So What? This Is America, Isn’t It?

““No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.”” – William BlakeLike all countries, America is a land of inequalities. And despite the billions of dollars our government has spent on leveling the field, economic differences persist.

While politicians, bureaucrats, social activists, and other collective thinkers struggle futilely to regulate what can’t be regulated, ambitious individuals – assisted by nothing – carve out their own little fiefdoms in the land of the free.

Jeweler To Gangstas, Rappers, And DunkersConsider Jacob Arabo, recently profiled in Sports Illustrated. In 1979, when his native Uzbekistan was still a Soviet republic, Arabo (then 17) emigrated to this country and went to work immediately on West 47th Street in New York, sweeping floors and stocking shelves for local jewelers.

Unable to speak English and without the advantage of even a high-school education, Arabo worked 70 hours a week and did every job asked of him in order to bump himself up to the next obvious perch on his climb to success: a rented counter in the Kaplan Diamond Center where he could begin to sell his own jewelry.

Because he had paid attention to his employers, and particularly to how the selling got done, Arabo understood even at 23 that he needed a unique selling proposition (USP) to stand out among all the other diamond merchants he was competing against.

He decided to design his own jewelry and pitch his designs at a small but aggressive buyers’ market: pimps and drug dealers. Arabo somehow knew that he couldn’t compete against Cartier, so he shaped his product line after the garish, oversized ornaments he saw on MTV.

Word Gets Out Fast When You Have A Desirable USP

After a few homeboys saw his merchandise – a display case only Liberace could understand – word went out to the hoods. Pretty soon, gold-clad Mercedes were pulling up to his storefront.

A bit of luck bumped him up to some new customers: rap stars. And from there, he began to attract professional athletes.

Today, Arabo does about $20 million in sales, a third of which is sold to athletes and rap stars. Shaquille O’Neal recently dropped $170,000 for one of Arabo’s bracelets. Monte Barrett, a former New York Golden Gloves champion turned pro, bought himself a pendant of platinum boxing gloves covered with diamonds. The pendant weighed in at almost a third of a pound and cost Barrett $22,000. Stephon Marbury, the NBA player, bought one of Arabo’s favorite pieces – a $250,000 bracelet with 130 carats of diamonds that is designed to look like a platinum basketball net.

Other Arabo clients include Allen Iverson, Reggie Miller, Mike Tyson, Roy Jones Jr., Prince Naseem Hamed, Puff Daddy, and Jay-Z.

When You Start Humble, You Sometimes Remain Humble

Despite his success, he runs his business out of a simple office with plastic chairs and a Formica table. “I have found that they don’t care if you have the nice office or the leather chairs,” Arabo says. “They can get that at Cartier.” He says he likes to keep his overhead low, perhaps because he can still remember his meager beginnings. He has five employees, including his wife Angela, and uses some 15 contractors, but he does all his own designing.

His business strategy is to provide his special group of clients with exactly what they want: unmistakably unique and standout pieces with lots and lots of carats and relatively modest prices.

As far as I’m concerned, Arabo is an entrepreneurial hero. He started with nothing – no education, no money, no family, no friends, and no English – and created a wonderful little business for himself. And he did it in less than 10 years!

He has all the money he can possibly need. He is on a first-name basis with dozens of celebrities. He has his own little corner of fame, and he’s an American. What more can you ask for?

And Don’t Tell Me He Had Any Advantages

For the victimists and doubters out there who might point out that Arabo had the advantage of being white (more or less – he’s part Asian), consider his main rival: Chris Aire, owner of 2 Awesome International in Los Angeles. In addition to rappers, Aire also sells to O’Neal, Elton Brand, Shawn Kemp and other NBA players. Like Arabo, Aire came here as an uneducated immigrant. But unlike Arabo, he is black. Aire came here from Nigeria in 1984 – and has already become rich and somewhat famous.