Proud Limpongpan: founder, Cerimani

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Prior to founding her Cerimani, Proud was working on accelerating the global operational transformation of John Hardy, a private equity –backed jewelry brand. She is interested in the intersection between craftsmanship and innovation, and particularly wants to use that as a driving force to change a lot of the jewelry manufacturing industry. She has also worked at Kate Spade’s & Company’s Tech Product Strategy Group where a lot of her initiatives have been adopted and can be seen in stores today. Prior to business school, Proud was a consultant at Boston Consulting Group, where she established senior client-development initiatives in the Telecom, Media, and Technology sector. Currently residing in between New York and Bangkok, she regularly supports charitable organizations and causes such as Action4Diabetics, Resolution Project, and the Thai Young Philanthropist Network. Proud received an MBA from Harvard Business School and BSc in Economics from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

How did you get into the industry?

I first started my career in management consulting for telecommunications, technology, and hospitality companies before working in an operating role for a global jewelry company through a private equity fund. That gave me a foray into the jewelry industry and how interlinked it is to Thailand, where I’m originally from. I was surprised to find out how many well-known brands out there produce there, yet no one gives the country and its workers' much credit for it.  I’ve also become personally interested in the intersection between social ventures, craftsmanship and technology/innovation, and try to bring that out in Cerimani.

Any emerging industry trends?

There has definitely been a strong direct-to-consumer trend growing in all aspects of retail. The wholesale industry is suffering, and many new brands (like Cerimani) have now opted to have an e-commerce / digital-only presence instead of having to pitch to department stores. There’s also a high growth of mobile shopping, and reduced time spent on each webpage. That means brands have to focus a lot on the customer journey and tightening the sales funnel in order to succeed. Cerimani tries to make the shopping process as seamless as possible, with very little risk for our customers when they want to order our pieces. We have a 30-day free-returns policy, and a one year warranty. We can also custom-make any of our existing designs, within two weeks. Throughout the year, we also hold trunk shows within the Tri-State region to be able to be in direct touch with our new and existing customers, and hear direct feedback.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

The typical jewelry customers are very busy people and are overwhelmed by choice. They are always looking for something different and expressive. They're also having to make trade-offs between buying something like jewelry which is a 'want' rather than a 'need'. Social consciousness will be the new price sensitivity. Neilson’s Global Survey on Corporate Social Responsibility found that craftsmanship and social responsibility influences around 70% of purchases. Furthermore, 81% of millennials expect their favorite brands to make public declarations of corporate citizenships including investing in the betterment of society and involve customer in their good works. It is definitely an opportunity for the jewelry industry – to challenge itself to become more socially conscious and more sustainable. People have started asking ‘who made my clothes’, they will start to ask ‘who made my jewelry’ more and more.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

It all started when I started feeling that no longer wanted to work for global companies that did not give true credit to those who really work tirelessly to manufacture the products they sell. Nor did I want to continue to see Thai heritage products copied and repackaged into brands that markup 10x margins to their customers. So I decided to start my own brand, Cerimani. The brand believes in using the power of fashion and beauty to drive sustainability and empowerment for their Thai communities. The whole purpose of the CERIMANI is to make a real difference and help empower people. This can be explained through the meaning of its name where ‘CERI’ comes from the Sanskrit word for ‘freedom’ and MANI’ means ‘jewel’.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

We recently began our foray into fashion technology with our partner, Revolar. We introduce an innovative line of jewelry designed to encase the REVOLAR Instinct-a multi-featured personal safety device- within a beautifully handcrafted locket designed by us. The lockets are designed to be worn as pendant necklaces. Each of the two styles is made of sterling silver paired with beautiful stones into which the Revolar Instinct Personal Safety Device securely fits. As part of a beautiful piece of jewelry, the REVOLAR Instinct remains easily accessible, simple to use and yet discreet.  REVOLAR’S revolutionary    1-2-3 Click Alert system provides every day functionality to users. When pressed, GPS location is sent to pre-selected contacts.  Think beautiful Life Alert that is done IMMEDIATELY without fumbling for a phone or opening an app, with a GPS location. We’re looking for more technological partners that would like to develop something beautiful, yet extremely useful.

Although the brand was started and launched in NY, we are planning to bring the brand back to Asia where half of it’s inspiration came from (the other half being NY Art Deco Architecture). We’re looking to moving into travel retail, a growing retail sector, targeting Asian aircrafts as our outlets.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

We measure success by how much impact has been made each year. As a company we aim to open vocational schools in the Northern region of Thailand in the next 5 years; we want to make sure that jewelry made in Thailand is held in the highest esteem. This sense of pride will ensure that the techniques and skills will always be preserved. We want to provide access to an alternative career to the poorest region of the country so that children will not go into the grey economy. We have started at the root cause of why schools do not exist – people cannot afford them due to health and monetary issues. Partnering with the Karen Hilltribes Trust, for every jewelry piece purchased, the equivalent of $50 goes into our fund that translates to bringing 1 person’s access to water for 1 year. Last year, we successfully funded our first village’s septic water tank along with 4 toilets, improving the lives of 140 villagers. This means the villagers can have time to go to school instead of walking kilometers to get access to water and have fresh clean water right at their village which reduces the rates of typhoid.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

It’s hard to pinpoint the most difficult moment when starting your business means there’s always ups and downs – there continues to be many downs in each day. The most important thing to learn is to choose which fires to extinguish at the moment, which to ignore, and which at first seems like a fire but if you take a step back, it’s actually a light at the end of the tunnel to a problem you didn’t realize you have. For me, I think the most difficult decision is to not choose to go the usual startup route and raise money. We’re completely self-funded, which means we have to think hard about each dollar we spend, but that also means that if we do fundraise in the future, it would have already been for a well-proven business.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

As with many online brands, we aim to make sure the customer’s ordering, receiving, and return process are as seamless as possible. We provide a reply to all customer service emails within 24 hours, with most replies answered within 12 hours. This has already been taken as a given. In a world where boundaries between countries are starting to loosen, and customers are traveling more, we are hoping to provide the extra experience where any customers visiting Thailand and go beyond the online experience and visit one of our manufacturing workshops and/or one of the villages that we helped funded.

How do you motivate others?

The best way is to tell them about the Cerimani story. What inspires us, and why we do what we do. It is not enough to just aim to make as much sales as possible. The ‘why’ behind things are so important these days, and it is important that we stick to it rather than take short cuts or use it as a marketing message to attract customers.

Career advice to those in your industry?

Not being afraid to make the jump into a completely new industry, as long as the reason for jumping into it is something you care deeply about. Being in a new industry, it also means not being afraid to pivot when needed. It’s like buying a stock and setting yourself a limit to when should be the most loss you can absorb and to just sell it, instead of waiting for its price to go back up again. It helps to surround yourself with people within the industries and outsiders who you respect and can give an outside-in perspective, since it is often hard to know when you need to pivot.