Founder and CEO of Hillberg & Berk, Rachel Mielke, Shines on Empowering Women and Designing Two Brooches for the Queen
From startups to restaurants to high-tech corporations, women are taking the business world by storm and leaving their mark. Bay Street Bull talks to female business leaders about their life, passions and how they became girl bosses in their respective fields. Founder and CEO of Hillberg & Berk, Rachel Mielke, talks about empowering women, supporting women’s issues, and her reaction to the Queen wearing her jewellery.
As a young woman starting a jewellery company, Rachel Mielke felt empowered from the support of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother Hilda Bergman. In a discriminatory industry, she had to break down barriers—but with a community of women, valuable mentors, and a successful pitch on Dragon’s Den—she persevered and started Hillberg & Berk (named after her great-grandmother and her dog Berkley). Her brand has expanded into eight retail locations and made appearances at the 2008 Academy Awards, 2016 Rio Olympics and has been worn twice by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Every International Women’s Day, Hillberg & Berk creates a project in support of women’s issues. This year they released the Venus Pin, which supplies Canadian women in need with six months of sanitary products. Mielke sees these initiatives as a meaningful way to “take this brand and use it for a powerful direction in the world, to shed light on women’s issues, and hopefully direct our business towards improving some of these challenges in the world.”
In 2013, the Queen was presented with a Hillberg & Berk brooch—her first—designed by Mielke and the brand’s head designer. It was a request by the Lieutenant Governor General Vaughn Solomon Schofield of Saskatchewan—who was attending her first royal visit and wanted a gift to honour the Queen’s lifetime work.
The piece’s floral design is a freshwater pearl surrounded by 300 diamonds and five petals of semi-precious tourmaline. After the Queen wore it, the heightened level of exposure led to a commission for a second brooch. In 2017, in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, the Queen was presented with a snowflake containing 400 diamonds and Canada’s only known 48 sapphires.
Here, a conversation with Mielke about empowering women and her reaction to the Queen wearing the first brooch.
How did you feel when you noticed the Queen was wearing your jewellery?
I didn’t believe that it could be real until it happened. When we were designing the first brooch, we were just in a bubble of ‘this is getting given to her but what are the chances she will wear it.’ When she wore it for the first time, it was quite a funny experience.
I was sitting in my office, the company was fairly small, there was maybe like 20 staff at that point. We had no idea the Queen had worn the brooch. My receptionist picked up the phone, covered the receiver and yelled across the office. She said, “Rachel someone from the media is calling to see your reaction about the Queen wearing the brooch!”
The office went silent, and everybody just started screaming and running into my office, jumping up and down, high-fiving, crying and I flipped open my laptop, and all these beautiful images came up on the screen. It was literally a scene out of a movie where everyone was just crying, hugging and everyone was so excited.
It was one of the moments where I knew nothing would ever be the same, and it wasn’t. It was a very surreal, humbling, amazing moment for the company.
What was a piece of advice given to you that you still use today?
One of my early mentors was always there for me, happy to sit down and listen to me if I had a business challenge. She was supportive and helped me work through the challenges I may have been going through at the time.
She always asked me good questions to help me come up with the solutions myself. That was a great early lesson in leadership, how to help mentor people along and really empower them to find their own solutions to their problems.
What can we do to help women pursue their passions?
I’m passionate about women and business, and that’s not everybody’s calling but for the women who do feel called to create a product, a service or a technology they feel could change the world–it’s hard to do that. Especially women who have children, time is limited when you’re trying to raise a family.
I believe deeply the world needs more female entrepreneurs. Women look through a unique lens in the world and quite often tackle social challenges through their business. I would encourage more women to chase their passions and do it unapologetically because the world needs the unique perspective each woman has.
Is there anything men can do to be better advocates for women?
Men are just as important in this conversation. There have been many male mentors in my life, I currently have a male business coach and a key male mentor in my life. There are far more men in positions of power, leading companies, and in politics than women. Men have to take the lead and step forward to mentor women up as well.