Local jewelry startup polishes business with entrepreneurship program

East Carolina University business management senior Ashley Nolan grew up with two loves: creating and selling.

By connecting with the university’s student entrepreneurship program, RISE29, she found the opportunity to combine those two passions and refine her own online jewelry storefront. In 2018, Nolan launched Copper Ashes, carving out a digital space to create and sell ethically sourced, nature-inspired artwork.

With the help of Nolan’s RISE29 teammates, Copper Ashes has reached customers across eight countries, totaling nearly $20,000 in sales in its first two years.

Copper Ashes, a jewelry retailer founded by East Carolina University business management senior Ashley Nolan, teamed with ECU’s student entrepreneurship program, RISE29, to expand the business’ digital footprint. With the help of RISE29 interns Yevgeniya Rad and Wesley Paul, Copper Ashes was able to reach customers in eight countries around the world over the past year.(Photo contributed by Ashley Nolan)

Nolan didn’t originally reach out to the program for assistance with her startup. She was looking to bolster her resume before graduating this spring. Instead, the RISE29 leadership team saw an opportunity to help grow a student-led business.

“I really had nothing under my belt as far as an internship,” Nolan said. “When I heard about the RISE29 program, I thought it was perfect to work and learn as an intern while helping another small business.

“During my interview, I was asked a lot about my business because it was the most prominent thing that I had on my resume. I ended up getting an email that night saying that I was going to be hired and asking how I’d feel about being added on as an intern to work on my own business. So, here I am as both an intern for and client of RISE29. I have absolutely loved it.”

Drawing on her jewelry-making experience, Nolan developed her own copper plating technique. Her jewelry incorporates natural materials, including seashells, butterfly wings and crystals. She said she wants her artwork to remind her customer of the power and beauty found in nature.

But Nolan had a problem. She wanted to grow her audience and expand her customer base. She had ideas about how to do that, but she needed help.

“One of the biggest challenges that Copper Ashes faced was simply being a one-person operation,” she said.

As part of the RISE29 program, Nolan teamed with business management major Wesley Paul and marketing major Yevgeniya Rad. Together, the trio set up a plan for how to expand Copper Ashes’ reach.

“Two of the biggest challenges were that we needed to expand the business onto multiple social media platforms and to find influencers to promote the business,” Rad said. “We all had different roles to make this possible. I worked on social media marketing, finding influencers and finding events; Ashley worked on branding, becoming an incorporated business, and her manufacturing process; and Wesley worked on email marketing, website design and finding storefronts.”

The digital overhaul paid off for Copper Ashes, as it grew its client base and saw increased web and social media traffic.

“We implemented a total redesign of the website,” Paul said. “Knowing that we would be incurring larger numbers of customers throughout the process, I wanted to make sure that the site had as much information available to a potential customer.”

After researching why customers failed to complete sales, Paul added a frequently asked questions page to the site and a communication widget that allowed customers to directly reach Nolan. Paul said these steps helped decrease the number of customers that backed out of sales due to last-second snags at the checkout page.

“We also implemented a mailing list in order to help manage Ashley’s vast number of customers,” Paul said. “We wanted customers to know about potential releases or sales that may occur. These new additions have made it a breeze to manage a growing customer base and have allowed us to think bigger.”

I loved working for two very diverse projects. One focused on research; another on the entire business process. I’ve learned so much that will aid in starting my own business or another company I could work for in the future.
- Yevgeniya Rad, marketing major

The team also turned to its customer base to spread the word about Nolan’s products. While working with RISE29, Copper Ashes saw its Instagram following grow by 20% to nearly 8,700 followers. The social media platform accounts for 45% of the business’ online traffic.

“Copper Ashes has a very unique target market, which is pretty difficult to find on its own,” Rad said. “Social media influencers have been a key component in driving sales and followers. Without these connections, it would be difficult for Copper Ashes to make sales globally like it does now.”

The startups’ ambassador program has grown to 10 influencers. Ambassadors must meet weekly performance indicators, including sharing material twice a week and informing their followers about new products, sales and giveaways. Rad said the company has reached customers as far away as Germany and Russia.

“Influencers make it possible to reach a wide range of customers,” she said. “It would have taken years if it was done locally.”

Rad interned previously for RISE29, working with a home delivery seafood service. The projects were vastly different, but the program allowed Rad to develop a range of skills outside of the classroom.

“I loved working for two very diverse projects,” Rad said. “One focused on research; another on the entire business process. I’ve learned so much that will aid in starting my own business or another company I could work for in the future.”

As for Copper Ashes’ future, Nolan hopes to expand her jewelry line and maybe set up shop in a local storefront.

“I would love to be able to sustain myself as well as create some jobs for the local community through the expansion of Copper Ashes,” Nolan said. “I want my brand to be recognized as one that inspires purpose through nature in the form of wearable art. I love this company, but I also have a passion for people. I think in five years, Copper Ashes would like to be able to give some back to the community in areas of mental health and wildlife and ocean conservation.”

Nolan’s artwork can be seen online at Copper Ashes’ digital store.