Jewellery entrepreneur Chupi shares her remarkable lockdown journey

Ahead of participating in this week’s IMAGE Business Summit, Chupi Sweetman-Durney reveals how the pandemic has been surprisingly fortuitous.

Chupi is on the panel of Thursday’s IMAGE Business Summit talk at 2.25pm, the theme ‘Entrepreneurship in a Time of Uncertainty.’ Tickets are available to purchase here


“On the first day that most of the company had to work from home, our digital marketing manager said, ‘Look, we’re always saying we’re a digital-first business – this is our chance to prove it.’ She was so right.”

Chupi Sweetman-Durney is describing the first lockdown, when the coronavirus pandemic sent shockwaves across every SME in the state. Managing a staff of 45, Chupi was not immune to the blind terror of what lay ahead. But while many retailers struggled to pivot online, her much-loved jewellery brand was already owning that space, and with a highly engaged social media presence to match. In-person consultations moved to virtual, with the results speaking for themselves: Chupi’s engagement sales have tripled during the crisis. 

Advertisement

Get tickets for the Image Business Summit here  

Polished Crown of Hope ring by Chupi

“I think like during most disasters, you focus on love and hope, and our business is all about that,” she says. “We’re about marking big moments and these things haven’t stopped. If anything, covid has shown us how short life is. This year has been really tough in terms of operational challenges, but in terms of sales and marketing, is has been really exciting.

“We’ve been incredibly lucky,” she adds, massively understating her considerable smarts that, even now, are frequently dismissed by men in suits as “‘a lovely lifestyle business,’ rather than a global brand, which is so bloody patronising.” 

She recounts a meeting with her bank a few years ago, in which the (elder male) manager spoke exclusively to her husband Brian, even though he isn’t involved in the finance end of the business whatsoever. “I sacked them the next day…” she adds, not without relish. (Brian juggles his role as Chupi’s chief technical officer with creative directorship of Human, a digital product design agency).

Shine on

Advertisement

Chupi’s stock in trade is in making memories: proposals, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, even divorces – emotive milestones with largely female recipients; therein lies the casual sexism, that a woman’s penchant for glitz is mere frippery. But underestimate this self-made entrepreneur at your peril, as her former bank manager might well agree.

“Visibility is really important. If you know a female entrepreneur, you’re five times more likely to start your own business”

Durney-Sweetman officially debuted Chupi in 2011 but was stealthily building her empire long before that. After six years working as Topshop’s youngest ever designer, she swapped fast fashion to train with the Irish jeweller Cormac Cuffe before launching her own eponymous brand. The first few years were tough but she and her startup team knew unequivocally there was a market for beautiful, heirloom jewellery fit for 21st century consumers. Fast forward to 2019, when she was named IMAGE Entrepreneur of the Year in the over €250k category, and now selling into 67 countries with a doubled workforce.

Get tickets for the Image Business Summit here  

Portraits of Chupi by Nathalie Marquez Courtney

 

Advertisement

Chupi credits women’s networking and mentorship programmes with giving her the opportunity to shine. “Visibility is really important for women in business,” she says. “We do what we see: if you see someone who’s self-employed, you’re more likely to be self-employed. If you know a female entrepreneur, you’re five times more likely to start your own business. What I think we’re really missing out on as female entrepreneurs is knowing other women who are interested in scaling and growing big businesses. 

“So many women start businesses where they only employ themselves and maybe one or two people – they’re very much micro enterprises. What’s going to be really amazing over the next ten years is to see them dreaming big and achieving their ambitions.”

She cites Enterprise Ireland and KPMG’s Going for Growth initiative as pivotal in her trajectory, and also recognising in the best women leaders that “kindness is not a weakness – you don’t have to go crush the enemy. You can want to win without obliterating someone else.”

Given the plethora of copycat jewellery on the market, she could be forgiven for wanting to obliterate the competition. But on imitation being the sincerest form of flattery vs fury, she is sanguine.

