A pinch of sand in 1,000 shellfish may never yield a pearl. But Cate Powell’s focused service in India’s pearl capital could cultivate a gem of a jewelry business at home.

For two years, the Brookhaven native and 2002 Westminster School graduate has operated a fair-trade business called POP (Piece of the Pie) Jewelry Collective (popjewelrycollective.com).

The company sells cultured pearl necklaces and, in turn, provides business and educational opportunities for women and children in Hyderabad, India.

“In this business, everybody gets a piece of the pie,” the 25-year-old told the Rotary Club of Sandy Springs June 29 in her presentation about the Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar program and how it spurred her jewelry business.

“I want to be a voice for fairness in business, for giving women chances in business and for being transparent about the purpose,” she explained.

As a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, Powell lived in Hyderabad from 2007 to 2008. There she studied interfaith relations and reconciliation at the Henry Martyn Institute; taught peace education at schools; and gave speeches to Rotary clubs across India.

“What I received in India for the 11 months that I was there was truly a mind, body and spirit education,” Powell said. “This scholarship really helped me to realize that leadership and service were what made me feel fulfilled and gave me a purpose in life.”

The project that changed her world, she said, was the handicraft business she created with Hindu and Muslim women from the nearby community development center.

The women were already crafting items to sell but earned little in profits.

“I had to sit back and watch them fail, because I didn’t want to come in as a foreigner and try to act like I knew everything about business,” she said. “I knew I had to work on building a relationship.”

Powell procured pearls from the vast markets of Hyderabad and gave talks at the school. The women soon showed interest.

“We learned to make the necklaces together and within two months … we sold all of the necklaces, and all the money went back to the women,” said Powell, noting 20 percent of profits fund educational supplies for children in Hyderabad. “The amount of empowerment that was felt by all of us … was something that was miraculous.”

Powell said market vendors were shocked to see women negotiating pearl sales, let alone Hindu, Muslim and Christian women working together.

When Powell returned from India, she vowed to grow the business and has secured space in six metro Atlanta boutiques, attended craft shows and built an e-commerce Web site.

July 13 through Aug. 10, Powell and a group of Atlanta women will return to Hyderabad to donate necessities like shoes, desks and books for about 100 children from the community development center.

Powell will also strengthen ties with the 15 to 20 women involved, as well as produce a documentary film about the project. She plans to hold an event to show the short movie when she returns to Atlanta.

“I’m trying to keep this project very practical and very focused,” Powell said. “I don’t want to spread myself too thin. I want to do the best I can with this community development center, in this neighborhood, with these children and with these women.”

Powell’s past adventures

Powell has filled her life with diverse experiences and community service.

“My parents are very open-minded and they always taught me … to try to interact with any and all people,” Powell said. “Service is … about building friendships and building relationships, and then creating projects that can positively change communities.”

As a high school student, she volunteered at nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity and My Sister’s House, a women’s shelter on Howell Mill Road.

Intrigued by different people and perceptions, she also worked for two years at the Waffle House next to the Brookhaven MARTA station on Peachtree Road. It was a usual job for a prep school student, but the experience helped her relate to others she said.

After high school, Powell headed to Scripps College in Claremont, Calif. where she earned a degree in religious studies.

There Powell became fascinated with diversity issues after racial tensions ignited on campus. She enrolled in a domestic exchange program and spent a semester at Spelman College in Atlanta, a predominantly black institution. She also traveled to India through a Tibetan studies program. Both situations exposed her to new cultures and challenges.

Powell will begin graduate studies in international affairs at Georgia Tech this fall.