Hustle Hard Interview Project: Maya Brenner (And a State-ly Giveaway)

To celebrate my 32nd birthday, I started the Hustle Hard Interview Project. I’ll be interviewing a series of Hustlers who embody a skill or a quality I admire. I hope to uncover some gems that bring me one step closer to being a fully-formed adult.


When I started the Hustle Hard Interview Project last year, I knew that I wanted to end the series with Straight Hustle. For a long time, I thought the Straight Hustler would be a rapper. Unfortunately, my favorite rapper is dead, and the few others I admire have all recently been arrested (one arrest included a nine-hour standoff). I’m sure these lyrical geniuses could still teach me a lot, but after a year of mental malaise and tumult, I understand now that being a Hustler isn’t about embracing a roller coaster lifestyle and approaching each day as if it were my last. Ironically, that kind of living steals away the one prize its followers seek: freedom.

I wanted my Straight Hustler to embody ALL of the Hustle Hard qualities (these previous interviews can be found here): Pursuit of Happiness, Turning Passion Into Profit, Humor, Fearlessness, Focus, Commitment, The Come Up, Ride or Die, Revealing Beauty, Consigliere of Fresh Beats, and Good Karma.

That’s why I chose jewelry designer, Maya Brenner. (Actually, I forgot to ask about her music preferences, but please be real, 10/11 is pretty ridiculous.)

EJL: I’m a huge fan of bling, but to me, that doesn’t necessarily mean large or flashy. Noteworthiness gives it bling status, and your jewelry is bling. I feel like the ability to create a unique spin often comes from longstanding passion and work ethic. Have you always been this driven?

MB: I didn’t want to be one of those people who had no idea what they wanted in life, so I decided early on that I was going to hustle and work hard to have a career. My upbringing in Berkeley was laid-back, but I’ve always worked. Even before it was legal to work. I lied about my age when I was 14 to get a job scooping ice cream.

EJL: My daughter turns 14 in a few weeks. I’m picturing her making milkshakes at an afterschool job. I’m also picturing a large mess. Why did you want to work at that age?

MB: We didn’t have a lot of money, but even back then, I was into fashion. My mom would take me to the thrift shop to buy $2 pants, but I wanted the freedom to buy new clothes. And I loved buying jewelry from street vendors.

EJL: So you decided to become a jewelry designer?

MB: This wasn’t in my plans AT ALL. While I was in college, I fell in love with Social Sciences. I moved to New York to get a graduate degree and ended up living there for eight years. When I started my career as a social worker, I was making $28K, but I somehow still managed to dress up on my budget. During my downtime, I would flip through fashion magazines at my desk, but I never even considered the possibility of a career other than social work.

EJL: And now you’re a Bling Boss. What happened?

MB: I started making jewelry as a hobby. People would notice my necklaces and ask me where I got them. I gave them away at first because I was too embarrassed to sell them. I eventually took them to a few boutiques. One of the store clerks took me under her wing and bought the first ten necklaces I ever sold. I had no formal training, so I taught myself how to tie a clasp while I was making these bead necklaces-not even semi-precious beads; they were seed beads. When I took my jewelry into another boutique, the woman who looked them over suggested that I get them into her son’s store. Her son ended up being Steven Alan. So much has come from that relationship.

EJL: Did you quit your job as a social worker?

MB: I was so scared to give up that paycheck, no matter how small it was, because it was a sure thing. I didn’t want to end up with no career. So I did both for eight months. And then I went part-time as a social worker and spent my weekends doing trunk shows at Henri Bendel and any sale that anybody had, whether it was a flea market in the middle of winter or a holiday boutique at a church. I was selling my wares like a street peddler. When I went full-time with the jewelry, I was literally hunched over for 16 hours a day doing everything myself.

EJL: It’s hard to function at that level for a long time. How did you learn to let go of doing everything by yourself?

MB: I woke up one night in excruciating pain. I got a repetitive work injury from my poor posture while I was making jewelry, and it’s something I still feel today. My mother says that I’m the reluctant entrepreneur. I don’t like moving too fast. Each step along the way, from finally hiring people to moving out of my home office to having an online presence has taught me to be more open. Some of my biggest successes have come in this past year, and I know it’s because I’ve been so open to everything that was coming my way.

EJL: I have a special place in my heart for Texas, my home state, and I just saw your diamond Texas States Necklace in the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book. That’s big pimpin. Do you have any advice for other hustlers who are trying to make big things happen?

MB: This Joseph Campbell quote was the wallpaper on my phone for a long time: “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” We get stuck and focused on what we want our life to be instead of embracing the life that it is. I spent a lot of time wishing things were different. When I finally accepted what my life really was, it changed everything for me. I got divorced two years ago, and I had to pick myself back up and start over again with two children. But I remained open to everything. Because of that, I found a partner who is another entrepreneurial spirit with passion and drive. He’s so proud of me and relishes in every success. I feel like I’m just figuring it all out.

Maya, you’re legit.


P.S. I TOTALLY GEEKED OUT on 11.12.13 when my Six-Word Memoir was chosen as Memoir of the Day on SMITH Magazine’s Six-Word Memoirs.