“It’s actually really funny, and my team gets so hurt and so offended,” she laughs. “To them it feels like someone’s stealing their homework, but I grew up in commercial fashion, where everyone was stealing each other’s ideas so I can be gracious about it. It’s also a reminder to work out what I can do better to beat them. Because I really love winning. And to be honest I’ve never seen someone copy us and do it better….”

Get tickets for the Image Business Summit here  

Open for business

Advertisement

Excellent answer. But despite the rosy, can-do veneer and playful posts on social media, she is also startlingly open, not least referencing her three-year struggle with IVF from her own Instagram account. She, in part, credits her feminist-trailblazer mum, author Rosita Sweetman, with normalising candour (“my mum is a journalist and grew up writing about our childhood and our stories”), while also acknowledging that authenticity has always been at the core of the Chupi brand.

“I know social media can be complicated but I also think it’s on us to police who we follow, who we engage with and how we behave”

“I write openly on Instagram, and always have across our channels, as I think it’s important to share our journey and what we’re doing and why,” she says, the Chupi ethos mirroring the heart-on-sleeve emotions felt by her clients at key moments in their own lives. “I think we’re so privileged to live in an era when we can connect to each other across the globe. Imagine telling someone 20 years ago that for free you can talk to people in every single country in the world? We sell into 67 countries because of Instagram and Facebook, and because of our ability to talk to people like us, who love what we love.

“I know social media can be complicated but I also think it’s on us to police who we follow, who we engage with and how we behave. Those terrible sites where people are vicious to each other, we choose to participate in that. The Daily Mail wouldn’t exist if we didn’t participate in it…”

 

I'd be Lost Without You ring by Chupi
Advertisement

Mum’s the word

Who knows what social media will become when Sweetman-Durney’s nearly-five-month-old daughter, Aya, comes of age. But Chupi hopes the world will be more accepting for all genders. 

“I think if you really want equality, it starts with paternity leave,” she says, after referencing her mum’s role within Ireland’s women’s lib movement in the 1970s, that Rosita herself admits benefitted women without children but not mothers. “For Brian and I, we are 100 per cent sharing Aya’s care and not for any other reason than we want to and because we both work for ourselves and are able to. We always said that rather than one of us working and the other one staying at home, we would both split and share our time and have been able to facilitate that. Had he worked for a big tech company, I don’t know…”

“During the first lockdown it felt like I was making decisions that would effect business for the next five years every single day. That was incredibly tough”

As well as the R-value, this year’s other R word – rollercoaster – has gleaned insightful highs as well as intense lows. For Chupi, the lockdown offered her and her team the chance to tear up the rulebook – or rather, the new business plan that was drafted earlier this year – and define what they really want to achieve. Having her first child also helped pull focus.

“For me, professionally and personally, this year has been really clarifying,” she admits. “During the first lockdown it felt like I was making decisions that would effect business for the next five years every single day. That was incredibly tough, and also I was seven months pregnant, which was extra challenging. But it also gave me real clarity, it made me really focus on what’s important and everything else has to go.”

Here’s hoping she’s on good terms with her current bank manager. 

Advertisement

Chupi is on the panel of Thursday’s IMAGE Business Summit talk at 2.25pm, the theme ‘Entrepreneurship in a Time of Uncertainty.’

Book your place on this year’s IMAGE Business Summit 2020, in partnership with PwC, which takes place online this November 18-19. Get your (virtual) seat alongside some of the world’s leading business figures, for two days of powerful discussions, interviews and masterclasses. Buy tickets here 


Read more: Chupi Sweetman, IMAGE Entrepreneur of the Year 2019: ‘If you’re thinking of starting a business, the time is now’

Read more: Winning Young Businesswoman of the Year changed Chupi Sweetman’s career. So did losing

Advertisement

Read more: A sneak preview of the panel talks we’re most excited about at the IMAGE Business Summit

The image newsletter