Best Beads

Happy Valley jewelry maker is self-taught, and gives a portion of her proceeds to charity

When Lea McWhorter decided to start her own business, she did not sit down and think about how much money she could make.

Instead, she asked herself, “Who can I help?”

A friend had recently dealt with breast cancer, and McWhorter realized that “this can happen to somebody you know day to day – it hit home.”

So, she said, “I decided to make something and give back some of the proceeds.”

McWhorter, a Happy Valley resident, began making jewelry, and discovered she had a “gift” for it.

“I didn’t take classes; I am self-taught. I have [the ability to make jewelry], because I’m supposed to be using it. It makes people happy and feel good about themselves,” she said.

She chose to call her company Sophisticated Beads, she said, because she wanted to project an image of “elegance.”

Holiday Open House Nov. 17

Once underway with her jewelry making, she looked around for charities to support and found the Oregon and SW Washington Affiliate of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure; Jessica’s Hope, a company affiliated with the Ovarian Cancer Federation; and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

She will have a trunk show at the Clackamas Monarch Hotel, featuring all her jewelry designs, including bracelets supporting cancer research, this Saturday, Nov. 17.

“I make a pink bracelet for the Susan Komen Foundation; a teal bracelet for ovarian cancer, green for leukemia and yellow for lymphoma,” McWhorter said, adding that each bracelet comes with a card saying that 10 percent of the proceeds goes back to the sponsoring organization.

People who buy the jewelry often want “to share their stories – it is a healing thing for them.”

Nairobi beads

In addition to the jewelry designed to support cancer research, McWhorter uses beads made by Nairobi tribal women. She said the company that produces the beads began with just two women, and has now grown to employing more than 300 women.

“They make the beads from the clay of the [nearby] mountain, and they form them by hand, hand paint them and fire them in a kiln in Kenya – no two are alike,” she noted.

“I started designing necklaces [made from the Kenyan stones}, and I’ve sold a lot of them. It is about helping others – the money from the sale of the beads goes back to the women in the factory, and allows them to take care of an extended family.”

Marketing background

McWhorter grew up in the Happy Valley area, graduating from David Douglas High School. She then moved to Redmond, Wash., where she worked a “crazy job,” managing “a marketing campaign for a commuter organization” to discourage people from driving alone. The campaign covered the entire Puget Sound area.

Then she and her husband moved back to the Happy Valley area, and McWhorter decided to start her own company.

Ladies Who Launch

Two years ago, McWhorter found out about a national organization called Ladies Who Launch, when she attended one of their events.

“It was a day of networking with other business women. There was so much energy – I was inspired to sign up for the four-week incubator workshops in hopes of meeting other women entrepreneurs.

“I was so inspired after the first meeting. Each of us had the opportunity to discuss our challenges and what help we needed. It was the rest of the group’s job to each figure out ways to help provide positive feedback, connections or whatever else they could.”

McWhorter added, “It was a wonderful opportunity to walk into a meeting once a week for four weeks with 12 total strangers and come out with solid business advice that helped my company grow.

“Once you have gone through the workshop, you have the option to join the on-going network of women and we meet once a month. This is where we keep the momentum going, network with other like-minded women and continue to grow our dreams and our businesses.”

High-quality materials

McWhorter said she has come up with more than 600 designs, and uses mostly “semi-precious stones and crystals, because they look nice together and crystals are second only to diamonds in the way light refracts off them.”

She also works with Oregon Sunstone, the official state stone, sterling silver and other “unique” materials like butter jasper, red coral and New Zealand abalone.

During the holidays, McWhorter often goes to specific businesses and sets up her wares, so customers can “get all their shopping done in the office.”

Customers can also go to McWhorter’s Web site to purchase items, but she advises people to come to the trunk show at the Monarch on Nov. 17, where they will see a more complete inventory of her designs.

She said she has met “some wonderful people” at her trunk shows, and added, “I’m a firm believer in the more you give the more you receive. I needed to help others – it makes me feel good. The business will grow if it is the right thing to do.”