Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION
Joke sparks gem of an idea
Designing glass jewels is her calling
IF Bahia Laham had been born into a family of underachievers she'd still be selling radio ads or writing grant proposals. Instead, she's an entrepreneur with Donald Trumplike confidence, a woman who has parlayed a Christmas challenge into a potentially lucrative business venture.
Laham, 40, creates glass jewelry.
She uses her small West Kildonan house as an office, work space and display area. Her cutting table is tucked in under the basement stairs.
Sheets of glass lean against a wall.
The finished pieces are arranged near a wet bar.
This is strictly a fledgling company, a success waiting to be born, nurtured by Laham's buoyant belief in her own abilities.
"I had a career. This is something that happened by chance," says the former advertising account executive. "What happened was my family decided in 2005 to make the next year's Christmas gifts. We'd each draw a name and we had to make something by hand."
It was a joke suggestion, she says.
"We're all in professional careers.
We're not creative. The only exception is my sister-in-law. When we met her she was making her own clothes." Laham drew her sister-in-law's name.
"We had this whole list of rules. It couldn't be food. It couldn't be something perishable. It had to be something you actually made, not something you paid someone to make. You couldn't spend more than $30."
In the way of these sorts of grandiose plans, by August no one had started their gift projects. Laham decided she wanted to make a piece of jewelry. The problem was she didn't know which material to use, how to design or where she could work.
"I was flipping through the phone book, looking at different types of materials and trying to figure out what to do."
She came to the glass listings and called a company at random.
"I said, 'I don't even know if this is possible. Is it possible to make jewelry out of glass?' They told me it was. I asked where I'd learn to do it and they said they were thinking of starting a course. I asked them how much it would cost and they told me to come down and try. I'd learn and they'd figure out how to teach. I had a design in mind."
Ken and Jacqueline Walkden, who used to own Klass Works, worked with the novice. She began using scrap material. Her only expense would be $20 to fire the kiln.
Laham worked two or three hours a week from September until Christmas, making mistakes, starting over and trying to convince the Walkdens that her design (glass pieces on an elasticized bracelet) was possible to complete.
"I had to learn everything: how to cut the glass, fire it, design, everything. This was all new."
Fortunately, Laham is the sort of woman who would decide to be an astronaut and promptly build her own spaceship.
"The people at my office knew I was doing this because I had the pieces on my desk. I'd sit there trying to figure out how to make it work."
She ultimately made 25 pieces, some for herself and the rest to give as presents. She was a hit the day of the gift exchange.
"They couldn't believe I had handmade it," she grins. "My sister-in-law was amazed. My sisters were jealous. Everyone wanted it."
She wasn't the only success story.
Her brother-in-law, a fireman, spraypainted a big boot and hot-glued rhinestones to it. The boot, filled with ostrich feathers, sits in her display room. Her sister took painting lessons and surprised her husband with a painting. These people take their challenges seriously.
The following year, Laham took classes at Prairie Stained Glass while working full-time managing capital campaigns at the University of Manitoba and teaching fitness classes at the Wellness Institute. She took another course to learn how to incorporate metal into her work.
Gradually, she began to sell her jewelry. She attended the Silver Heights Collegiate reunion wearing her own pieces. People were interested and asked where she had bought them. She got to work filling those orders.
When her sister set up a farmers market in Stonewall, Laham took a table. She sold out. A friend had a home party and people bought most of her pieces.
"All of a sudden I was at all these craft shows," she says. "The exposure really makes a difference."
The exposure wasn't enough to make a living but Laham realized the potential.
"I didn't want to make this official until I'd worked out the business end," she says. "It's in the last six months that it became very serious."
She still teaches fitness classes to make ends meet. Her new marketing job will be to represent her company, Bahia Designed. She's looking for retail spots to sell her line and dreams of hiring an employee. For now, she works under the basement stairs, cutting glass, designing pieces and melting them together.
"I never knew I was a creative person but apparently I am," she says.
Merry Christmas, Bahia.
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About Lindor Reynolds
National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.
Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.
Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.
She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA Woman of Distinction.
She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
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