“Women of the Diamond Industry” focuses on the issue of gender equality along the entire diamond and jewelry supply chain. The series provides a platform for women in the industry to tell their own stories and describe the particular challenges they have faced in their careers.

The 13th article in the series is authored by Kathy Hillelson, CEO of the New York-headquartered Owl Financial Group, which provides alternative asset-based financing solutions specifically for the diamond industry. Starting out in advertising and then shifting to financing, she eventually made her way to the diamond and jewelry sector, where her family was long established. There she forged her niche, straddling the two worlds in which she specializes.

She said ‘NO’

Kathy Hillelson, CEO of the Owl Financial Group in New York.

As I sit at my desk on a cold, winter’s day, reflecting on my career, I realize I was bred for this…

It all began for me in the late 80s. At the time, I was a young girl and my father was the head of sales for the United States and the Caribbean islands for an Italian jewelry line. This was after he moved to New York in the 1970s, already an experienced diamond cutter, and continued to grow his business in the industry by buying and selling important diamonds on a wholesale level.  I could see the respect my father garnered from colleagues and the beauty in all the goods we passed in the windows as we walked down 47th Street. However, I was still a child and the thought of following in my father’s footsteps simply didn’t exist, yet that is.

I grew up, graduated college and quickly entered the job market. Still unsure as to what I really wanted to do, I began my career in advertising, as this was the beginning of the Silicon Valley boom.  It made sense then, but as time went on I realized I needed a change. Advertising was not my thing.  I decided to change my path and enter the world of finance. 

As a mortgage broker, I quickly learned what it means, in essence, to be your own boss – to be self-sufficient. It also taught me that hard work can pay off and, what you put into it, is what you get out. I was lucky to have incredible mentors and a team that I still keep in touch with today. Nothing was more fulfilling to me than making a homebuyer’s dream a reality!

The art of saying ‘No’

Whilst focusing on my career in finance, I remember my father approaching me to come work with him. He said “it would be so much fun and you would learn so much of how to run a business.”

Although he tried really hard to convince me, I was still establishing my career and I was not ready to make any kind of move in that direction. So I said “No.”

Many years passed focusing on growing my business.  I learned and lived through interest rates rising and falling. Life was good and then the real estate bubble burst. Again… it was time to pivot and this time I told my father “Yes.”

I knew that if I was going to make this change and join this small niche, where everyone knows a little bit about you, it had to be done right.

Straight to GIA I went. I got certified in Diamonds in 2011 after completing a rigorous training program and made some great friends along the way.  This was my beginning in the international world of diamonds. 

The author, Kathy Hillelson, seated with her father, Kalman Klein, a jewelry and gemstone industry veteran who she eventually followed into the business. 

Building my own

Immediately upon graduating from GIA, I began working with my father at Blue River Gems. This time I was on 47th Street with a whole new appreciation and determination for the industry my father had long shown a passion for. He wanted or, perhaps more precisely, expected that I learn as much as possible from him and his peers.

So, I started from the bottom and was thrown into the fire as they say. Everything from answering phones, creating invoices, to being a runner, to buying diamonds, etcetera, all became my job. I learned each role through and through and later became dubbed “The Research Queen.” It’s a title I still fondly hold today.

You see, as the second-generation daughter of a family with Western European roots, the expectation to work hard and earn my keep was very high. My father had spent decades building a company, a family, his reputation and respect from his colleagues. Therefore, like him, my word had to mean everything, and respect was to be earned the hard way.

There was no leniency being female in a male-dominated industry, nor because I was “the boss’s daughter.” I wholeheartedly accepted this challenge, to prove that I am more than capable, and knowledgeable enough to stand on my own merit and forge my own path.

It was then that I began to notice a need for capital within the industry and decided to do something about it. Owl Financial Group was finally born! I had brought both of my worlds together. Owl was a reiteration of my previous financial career combined with the jewelry industry I had fully delved into at Blue River Gems.

With Owl, we were able to help fellow colleagues get the capital they needed within a shorter time-frame than they would through the banks that were lending at the time.


Growing trust, gem by gem

In 2015, I became CEO at Owl, simultaneously continuing to grow the finance company, as well as working alongside my father at Blue River Gems.

Owl Financial Group began with us servicing existing colleagues and via referrals. Our client base began to grow, and through trial and error we further expanded.

After having spent some time in Hong Kong and London, we were able to solidify Owl’s overseas relations before returning to the capital of the U.S. industry, New York City.

Life and business were at an all-time high. I was basically running two international and successful businesses, and had my second child. Juggling multiple hats as a wife, mother, daughter and female business owner had become second nature.  Work-life balance was out the window, but all was going well.

Then in March of 2020 came this little thing called COVID-19. The world was officially shut down.

It was to take a couple of years before life and the world around me on 47th Street started to return to some sense of normalcy, but I found the same principles remained. This seemingly small yet international industry continued to be based on trust, respect and integrity. COVID hadn’t changed that. In fact, it further instilled those values within me.

A sparkling success

Today, I have successfully mastered the art of balancing the company and family I have grown and am happy that I ultimately said ”Yes” to growing Owl Financial Group and continuing the journey.

Through determination and guidance from the strong, independent women who have come before me, I have even been able to further venture into the diamond industry.

I have since become a member of the JVC, DMIA, WJA and now the World Diamond Council, where I hope my involvement through Owl will bring vast opportunities for me to give back to the worldwide community around me.

“I have successfully mastered the art of balancing the company and family I have grown and am happy that I ultimately said ”Yes” to growing Owl Financial Group and continuing the journey,” says Kathy Hillelson.

From the series