As a teenager growing up in Saskatchewan, Rachel Mielke showed a natural flair for fashion design, but back then her creations were more of a hobby than a conscious career choice.
"I dabbled in a few different creative things, and jewellery was just one of them. I also started making my own clothes, but I wasn't doing any of it for commercial gains," recalls Ms. Mielke, founder of Regina-based Hillberg & Berk, a four-year-old designer jewellery firm with projected sales of close to $1.5-million this year.
After high school, Ms. Mielke applied to interior design school at Mount Royal College in Calgary, but her application was rejected, so she decided to stay home and study business administration at the University of Regina.
"I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, because I came from an entrepreneurial family, but I wasn't thinking about going into jewellery," she explains.
During college, Ms. Mielke continued making jewellery and, shortly after graduating, her friends convinced her to try selling some of her creations at a trade show in Regina.
"I did my first show when I was 24, and it was hugely successful," she said. "I filled several thousand dollars of orders that weekend, so that was like the turning point. I said, 'Okay, maybe I can start a profitable business making jewellery in Regina.'"
Starting under the name Urban Pearl Accessories, Ms. Mielke worked non-stop for the next two years building her company – designing and manufacturing thousands of original pieces and scouring the retail landscape for stores willing to carry her products.
In 2007, she re-launched the company as Hillberg & Berk, named in honour of her grandmother, Hilda Bergman, and her dog, Berkley.
Ms. Mielke's first big break came in 2008, when she showcased her wares at an Academy Awards gifting lounge, an opportunity that arose through her membership in the Toronto Fashion Incubator, a non-profit group dedicated to nurturing small entrepreneurs.
Ever conscious of the importance of marketing, Ms. Mielke used photos of celebrities wearing her jewellery at the Oscars to promote her company.
She followed that up with an appearance on the CBC reality TV show Dragon's Den, a move that began as a calculated effort to gain exposure for her company and ended in a lucrative $200,000 investment deal with Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist Brett Wilson.
"I was just trying to get national coverage for my brand on a startup budget. I didn't think that I would take a deal even if I was offered one," Ms. Mielke recalls. "But when Brett Wilson offered me six times valuation on my company's [annual]sales, it was something I couldn't say no to."
Too busy to handle the growing workload herself, Ms. Mielke spent the Dragon's Den seed money hiring staff, building up Hillberg & Berk's inventory and ramping up her marketing efforts.
Thanks to Mr. Wilson's connections in the entertainment industry, the company convinced celebrities such as Céline Dion, Carrie Underwood and Michelle Obama to model Hillberg & Berk jewellery.
"I think one of the things that has helped make me successful is taking advantage of those opportunities and leveraging them for even bigger things," Ms. Mielke said.
While celebrities remain the focus of Hillberg & Berk's ads, the company's campaigns have taken on an added focus on female empowerment in recent years, a dynamic that emerged from Ms. Mielke's frequent trips overseas in search of manufacturers and materials.
"I've always had a very strong desire to empower women, just through my own life experiences, and as I started to travel, I thought 'H&B is going to be my tool to do that,'" she said.
The company's spring/summer 2012 collection will feature former Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout, who was kidnapped by fundamentalist rebels in Somalia in 2008 and spent 15 months in captivity. Hillberg & Berk plans to contribute $15,000 to the Global Enrichment Fund, a charity that Ms. Lindhout founded when she was released to provide scholarship opportunities to Somali women.
With the exception of the company's flagship outlet in Regina, H&B retails exclusively through higher-end boutiques, art galleries and gift shops in about 45 locations across Canada, she says.
Ms. Mielke crafts her pieces out of sterling silver, 14-karat gold, semi-precious stones and Swarovski crystal.
"The product we sell is in a niche category of its own, and it's a little bit more contemporary than traditional jewellery," she said.
The designs are increasingly influenced by Ms. Mielke's travels, in particular to Bali, an island known for its skilled artisans. It has become the main source of silver for H&B.
Balinese workers supply most of the ear hooks, clasps, toggles and other parts, along with about 10 per cent of the company's finished products. The other 90 per cent is assembled at the company's headquarters in Regina, where Ms. Mielke employs about a dozen full-time staff.
"I like to incorporate the authentic elements of where these pieces come from, so we use beads from Bali, stones from India and even stuff from Africa that has an African look to it," she said. "The melding of all these things coming together is what makes Hillberg & Berk unique."