We are thrilled to introduce you to Yen Chee, a talented jewelry artist and the driving force behind Yen Chee Design. Though the arts have always played a central role in her life, she spent her college career planning on becoming a dentist. Working at art and frame shops after graduation inspired Yen to go back to school for interior design, and later on, a class through Minneapolis Community Education helped her discover her talent for creating beautiful and distinctive jewelry pieces. Though the nature of her work has varied throughout the years, Yen has always followed her own path, forging one for herself when there wasn’t one right in front of her. Keep reading to learn more about Yen’s unique story and her insight on turning a creative outlet into a thriving business.
Name: Yen Chee
Business: Yen Chee Design
Location: Golden Valley, MN
(I work from home, so I don’t have a store, but my jewelry can be found at the Walker Art Center, the Weisman Art Museum Shop, the Grand Hand Gallery, Waters of Superior, and my online store.)
Year Started: 2009
Website + Facebook + Instagram
Tell us about your company.
My company, Yen Chee Design, designs and creates modern jewelry. Since jewelry is such a wonderful avenue for self-expression, my goal is to create pieces that speak to the wearer on a deep level. I want to make jewelry that you love to wear, that makes you feel confident, self-assured, and ready to show up as the best version of you.
I use only the highest quality materials, high vibrational stones, and unique modern designs. My jewelry is intended to guide women on their journeys toward balance and harmony in their everyday lives. I hope that because my jewelry combines the power of healing stones with simple, elegant designs, it will allow your authentic beauty to shine both inside and out.
The women who wear my jewelry are ones for whom this quote resonates: “I am confident because I can admit who I am, what I’ve done, and love myself for who I’ve become.” (Anonymous)
What was your first job growing up, and what did you learn from it?
I can’t remember which was first—it was either working as a professional violinist for the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra or scooping ice cream and making malts at the Portland Malt Shoppe. Both taught me very different skills. I was one of the youngest members of the orchestra and performed with many full-time musicians. I was in high school at the time, so I also had to balance evening rehearsals with homework. I learned a lot about how to act within a professional environment, especially since community members were paying to attend performances. It was great being a part of a cohesive group and knowing that each person had a small part in making the entire orchestra come together.
At the Portland Malt Shoppe, I learned all about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into successfully running a small business—and the secret ingredient to making a great malt! Interacting with customers and serving them directly taught me how to be comfortable dealing with people and how to provide great, friendly service.
Tell us about your career path before starting your company, and how it got you to where you are today.
I graduated from Boston University with a degree in psychology, and I spent my entire college career thinking that I wanted to be a dentist. After graduating, though, I moved back to Minneapolis and started repping my father’s artwork while working in art and frame shops. My father is a watercolor artist, so the arts have always been a huge part of my life.
One of those early post-college jobs was in the art and custom framing department at Dayton’s. There, I’d often work with residential interior designers who needed artwork for their clients. I loved how much creativity interior design allowed for, and this experience piqued my interest in the field. It also inspired me to find a career in which I could interact with people one-on-one.
I realized that I wanted to follow a new path, so I went back to school for another four-year degree at the University of Minnesota. After graduating, I worked as an interior designer in both residential and commercial firms—though mostly at commercial architecture firms—for nearly a decade.
I wanted to find a creative outlet outside of my 9-5 job, so I enrolled in a jewelry metalsmith class through Minneapolis Community Education. I’ve always been drawn to jewelry—I’ve bought many rings at local craft fairs, and I love admiring the jewelry in cases at museum shops.
Around that same time, I attended a work event hosted by Knoll (a furniture and fabric vendor), who wanted to see if the architects and designers in attendance had any creative side projects. I showed them some of the rings and necklaces I had made in the community ed class, and to my surprise, a lot of people were really interested in purchasing my pieces. Before that, I had only made a few custom rings and necklaces for myself, but that experience ended up being a catalyst and made me wonder if I could start making jewelry for a living.
During my day job as an interior designer, I’d notice my mind wandering toward jewelry. I’d jot down new ideas for rings and other jewelry and get excited to work on those after a long day at work. I longed for more freedom in my day-to-day life and didn’t like feeling that I had to be at my desk billing time all day long. I yearned to create on a deeper level.
At the height of the recession, the architecture firm I was at needed to downsize, and I was let go. That ended up being one of the most memorable days of my life. I don’t think I would’ve been brave enough to simply quit my job and start my own jewelry business, but by being laid-off, I was able to collect unemployment. I used a portion of that money to start my new business, and though I continued to do some interior design projects to support the company in the beginning, I decided to focus solely on jewelry design after the first few years.
Now, I’m coming up on my tenth year in business, which means I’ve been creating jewelry for as long as I was an interior designer!
