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Ann Skydell Harmon, Founder of Ann-Made, LLC (INTERVIEW)

Upcycled Social Cause Jewelry

— March 28, 2012 — Social Good
Ann Skydell Harmon is a jewelry designer and the founder of Ann-Made, LLC, an upcycled accessory line (think bracelets made from recycled beer can tabs), which we recently profiled on Social Business. In addition to saving waste materials from the landfill, Ann-Made also supports her community by purchasing aluminum tabs from Ronald McDonald House to help support their charitable efforts. Ann pays significantly more for the tabs than the foundation would get from a recycler, and any tabs she doesn't use are donated back to them so they can re-sell them to the recycler.

In her interview answers below Ann shares the thrills of being a social entrepreneur, the challenges and the incredible rewards, like receiving the gold level Green America Seal of Approval.

4 Questions With Ann Skydell Harmon, Founder of Ann-Made Art

1. How did the idea for the business model come about?
After being in the graphic design field for 20 some odd years, I stumbled into teaching art. I had thoroughly enjoyed being an art director and didn't think anything could make me as happy... until I found teaching. I was a substitute teacher for a year or so and then was hired as a special ed art teacher at an alternative school for emotionally-disturbed teens. Previous teachers for these students had done the minimum with them. I took it as a personal challenge to raise the bar and push these kids to be creative thinkers. This wasn't just for art's sake but also to help them be better creative problem solvers so they could function better out of the classroom.

I often incorporated environmental lessons into our projects and was sure they would love making jewelry out of soda can tabs. What better way to teach creativity, and how important it is to use previously manufactured items? Although my hopes were high, the lesson proved to be too complex for them and I moved on to something else. I did, however, start to make some of the jewelry myself for the other teachers and my two teenage daughters. The response was over the top. A local gallery took them in and sold them faster than I could make them. Over the next two years I taught during the week and did over 80 retail juried art shows on the weekends. Several galleries and Whole Foods Markets also sold them.

In 2009 the school I worked at decided these really special kids didn't need art (unbelievable!) and eliminated the art department... along with me. I was devastated for the kids and for myself. It took quite a while before I was able to brush myself off and see what was right in front of me. I decided to put all my energy behind this business and see where it would lead.

In January 2010 I took the plunge and exhibited at my first wholesale gift show in Philadelphia, PA. I added over 50 new accounts in just 3 days! The response was incredible. Over the last two years I've exhibited at many wholesale shows and Ann-Made has grown to having over 250 galleries, gift shops, museums, nature centers, and other retailers selling our line. Ann-Made jewelry now sells in shops in the U.S., the Caribbean, Costa Rica and Finland. Many new accounts also come to me when shop owners see our work in other stores and realize immediately our line is something they have to have. It's been a bit of a whirlwind but terribly exciting too!

2. How did you decide to join the social business sector?
I knew when I started Ann-Made that it had to follow my own personal code of ethics for the planet and people. Green America is an awesome organization that meticulously reviews businesses for their commitment to people and planet. I got in touch with them and applied for membership. After a three or four month screening process, Ann-Made was awarded the gold level Green America Seal of Approval. We were blown away and so very honored!

3. How do you get your inspiration?
Having always had my hand in one form of art and design or another, looking at things in the world and seeing them in another way has always come naturally to me. My ideas seem to come in spurts and I can't get them realized fast enough. Usually one idea spills into another, into another, into another and so on, until I have exactly what I want.

4. How do you reset yourself to be creative? Do you have any rituals?
Creativity is a funny thing and it's definitely hard to force. I try to find times that I'm most relaxed and can let my mind wander. Running a business is tough work and being creative in the midst of it is sometimes challenging. I will often set artificial deadlines for things that have to be done to clear the slate for creative time. It really helps to have a block of time to be creative with no other demands. Not always easy but it seems to work for me.

Since starting this business I have met some amazing people and organizations doing awesome things for the planet, our environment and our communities. It has opened up so many interesting channels to me. And as with graphic design and teaching, I never thought I could be as happy -- but here I am, and I love it!

There's no question that you must have a passion for what you do. Success is never certain but being passionate about your endeavors certainly stacks the cards in the right direction!