MASTERMIND: Audrey Wong Chung
When she was a teenager, Audrey Wong Chung was turned down for her third appearance on The Cosby Show
for being too short to be Vanessa Huxtable's friend. Today, she's too big a deal to be turned down for anything.
"It was really fun," Chung says of her multiple appearances on the iconic television show. "I still remember Bill Cosby sitting me on his knee after we were done and saying, 'Did you have a good time today?'"
"I said I did and he said, 'Good. I'm glad.'"
The former child actress and current international businesswoman is the founder and CEO of Ann Arbor's Beliza Design
and co-founder and managing partner of Etre Design
. She is also made of 100 percent pure energy. She has to be; jetting between her offices in Ann Arbor, Hong Kong, and New York to trade shows in Las Vegas and L.A., it's hard to imagine that any one person could keep up with such an operation, let alone grow it, as Chung is always in the midst of doing.
When she's not designing her latest line of jewelry, overseeing the manufacturing of her products in China, or finding ways to showcase her jewelry on Dancing With The Stars
(it was recently a featured gift for all the performers), Chung is plugging into the local business community.
"Ann Arbor is really important to me," she says. "I want to do all I can to be a part of the community and help make things happen here. That's why I'm really excited to be on the board of the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Chamber now."
With a background as an entrepreneurial consultant -- in addition to acting, design work and computer science -- Chung actively mentors young local entrepreneurs.
"I want to share my success with others," she says, "and tell people to be brave enough to fail. People have asked me what my biggest failure was and I don't remember. It's all about learning and moving forward."
So, does ever Chung sleep? Only 38, the Ann Arborite has managed to get as far as she has because she started early.
"I've been working for 30 years," she says. "While acting is one of the few careers acceptable for children to have, it was real work. And I got a lot of work," says Chung, who had the same agent as Britney Spears.
Learning to be productive at a young age came in handy as Chung grew up in New York and New Jersey, first accepting a youth scholarship to study at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
and then when studying computer science at Rutgers University
At 21, Chung knew the tides of her career were changing when she was turned down after a movie audition only to immediately land an internship at Accenture
, the well-known business consulting firm. She choose to redirect her career path, confident that her love of the arts and her business savvy would someday intersect.
"I've always had an inner guidance system of what I like to do," she explains. "And everything I did, I felt had a creative element to it. Even when I was programming, I was an artist. Putting together a report was a creative endeavor."
Talent is one thing, and good old-fashioned hard work is another. Chung says she realized that she wanted to strike out on her own as an entrepreneur when she was 26, but held down day jobs for five years while she built her business.
At one point she accepted a less demanding job in order to concentrate more on her venture. Of course, "less demanding" in Chung's case is a relative term. "I took that position, which I could do in 50 hours a week, and that left me time to work on my business," she says.
That bottomless well of energy and drive have lead both Etre Designs and Beliza Designs to great success. Though you may not recognize the Etre name, it's a major supplier of stainless steel jewelry for many of the national brands.
"Etre Design is a well-known secret in the industry," says Chung. "We don't disclose the names of our clients, but you've seen our work. Most of the stainless steel you see is ours."
Chung's own designs are sold through Beliza, which include "C-Note", a brand worn by Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jane Lynch, and Craig Robinson, among other Hollywood celebrities. Her jewelry has been used as gifts at the Oscars.
"We make stainless steel jewelry, but we make the highest possible quality," she says. "We accent with diamonds and with gold."
If there's a poster child for Ann Arbor's connection to the global market, Chung certainly fits the bill. Still, even though her business is focused on national and international outlets, Ann Arbor is definitively her home.
"Ann Arbor compares with every other city in the world when it comes to the food, people and the resources," she says. "I want to bring attention to Ann Arbor more and more."
Chung employs more than 200 people worldwide, and is especially proud of her local design staff. "My team and I co-create things together," she says. "I still design in PowerPoint and with a pencil. I just say, 'Make this happen in CAD.' It's amazing what these kids can do."
Chung is already working on the next project for Beliza Design. "Vasati" is her newest line of jewelry, inspired by the "sacred geometric shapes found in nature. Like snails," Chung says, "there's calculus in nature."
The funds from the Vasati line will be donated to foundations that center on the well-being of women and children -- beginning with Mott Children's Hospital
"My life is happy, healthy and free," says Chung. "I want to do that for other women and children, so they can feel that way."
Chung also has plans to work with the March of Dimes and to begin a micro-loan program for women.
"I really want to share my future with others," she says. "Whether it's teaching them to fish, or giving them those first few fish to start with, I'd like that to be my legacy."
Natalie Burg is a writer who loves to say good things about downtowns, communities, and the people who believe in making them amazing. Her previous article was "Hair Of The Ugly Dog".
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All photos by Doug Coombe