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Small Business | LEARNING CURVE: BREAKTHRU UNLIMITED

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Jewelry Firm Welds Politics and Art

July 16, 1996

When Vivian Shimoyama left management consulting to found Breakthru Unlimited, she had a more important goal than just making money: She wanted to increase public awareness about the dearth of women and minorities in the upper echelons of business and politics. Shimoyama leveraged that political message into a successful product line. She was interviewed by Karen Kaplan.

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I had an idea about promoting the advancement of women through a visual piece, so I designed the "Glass Ceiling" brooch. It is made of pieces of broken glass all fused together. I wanted to increase awareness about the invisible barrier called the glass ceiling, which prevents women and minorities from rising to the top levels of business, politics and nearly all facets of life.

The plan was to get this brooch on people around the country and have them talk about the message behind it. The main goal was not just to build a business venture, but to get the pins out there to spread the word.

I gave the pieces to specific women as a way of saying thank you for helping women to break through barriers. Among others, I gave pins to Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole. Just as I had hoped, the women wore the pins and spread the message.

I felt there would be advantages to selling a product with a message. But because the message was politically charged, it wasn't well-received through basic retail channels. A few retailers told me flat out that they wouldn't carry my product because it was political.

So I focused on women's organizations. I went to conferences around the country and sold the brooches direct. The response was great, and I even got suggestions for earrings, picture frames, paperweights and other products. When I was trying to get that initial awareness, that was a very important market. Now I mostly sell through distributors and direct mail.

I started with this right before any of the large stores were selling AIDS pins or T-shirts to promote breast cancer awareness. By now I think retailers are a lot more receptive to "cause products."

Over time, the symbolism of the pins broadened to encompass more people. I heard from people who are disabled who like the symbolism of breaking through barriers, because it represents doors opening for them. I even heard from people who said they liked the symbolism because they want to break through and be the top salesman in their organization.

When I first started this company, there were people who knew what the glass ceiling was, and they immediately took to the piece. But for the most part, I had to go through statistics and tell stories so that people would know what the barriers were.

I suspected this would be more difficult than a typical product launch and it was. But I still think it's worth it. I'm not just developing a line of jewelry. The more people I can have wearing these products, the more people there will be delivering the message. I want this to be a vehicle to bring about awareness and get people to take action.

On how she intended to spread her message . . .

"The plan was to get this brooch on people around the country and have them talk about the message behind it."

On the challenges of trying to sell a product with a message . . .

"A few retailers told me flat out that they wouldn't carry my product because it was political. So I focused on women's organizations."

On the main goal of launching her business . . .

"I want this to be a vehicle to bring about awareness and get people to take action."

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AT A GLANCE

Company Name: Breakthru Unlimited

Owner: Vivian Shimoyama

Nature of business: Jewelry and other products with a political message

Location: Manhattan Beach

Year founded: 1992

Number of employees: 1

Projected annual sales: $150,000

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