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Jewelry Designer Marla Aaron On Bucking Tradition By Selling Her Collection In A Vending Machine

People

In 2013, Marla Aaron walked away from a powerful job in global communications to launch her eponymous jewelry collection. Aaron knew in her gut that her jewelry designs—designs she was fiercely passionate about—were destined for success. “You're a blind idiot when you create something that you're proud of. You believe, ‘This is so amazing—everybody will want it,’’ Aaron says. “I thought I’d just pitch the top twenty-five independent jewelry stores in the country and they’d buy my line.” But, Aaron quickly found out that it would take more than a great pitch letter. “Naivety is a good thing sometimes. I had no idea that stores wouldn’t blindly respond to my emails. I was nobody and one of zillions pitching new products.” When Instagram first launched, Aaron used it to showcase and tell the stories of her brand. She didn’t realize the impact it would have, expanding her reach and building her devoted following. Today Aaron’s collection is sold online and in select stores across the United States, the Middle East, Asia and Europe—and one very special vending machine.


Aaron was on a business trip in Japan when she made a startling discovery that would pivot the brand strategy behind her collection. Vending machines were everywhere! They took over every street corner with people lining up to buy everything from the highbrow to the low brow, from the pocket-sized to the humongous. A lightbulb went off and Aaron knew she had to shake up her brand strategy and find a way to sell her eclectic pieces in vending machines too.

“Our jewelry is about playing,” Aaron explains. “People buy our locks and chains and then add their own pieces. It becomes a very playful experience even though it's fine jewelry. That was in my head as soon as I saw the vending machines.”

Marla Aaron. Photo Courtesy of Marla Aaron Jewelry

But, how does one even begin to find a vending machine that sells luxury goods? Aaron started where most brilliant ideas are born: Google. She typed in “vending machine makers” and easily got the information she needed. That, however, was the easiest part of the process. Not only was it an uphill battle to build a vending machine with the right aesthetic but also it was tough to find it the perfect home.

Aaron had many deal breakers. The machine had to live in her home base, New York City and placing the machine in an obvious location—like a jewelry store—wasn’t an option. “Many stores were very interested—but putting a vending machine in a non-jewelry environment? That was actually harder to achieve,” Aaron explains. It took almost two years to get the machine built and find it the perfect home. “I wanted to offer consumers a non-traditional, fine jewelry experience. If I put the machine in a jewelry store, I’d just be creating a silly promotional experience.” Aaron really wanted the vending machine to reside on a street corner like it would in Japan—but with the need for electricity and WiFi, that was simply not possible.

“What I always assume will be the easiest part of something, actually becomes the hardest part. I thought building the vending machine would be the hard part, and finding a place for it would be easy,” Aaron explains. “Nothing could have been further from the truth. I sat in many meetings where people looked at me like I was out of my mind.” But, Aaron thinks if she goes for vending machine number two that it will be an easier sell. “People never want to try something different,” she says. “No one wants to be the first.”

Medium Stoned Lock. Photo Courtesy of Marla Aaron Jewelry

Except for Aaron.

Becoming the first luxury jewelry designer with a vending machine became her mission. So, she knew it was meant to be when one of her best customers floated the idea of the Brooklyn Museum and made the introduction. “For me, the Brooklyn Museum was just a total slam dunk,” Aaron says. “When you partner with the right people, when someone really grasps your idea—it's very easy.”

Then there was figuring out the branding via the vending machine. Even though Aaron’s jewelry collection falls under the “luxury brand” umbrella—she actually takes issue with that distinction. “I loathe the word luxury. It sounds so separatist,” she explains. And, watching the vending machine become a reality meant redefining the luxury experience. “At first, I thought the machine should be lined in suede to look like a jewelry box and I knew that having the customer receive a beautifully packaged product was very important. But, the luxury experience is really about having a sense of choice and telling a story.” The choice her vending machine customers have is seven products from her collection ranging in price from $100-$1500 dollars. Aaron’s story is told through a video that plays on the machine’s screen.

That unwavering persistence, a mandatory part of making visions a reality, is nothing new for Aaron. She admits that her approach to business might be relentless and annoying—with no middle ground.

“I’m like a dog with a bone. I think, to a certain degree, you have to be that way to get things done. It's very easy to not get things done,” she says. “It’s much harder to bring things to fruition. We're constantly developing new locks for the collection yet I'm always putting things in the pipeline. Not all those ideas in the pipeline will see the light of day, but you just have to be relentless and keep going. You can’t make things happen by half-assing it.”

And, the vending machine isn’t the only way Aaron has fought to break the mold. Her personal #LockYourMom project is a cornerstone of her business, giving away a unique lock (worth $150 and not available for purchase) to single moms on Mother’s Day. “I was a single mom for the first six years of my son’s life. I worked fulltime and it was very difficult. Mother’s Day was such a bittersweet experience. My son was too young to get me anything and I felt like everyone around me was getting presents,” she explains.

Knowing that unique experience firsthand made Aaron want to support that community. Giving away locks was the perfect fit. “It's a small, silver heart with an exclamation point on it to represent the ‘uh’ of motherhood,” she explains. To receive a lock, people write in with their own story or nominate someone they’d like to bestow with the honor. Last Mother’s Day, Aaron gave away 200 locks. She hopes to top that number in 2018.

For now, the vending machine has turned Aaron into somewhat of a rock star among the design community—and she wants to inspire them to take risks and think outside the box too. “The response has been extraordinary and I'm anxious to share our learnings with the design community,” Aaron says. “I think it's important. There are very interesting applications to explore with vending machines. Can you imagine a craft fair with just vending machines?”

Yes, yes we can—, especially if Aaron is the brains behind it. Her master plan is to continuously challenge the ways you’re “supposed” to build a brand and business. “I don't want to do anything traditional. I want us to be different, I want us to stand out,” she says. “How we're building my business and selling fine jewelry? I hope we're doing a modern interpretation of it.”

Career

Male Managers Afraid To Mentor Women In Wake Of #MeToo Movement

Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.


In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.

What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.

Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.

Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.

While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.

According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.

In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.


Source-Alex Brandon, AP

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.

Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.

The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.