When Her Breadwinning Husband Was Diagnosed With MS, This Stay-At-Home Mom Built a Jewelry Empire
Helen Ficalora's family had just purchased a new home when her husband had to stop working due to complications from multiple sclerosis. She went from being a stay-at-home mom to the breadwinner in the blink of an eye. Here's how she turned a difficult situation into a thriving jewelry brand.
Helen Ficalora loved being a stay-at-home mom. Her husband, Bob, served as the family's breadwinner, while Ficalora focused on raising their two young sons, Marley and Lennon. Things were going according to plan: The family had just moved from Connecticut to the free-spirited enclave of Olympia, Washington, they had no debt, and their house had a beautiful view of the Puget Sound. But in 1991, they received life-changing news. Bob was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (M.S.). In order to preserve his health, he had to stop working, catapulting Helen into the role of primary earner for the family.
"I was petrified," Ficalora remembers. "It's very difficult to face an illness when you really don't know how it's going to progress or what it's going to look like." The future felt uncertain, so the family made a tough decision. Ficalora would go to work in her family business running a motel in Montauk, New York. It meant they'd all spend half the year in New York, and the other half in Washington.
Ficalora loved running the motel—she'd grown up in the area and knew everyone already. But it wasn't the life she'd imagined for herself and her family. Her days were packed with looking after her guests and homeschooling her boys.
It was around that time when Ficalora started to make and sell jewelry. She'd always been into crafts, but she'd recently opened a small shop at the motel selling local wares from both Montauk and Olympia. She decided to add some items of her own to the mix. Of course, she still had a motel to run. She'd often spend the night sitting at a workbench she'd set up, working on her designs. Fashionable women who lived in New York City and vacationed in Montauk started taking notice of her alphabet charms—now the hallmark of Ficalora's brand. Word spread. Soon, her jewelry was featured in magazines and on TV. She could barely keep up with demand.
It wasn't easy when she was getting the business off the ground. The family continued to split the year between two home bases. "I was handling the phones for the [jewelry] business, taking orders, making all the products, shipping it, doing everything," says Ficalora. But in the midst of the chaos, Ficalora got a sign that she was on the right path from an unexpected source. One day while driving her then 10-year-old son in the car, he said to her: "Mom, everybody has something that they're supposed to do in this life. And you make jewelry that makes people happy."
In the 20 years since that day, Ficalora's brand has expanded to offer all kinds of pieces alongside her signature alphabet charms. Eventually, she gave up the motel business and opened a brick-and-mortar jewelry store. Her first store brought in more revenue in one day than an entire season of working at the motel. Now she has six stores across the country, sells her jewelry online, and has recently launched an app to foster a more seamless shopping experience. She continues to run the business from home with the help of a small group of employees.
All of the hard work, she says, was worth it. "The business has helped me to stay at home, take care of my kids, raise them, and when he was ill, take care of my husband. It's also allowed us to have a home, put the kids through college, be generous with charities and donations, and live a simple lifestyle that is in alignment with how we want to be in the world."
Thinking of starting your own home-based business? Here's how to take a cue from Ficalora's success.
Follow your passion. Above all, Ficalora says your work shouldn't feel like a chore. "It's almost like it's a practice. Whether spiritual practice, religious practice, business practice—doing something you really love doesn't feel like work." Ultimately, that's what will make it possible to log long hours to get a business up and running.
Be prepared to wear all the hats. Now Ficalora has employees, but it wasn't always that way. She credits living a simple lifestyle and doing much of the work herself as two big reasons her business has succeeded. "You're working for free for a really long time," she adds. "No one could pay me for what I did, but I did it for myself and my family."
Save smartly. While Ficalora invested most of her earnings back into her business, she always made sure to set aside emergency cash, just in case.
Find your tribe. Ficalora attributes some of her success to knowing the right people and having a strong support network, particularly when she was starting her business in Montauk. "There was a group of moms who all became entrepreneurs at the same time," she remembers. "It was kind of like a little think tank—working moms hangout. We shared meals and shared ideas, networked, and it was really fun."
Be flexible. If Ficalora has learned anything, it's that life will throw unexpected obstacles your way. "Life ebbs and flows and changes. I love the word pivot, because life's full of pivots."
Get your family involved. At various points, both of Ficalora's sons have helped out with her business. "It's been very rewarding to be able to have them involved," she says. And the entrepreneurial spirit definitely runs in the family: Both of Ficalora's sons have started their own ventures. One of the most popular little sayings in their family? "Hustlers never sleep."