What is a typical day like for you?
On a typical day, I wake up and have breakfast with my three-year-old daughter while my husband drops our six-year-old son off at the bus stop on his way to work. I check my email while my daughter watches Curious George and Daniel Tiger. Depending on the day of the week, we might have dance or music class. On the days we don’t, we have “Mommy and Bebe school”. Then, we eat lunch, and I try to get orders prepped or jewelry made. I’ll go downstairs to my studio to get some work done while my daughter plays.
By 4 p.m., I need to pick my son up at the bus stop, give him a snack, and start prepping for dinner. My husband usually comes home around 6 p.m., and we have dinner as a family. We make sure that my son does his homework, spend a little time watching T.V., then give the kids a bath and put them to bed. Depending on the deadlines I have, I’ll stay up late getting work accomplished. It’s much easier for me to work while everyone is asleep!
Tell us about a hard time in your life, career or personal. What did you learn from it or how did it make you stronger?
After my daughter was born, I had really bad arthritis symptoms, which made it hard to walk and nearly impossible to snap my daughter’s onesies. Looking back, I’m not quite sure how I even did certain things—we tend to be much stronger than we know! This experience taught me about the importance of maintaining good health and taking care of yourself. When you’re dealing with a health issue, it really puts everything else in perspective—you feel inspired to live your life with integrity, commit yourself to the things you love, and really enjoy life to the fullest.
I’m still dealing with arthritis and have very stiff hands, but I’ve taken many steps to get stronger and feel better. I take things one day at a time and do the best I can to be there for my family.
What advice or tips would you give to a new business owner?
Start out with a vision board and imagine what your ideal life would look like. Figure out what kind of business goals you need to achieve to live your best life. Sometimes entrepreneurs get caught up in trying to do it all, so they get burnt out working without a clear vision in mind. If you start with the big picture and set achievable goals, you can work towards them without exhausting yourself by working too hard and not really getting anywhere.
Reaching out to experts in different fields— for example, accountants, photographers, graphic designers, etc.—will free up your time to do what you excel at. Take advantage of their expertise and know that they are worth their weight in gold.
Another tip is to jot down the top three things you want to accomplish at the beginning of each day and three larger goals at the beginning of each month. It’s great to break big goals down into doable action items—that way, it doesn’t get overwhelming.
Also, be discerning about who you let into your space—after all, you only have so much time in a day to foster relationships. It’s said that the five closest people in your life are a reflection of yourself. If any of those relationships no longer bring you joy, it’s okay to let go of them. If something doesn’t seem to be going right, try to figure out why—usually there’s a valuable lesson to be learned, and oftentimes, we need to take a good look in the mirror to make the necessary changes.
What’s next for your business? What are some of your short-term or long-term goals?
I’m currently working on my new website, which will launch soon. I’m excited to be able to update new products, and I hope that the online store will help increase sales. Within the next few months, I’ll partner with artisans to help me fabricate some of my metal collections. They’ll make some of the metal rings, necklaces and bracelets for me, and I’ll finish them up through sawing and polishing. I’ll still design all the jewelry and hand-make most pieces, but this will free up some time for me. I’ll be able to focus on new work and ensure that the artisans get paid well, too.
What do you believe is your single strongest skill that’s helped you succeed?
I’d say my interpersonal skills. Making connections is critical to the success of your business. Always be of value to your customers. Have integrity and graciousness, and strive to be authentic.
I try to live by one of my favorite quotes, which is by Maya Angelou: “People may not remember exactly what you did or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”
Tell us about your life outside your business.
I love spending time with my family and friends. I’m an extrovert with a job that’s better suited for an introvert, so when I’m not working, I make it a point to spend time with other people. My husband is an architect, and we both love architecture and design, as well as trying new restaurants, visiting museums, hearing our favorite artists perform, going to the farmer’s market, and traveling.
It’s been challenging traveling while our kids are so young, but we’re going to New York this summer and will soon travel to Malaysia, where both my husband and I have family. We plan to do more traveling as the kids get older—it helps bring new life and inspiration to my work and create fun memories for my family.
QUICK FUN FACTS
What’s your favorite charity?
From the very beginning, giving back to our community has been a core value of my business. I’ve partnered with many charities, but my top three are People Serving People, Project Success, and the Ann Bancroft Foundation.
What age do you want to retire at?
I don’t have an age in mind. I love what I do and don’t want to put any limitations on that. I hope that continuing to do what I love will bring me joy throughout my life.
One travel location on your bucket list?
Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
What is your favorite blog, podcast, or book?
You Wealth Revolution is a transformational podcast, and I really enjoy tuning into it. It may be a bit woo-woo for some, but I love it.