: “It is the coolest accessory,” she says. “And people wear it every day. I really wanted to tell a story that is meaningful and empowering – have something where the women who wear it become spokespeople for the mission. I can’t do that with something they wear once every month.”
Working together, she and Slutsky developed the adjustable, spiral design of the ring, a supply chain that is focused on women, an ethical approach and an attainable price point (which ranges from $155 to $780). She also uses diamonds that meet the Kimberley Process certification requirements, eschewing lab-grown because “when you look at those companies – where they are founded, and who they are really benefiting – it’s not actually spreading the impact to the people I want it to.”
Shiffon’s second product after the Duet arose from a collaboration with Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote foundation during the 2020 US presidential elections. Yarlagadda had been surprised when Obama wore the ring on the Jimmy Fallon show; even more so when she wore it again to the Grammys. “I remember somebody had asked me if I thought anyone would wear Shiffon to the Grammys, and I was like: ‘No, I have a midterm on that day.’”
Later, she reached out to the former first lady’s stylist Meredith Koop (also now a mentor) and pitched the idea of hoop earrings, which Obama often wears, as a symbol of the hoops women have had to jump through to gain basic rights. 19.65 per cent of the profits from the sales of Classic Duet Hoops (priced at $380 for sterling silver and $1,965 for 14-carat yellow gold) are used to fund female entrepreneurs; it represents the year 1965 when women of colour gained the right to vote.
Next up, Shiffon is set to introduce the Huggie, a small hoop set with the brand’s trademark big and small diamonds – only the third introduction in four years. “Let’s not make stuff just to make stuff. The world has enough stuff in it,” says Slutsky. “Shiffon is very thoughtful about every new product or concept. It is a one-by-one rollout of coveted pieces. And they are coveted because they stand for something the wearer believes in.” As for Yarlagadda, once she has completed her degree next year, she plans to turn Shiffon into a heritage brand. “I think success should grow with you,” she decides. “You get better at knowing how to be impactful over time.”