Pamela Norton-Shelpuk is founder and CEO of Liberti, a company that’s changing the way jewelry is made. Among other things, Liberti sells American-made, “grown” diamonds, creating a market to combat the negative impacts of diamond mining on people and the environment in other parts of the world. Liberti, which was named for the Statue of Liberty and all she represents, also trains and employs refugees, giving them the skills needed to work and live in the United States. Pam calls herself a social entrepreneur because, “It’s looking deeper and saying, not only how can we make a great product and resonate with people, but all of the elements that go into the product or service have a focus on the environment, on people, on bettering life in general.”
How would you describe social entrepreneurship?
It’s in the introduction of sharing who we are as a company. We make beautiful jewelry, and we’re committed to manufacturing and producing and creating products here in this country. But whatever vendor we work with, we want to ensure they have that like-minded thinking. They might not be doing it today but might be so empowered and excited by what we’re doing that it creates this multiplier effect. That’s what we’re doing in essence: creating this new way of thinking of how we’re working with other people.
Tell me about some of the refugees you’re helping.
We have been focused in the last five years with a group that has come in from Nepal. Colorado is getting a large community. They have come here to this country with nothing and have been told in many cases they’re not wanted. Most of them don’t even have a birth certificate; they don’t even know the day they were born. These women are so beautiful. As we’re expanding in Los Angeles, some of the new hires are coming from Central America, Latin America, Syria.
How do you train the refugees?
We’re trying to bring on stonecutters for our new diamond line, our Liberti diamonds that we’re growing here in the United States. Hopefully there’s a new demand for product - so we need stonecutters. Right now everything is being cut in India or China. This apprenticeship will help onboard some new refugees so they can learn to be a stonecutter. It’s a very valued skill.
What does it mean to grow a diamond?
It’s pretty exciting. We take a seed of an existing diamond, in a foundry in San Francisco. In nature, diamonds are very deep in the earth, and under intense pressure and heat, they grow over a million years. So, to grow a diamond, you basically create this intense heat, and carbon just starts and a plasma gas forms over it, just like in nature. It just starts growing. It’s kind of like baking a cake. You don’t know exactly what’s going to come out after 4-6 weeks. A carat or two will grow, and at that point, I think of it like a hydroponic tomato or a cultured pearl. A cultured pearl is grown in a farm that isn’t in the environment out in nature. The diamond still has to be cut, and it goes through the same process of certification, of color, clarity, just as a mined diamond.
The difference is that a mined diamond obviously came out of a mined environment. It takes over 300 tons of rock to just get one carat mined diamond.
Because of the scarcity of diamonds – and because we know the whole association with blood diamonds and the effects it has on the environment and lives – we believe growing diamonds in this country appeals to women who are socially conscious, eco-conscious. We’re creating a whole new market in this country for a product that didn’t exist and does now: it’s an American cultivated diamond. It’s exciting. It’s chemically, physically the same but without the harmful effects on nature and life. And they’re so pretty!
When you were graduating from school, what did you think you were going to do with your life?
I ended up going to college in Japan. I was totally fascinated with other cultures. I just wanted to see the world. I really wanted to work in an international business environment. My grandfather was an amazing man; he was totally self-made. He started up a meat packing company here in Denver, and he was the first to export US beef to Japan and Asia. So I saw this amazing man who was bigger than life. He worked really hard, and nothing had been given to him. So, I had visions like that, I wanted to be in international business. At the time, even coming out of school, my opportunities were, I could be a flight attendant or I could be a secretary. That didn’t interest me at all. I needed something much more stimulating.
I worked with a new startup medical company, and that’s really where I learned so much because I had to wear so many hats. Then I worked for United Airlines for 10 years. We launched new products and services, and that gave me that corporate marketing perspective I needed. My mind was constantly flooded with ideas.
Where do you find strength and inspiration?
When you’re an entrepreneur, it is so lonely. So often you’re alone with all these ideas, and then you think they’re crazy. And then when you tell people, sometimes I say, “I know this might sound crazy but….” Because it’s such a lonely place, you have to fill yourself with people who are positive. I’ve realized over the years you’re going to have your naysayers. You’re going to have your people who say “Hey, hey, you’ve got to think about your family,” or “You don’t have many more years to work. You’ve got to think about your retirement. You’ve got to get serious.” So positive people – and not people who are drinking the Kool Aid. They’re calling you on it. I have a group of phenomenal women who, over the years, just have been my rock. They have been incredible. And, at the core of who I am, I have very strong faith, I believe in a higher being and I talk to him every day.
What are one or two strategies or tactical things that you do that propels your mission or vision forward?
For years, I was very afraid to write things down because of fear of failure. At the end of the day, I think that’s at the core of so much of what we all deal with. And by putting something out there and writing it down, I really have to work towards that because I really put it out there. So, I had it in my head, but I said, I’m officially going to write it down. It’s really giving me strength to continue to step forward with those goals. I tell anyone who’s worked with me, I tell my kids, you’ve got to write it down.
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