Anyone who doubts the American Dream today should meet the beautiful and bedazzling Becky Beauchine Kulka. With confidence, persistence and talent, she’s made the most of everything life could offer–even her unusual name—to achieve stellar entrepreneurial and personal success.
Her story began in a typical Midwestern way. The daughter of a school teacher and a police officer, Kulka grew up in a loving, middle-class family in Okemos, Michigan, a beautiful suburb of Lansing. Like many of her friends at Okemos High School, she worked part time as a teenager, earning her own money. But with Kulka’s first job—working in a mall-based jewelry store—the seeds of an unanticipated career were subtly planted.
After graduation in 1982, she went on to community college with the idea of eventually following in her mother’s footsteps as a teacher. But soon a new dream took shape, propelled by another jewelry-related part-time job, this one at a catalog-based merchandise retail outlet where her unofficial title quickly became “Diamond Girl.” "I realized that I had a talent as well as a passion for the jewelry business world,” she says. “I talked it over with my parents, researched the industry and decided to make the leap.”
With her family’s blessing, she went to California in 1987 where she enrolled in an intensive six-month educational program at the nonprofit Gemological Institute of America, one of the largest and most respected programs of its type. There she mixed with students from all over the world, most of whom came from multi-generational “jewelry families” while Kulka herself knew little about the field. But that soon changed. During six months of intensive training, Kulka studied the field with experts. For hours at a time, she peered through microscopes at gems of all sorts, learning all she could about gem species, growth crystals, hardness and durability. Her reward was a Graduate Gemologist degree and the knowledge and confidence she needed to launch her own business.
Kulka returned to Michigan and got married on October 1, 1988. On November 1, she launched her jewelry career using the couple’s total savings of $5,000 to buy a portable lab that would enable her to go to homes and insurance agencies to perform on-site jewelry appraisals. On December 1, she learned that she would soon be a mother. For Kulka—who never doubted that being a successful wife, parent and entrepreneur would be the best of all worlds–no news could have been more welcome.
With a baby on the way and the ongoing support of her husband, parents and siblings, Kulka dove into the business world.
“I was unsure of what direction my business would take, so I chose a name as generic as possible–Gem Services,” she recalls. “I literally went door-to-door visiting every insurance agency in Lansing to build a client base.”
Not surprisingly, Kulka’s charismatic personal approach worked and Gem Services took off, quickly becoming a profitable venture with low overhead. Before long, her family was growing, too, with the birth of Kaila in 1989 and Devan two years later. Four years later, the Kulkas welcomed their third child, Hunter.
“The strongest force in my life has always been family,” she says. “With the support of my children and extended family, I’ve always been able to put the time needed into my business without having my family take a back seat.”
And Where It's Going...
As her appraisal business grew, Kulka also began to design, create and sell custom jewelry. She consistently plowed her profits back into her business. As it grew, it also evolved.
“I’ve moved locations five times over the years, with each move bringing significant changes to my business,” she says. “My first official location was a 256-square-foot office with borrowed furniture. It wasn’t until I moved to my third location in 1993 that I needed an actual retail storefront and could begin to build an inventory for customers to view.”
At this point, she also needed something else: employees to help run the store and a new business name. No longer content with the generic Gem Services, she headed the opposite direction with the most personal, one-of-a-kind name possible for her business: Becky Beauchine Kulka, Diamonds and Fine Jewelry.
Her retail business soon took off, and she again outgrew her location. With the fourth location came more space and greater risk, as she invested in a $35,000 computer system that made her the first jewelry store in Michigan to use computer-aided design technology. The system enabled her to design unique pieces of jewelry for her clients and print out three-dimensional color photos for her goldsmiths to use as a guide.
As Kulka’s success continued, she wanted a store that was as unique and memorable as the business’s name. For her fifth and final move, she brought in a New York design firm to create a store that would serve as a 3,500-square-foot showcase for beautiful designer jewelry and personalized customer services.
The store features a modern look with a feminine touch. Focal points include long curved display cases and wallpaper that looks like the inside of a diamond mine. A CounterSketch computer allows customers to create three-dimensional visual representations of their own ideas for custom-designed jewelry pieces. Pleasant aromas of fresh baked cookies and coffee greet customers when they enter the store and add to the inviting and comfortable ambiance.
“Overall, the store reflects the fact that we believe we can best serve our customers by getting to know them as individuals and treating them as welcome friends,”Kulka says.
“I’ve always encouraged my staff to look for the unique story behind the purchase of every special piece of jewelry, whether it’s an engagement ring or a charm bracelet. By understanding the emotions and feelings individuals wish to express through their jewelry choices, we can help them find or create exactly what they want,” she explains. “To me, the fact that we get very few merchandise exchanges and have hundreds of loyal repeat customers means that this philosophy has served us well over the years.”
In addition to its commercial success, Kulka’s business has accumulated many awards and honors. Becky Beauchine Kulka, Diamonds and Fine Jewelry has earned the prestigious American Gem Society (AGS) certification, which is awarded to less than 5 percent of jewelers in the nation. The store was named to Instore magazine’s list of America’s Coolest Stores 2005. Kulka has been honored as Michigan Retailer of the Year and Distinguished Alumna for the Okemos Education Foundation. Kulka is on the board of directors for the Michigan Retailers association as well as an advisory board member to one of the best jewelry shows in the country. Kulka is also active in community service as a volunteer and donor of thousands of dollars every year to various philanthropic causes. The Junior League of Lansing has honored her with a community partnership award.
Whether it’s expanding and improving her facilities or investing in training and education for her staff, Kulka rarely passes up an opportunity to move forward. She’s also a creative problem solver, always open to finding a better way.
One small stumbling block in the early days was the fact that the public had a difficult time remembering her unusual name and how to pronounce it. However, as she began marketing her business more actively, she turned that name into a huge plus with a memorable TV advertising jingle: “This is how you say Merry Christmas…Becky Beauchine Kulka.”
“Who would have thought that my name would become something of a household phrase in Lansing, thanks to a jingle?” she laughs.
Building on the jingle’s renown, Kulka later added to its success by launching a “Sing for Bling” contest that offered a shopping spree in the store for the best videotape of anyone singing her jingle or re-interpreting it creatively. More than 100 entries were received with thousands of website page views and votes. The winning team featured a couple of Michigan State students performing a rap.
Fear of failure has never been an issue for Kulka, whatever the economy.
“I look at every day as a new day and a chance to wipe my slate clean and start over,” she says. “I like to tell young people to think big and take a risk. If you work hard, you can accomplish your dream."