My Memoir really does distill 33 years down into Six Words. Actually, maybe just 31 or 32 years. I don’t really remember my baby/toddler time, and I’m not comfortable making blanket statements involving my most likely innocent baby self.



mayabrennerI’m a huge fan of Maya Brenner’s States Necklaces. And I absolutely love that all 50 states can be customized in a variety of ways ($130-$1040): Sterling Silver or 14K gold, with or without a diamond along the border to show some hometown pride, or you can go baller status with a pave version.

It’s been a rough year for me, and y’all have showed me love even when I didn’t love myself. I wish I could give everybody everything, but instead, I will just be giving one person a sterling silver States Necklace. Wow, that was a huge gap between fantasy and reality.

To enter: Leave a comment below with your own Six-Word Memoir. Only comments left on this post qualify. Contest closes Tuesday, November 19, 6:00 p.m. PT. I’ll pick a winner and announce it in next week’s post.

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Maya Brenner photo courtesy of Sarah Yates

Hustle Hard Interview Project: Kristen Kish



To celebrate my 32nd birthday, I started the Hustle Hard Interview Project. Each month, I’ll be interviewing a Hustler who embodies a skill or a quality I admire. I hope to uncover some gems that bring me one step closer to being a fully-formed adult.


My general attitude towards cooking has always been I Don’t Know. I Don’t Care. Not My Problem. Because this outlook occasionally causes problems like hunger, I’ve learned to keep several loaves of white bread handy. Eat a slice as-is out of the bag, and it’s a light snack. Compress two into a dense ball, and it really transforms into a meal. I’m confident that having a basic knowledge of food preparation would have prevented that kitchen fire several years ago, but I don’t want to dwell on the incident. The flames only affected one very small area, and no one was severely injured.

Top Chef: Seattle was the first competitive cooking show I ever watched. At first, it wasn’t by choice, but we needed a new family activity, and watching television together met both of my requirements: easy and cheap. Although I made an impassioned plea for Hardcore Pawn, I was outvoted 2-1. I couldn’t even muster up disingenuous excitement as we sat down to watch the first episode together. And then Kristen Kish happened.

I am fascinated by people who keep it real. But so many people use honesty and awareness as a license to be cruel with their words and actions. Not only does Kristen stay true to herself, but she has found a way to keep kindness king without compromising her integrity. As the season unfolded on Top Chef: Seattle, Kristen inspired me to seek self-awareness and to embrace my whole story. And, as the winner of Season 10, she has taught me this very important lesson: When dealing with basic bitches, stay on the high road. Good karma always wins.

EJL: For a limited time, anyone can put on a front. I got the impression, though, from watching your journey on Top Chef, that you’re not one of those chameleons that change who they are based on the people around them. You’re self-aware and confident. And I like that you don’t get flustered easily. Have you always been that way?

KK: I used to make decisions based on impulse, but I’ve spent a lot of time going through questions in my head and asking, “Why?” I can take advice from a lot of different people, but I needed to go through the process of defining who I am based on self-discovery. I used to care so much about what other people thought about me, but it kept me from doing what I wanted to do.

EJL: You’re only the second female winner in ten seasons of Top Chef. Your culinary skills and French-influenced cuisine were clearly a standout during the competition, but the show is so much more than just cooking. When so many different personalities collide in an intensely competitive environment, things can get…rough. Even when you could have spoken out against a fellow competitor, you didn’t. You were No Drama, No Bullshit. Uh, can you give me some tips?

KK: I didn’t need to bash anyone because I can get my point across in a way that doesn’t involve cattiness. Some people play it up for the camera, but actions always speak louder than words. I had to bite my tongue a few times, but my parents taught me to be kind and to conduct myself with integrity. Everything I’ve done, I credit to my parents.

EJL: Damn. I really need some parenting tips from your folks. You were adopted from South Korea as a baby and raised in Michigan. On the show, you mentioned plans to visit South Korea. What’s your interest in going?

KK: I want to see where I came from. Not necessarily who anymore, but where. I thought I was supposed to meet my birth parents, not because I wanted to, but because I had to. But it’s my upbringing that defines me and not just where I started.

EJL: Life can be defined as a series of before and after moments. Is winning Top Chef that moment for you professionally?

KK: It’s opened a lot of doors, so I see it more as opportunities rather than validation. I’m cooking the food I love to cook and learning along the way. Working at Menton and having Barbara [Lynch] as a boss has taught me a lot. Every chef, regardless of what they’ve done in the past, has to prove themselves in the kitchen, and I’m willing to prove myself. When I started, everyone had to like my food. But now, I know that people can choose not to like your food, but maybe they’ll appreciate what you do. I’m not going to change the way I cook. My standards have gotten me this far.

EJL: I started a kitchen fire once trying to make spaghetti. Can anyone learn to cook?

KK: [long pause] Everyone can learn to cook something.

EJL: Keeping kindness king, I see.


P.S. Want to waste time at work? I can help.

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photo: Andrew Wang for Lux & Concord