How this entrepreneur got 3 figure skaters to wear her jewelry at the Olympics

Serena Lin
CNBC

When Sonia Hou started making earrings seven years ago as a side hustle in her apartment in Los Angeles, she didn't think her design would one day be a part of U.S. Olympics history.

But that's exactly what happened after she reached out to figure skater Mirai Nagasu on Instagram in January. Nagasu wore Hou's "Fire-Jacket Earrings" when she became the first U.S. Olympian to land a triple axel in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. The earrings, which retail for $89, have now been written about by People Magazine and Popsugar.

The earrings worn by Nagasu got their name because they represent fierceness and strength, according to Hou. Each piece is made of a white quartz stone and features gold spike-like detailing.

All three female athletes in the U.S. figure skating team, Nagasu, Karen Chen and Bradie Tennell, wore Hou's earrings during their competitions at this year's Olympics, according to the entrepreneur. "I decided to pursue Olympic female figure skaters because they receive a ton of press during the Olympics, and if they become breakout stars, the publicity is huge," she says.

Hou, a 35-year-old working mom with a 16-month-old baby, got the idea to start a jewelry business while shopping for accessories that were chic and high quality, but also affordable. "I saw Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway at the 2013 Oscars wearing jewelry that I wanted," she tells CNBC Make It. "When I saw how much it was — I was shocked. It wasn't worth it. I was also shocked how inaccessible quality jewelry was for commoners like me."

Disappointed but inspired, she wanted to create jewelry that hit the intersection of high-end and fast-fashion. "It's like Tiffany meets Forever 21," says Hou, "my products use semi-precious stones and chic designs, available at a fraction of the luxury goods' cost."

However, when she first launched her venture in 2013, Hou says her family and friends didn't think she'd be successful. "There are always going to be people who doubt you," she says.



When she started her business about five years ago, Hou was struggling to keep her full-time job in order to support her jewelry side hustle. But she didn't give up. "I said to myself, if I have the next 40 and 50 years to live, I might as well to keep working at it," she says. "I had everything to gain and nothing to lose."

That's when she started reaching out to celebrities for endorsements. "I asked my contacts to put me in touch with the TV personalities and their agencies," she said. Already, her jewelry has appeared on U.S. television shows: Her earrings were sold on the "Deal" segment of the Wendy Williams show. Meanwhile, Sherri Shepherd from "The View" wore her accessories on TV as well.

Now, Hou says sales are up 25 percent from last year.

She credits her Olympics success to her social media marketing. "I don't follow the crowd. I create my own unique path," she says. While many go to Etsy, the No. 1 marketplace for small-businesses owners, Hou has used Instagram to hawk her products instead.

To collaborate with Nagasu, Hou first contacted U.S. figure skater Karen Chen, who has 50,000 followers on Instagram. To her surprise, Chen was open to considering her products and eventually wore Hou's " Trill" earrings during her Olympic event in short program skating. Chen connected Hou to Nagasu.


Most of the products are made in Brazil with others crafted in the United States. According to Hou, the Swarovski crystals used in her designs are from Austria.

Maybe unsurprisingly, one of her popular designs currently is the design that appeared on the Wendy Williams show in 2016 called "Selfie earrings." "Having super catchy and relatable names is another feature of my design," she tells CNBC Make It.

The "Selfie earrings" feature Swarovski crystals and Hou describes them as having a color fit for billionaires partly because they reflect brilliant lights and powerful images. The color tells a story, according to Hou: "I want the women who wear the earrings to feel empowered, like a billionaire."

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Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal owns NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. NBC Olympics is the U.S. broadcast rights holder to all Summer and Winter Games through the year 2032.


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