Alumni / March 1, 2021

Inspired to Shine: An Entrepreneurial Journey

Laura Benkowski, Undergraduate ’11, MBA ’14

Over the years, Laura Benkowski’s entrepreneurial spirit has taken her all over the world, even to the site of a closed gem mine in Arizona.

“The gem mine was shut down in 2012 and contains a turquoise known as Sleeping Beauty turquoise that is very rare and highly sought,” says Benkowski ’11, MBA ’14.

While Benkowski wasn’t able to enter the mine, that trip to Arizona with her sisters inspired her. She says she was fascinated with the rarity and beauty of the Sleeping Beauty turquoise. The gemstone was recently featured in Forbes as part of Benkowski’s Sierra Earrings from her fine jewelry business Laura Stephanie.

A Smith Double Terp and entrepreneur at heart, Benkowski saw a way to combine her passion for design with her love of art and dance, opening an exclusive jewelry business in 2019, designing collections and custom jewelry for Washington, D.C., clients.

“I want to help people connect with a moment or memory,” Benkowski says. “Especially now, we are longing for points of connection.”

Benkowski began her Smith School journey as an undergrad, and says Professor Mary Harms’ Strategic Design and Innovation in Marketing class, among others, broadened her vision, demonstrating how business and design could work in tandem.

“The Strategic Design and Innovation class taught me about the importance of design to a business. Since the class included a combination of both business majors and art and design majors, we were exposed to design software that I still use today to design jewelry.”

She would follow her bachelor’s degree with an MBA, but her education wouldn’t end there. After a few years running an event-planning business with her twin sister (also a Double Terp), Benkowski started taking classes at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). She received her certification in gemstones and started networking with professionals in the fine jewelry industry.

“Wherever your energy is, that’s where you’re going to grow,” Benkwoski says. “Having a strong business background gave me the confidence I needed to succeed in a new industry.”

A strong background in dance, meanwhile, would help her create beauty in a different art form – fine jewelry. And it would serve as inspiration for her company’s marketing. Principal Ballerinas Lillian DiPiazza and Lauren Lovette have modeled Laura Stephanie pieces.

“I am always thinking about the women in my life whom I admire. I am also inspired by my experience with dance in terms of the movement and strength of a gemstone. There is pure beauty and strength when a dancer performs and I want to replicate that in my work.”

To other entrepreneurs hoping to launch their own idea, Benkowski offers advice. “Trust your instinct and follow your gut, knowing what makes you happy and what you can contribute to the world. Also, pay it forward when you have the chance to do so. Entrepreneurship is not a one-person endeavor. Help other people along the way and ask for help. Enjoy the journey, trusting that you’ll end up where you’re supposed to be.”

– By Laura Hayes. Hayes is a 2022 MBA Candidate and a Forté and Smith Fellow. Originally from Gaithersburg, Md., Hayes worked in marketing roles for four years in the financial services industry before coming to Maryland Smith.

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

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