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An ocean separates Chupi Sweetman-Durney, who lives in Dublin, and Lea Giovanniello of Vienna, Virginia, and they have never met. Yet their workplace experiences and career paths — at a time when women still struggle with both — are a testament to what’s possible. Here are their stories.
Sweetman-Durney ran away from home when she was six. She wisely took along the duvet cover from her bed, her doll and a book. She found a nesting spot under a tree, about a half mile from her home in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland. While her parents tracked her down in short order, it was her first overt action of independence.
But it was not her last.
After working as a women’s clothing designer for the British retailer Topshop for six years, Sweetman-Durney realised at 27 that she “just wasn’t in love with it any more”, she said. “It seemed crazy to quit, but I wanted to create something that would last and celebrate Ireland’s design history and craftsmanship.”
Starting her own business making jewellery wasn’t as easy as a march down the lane to a nearby tree. “The big challenges were being young and a woman,” she said. “I wasn’t taken seriously at first.”
“Although I was brought up in a family where I did not have much experience with discrimination,” Sweetman-Durney said, “I had faced it after landing my contract with Topshop to design women’s dresses in 2005. I was refused a credit card with ^500 of available credit, even though I had gone to the bank and shown them the contract.” At the same time, her boyfriend (now her husband, Brian) was a student and was accepted for a card with a credit line five times that amount.
Now 33, she runs her own successful Dublin-based jewellery business, Chupi, started four years ago.
Sweetman-Durney was fortunate to have a role model in her mother, Rosita Sweetman, an author and feminist, who was part of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s, and raised her to believe in her ability to create. “She taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be.”
This year, Chupi expects to sell 17,000 pieces of jewellery in 64 countries, has doubled sales annually for the last three years and has grown to a staff of 22.
Moreover, the business is profitable and carries no debt. “When I was starting out, there were few people who believed that I could be creative and also be skilled at marketing, selling and running a business,” Sweetman-Durney said. “But I love the business side of things. My dad’s an economist, so I got the best of both worlds.”
An increasing number of women, like Sweetman-Durney, are starting businesses as a way to take control of their careers.
In part, female entrepreneurship is on the rise because gender equality efforts in the workplace to address issues like the salary gap and advancement to positions on corporate boards have stalled.
“Women’s advancement in workplaces has flatlined,” said Ellen Galinsky, the president and a founder of the Families and Work Institute. “In the 2016 National Study of Employers, there are fewer US companies providing paid family leave, and when you look at flexibility over all, there is less part-time work than in previous reports.”