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Life & Business

1 Dream, 10 Years, and Thousands of Baskets Later with Etsuko Yashiro

by Sabrina Smelko

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Ten years ago, Etsuko Yashiro opened a humble basket-making studio in Cambridge, MA with just a head full of dreams inspired by a trip to Nantucket, MA. A decade later, her business, GrayMist Studio and Shop, has grown from a workspace for one into a community space that hosts classes, a place where artists of all kinds are welcome to teach and learn various mediums, and a public gift shop.

“I’ve always tried to think about GrayMist as more than just a business,” Etsuko shares. “Some of my goals included helping women in any way that I can, and creating opportunities for our community.” Despite being told that her vision was too niche to be a success, Etsuko’s strong will and values never failed her — and her lack of fear has even led her to author a book on the art form inspired by her years of training under renowned Nantucket basket-making master Alan Reed.

Ever the problem-solver and believer in learning as you go, today Etsuko joins us to chat more about how she got started, why people are your most valuable business asset, the importance of going with your gut, and what one wedding in 1994 has to do with it all. –Sabrina

Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was, and how did you know it was what you wanted to do? 

The first time that I visited Nantucket was in 1994. I traveled there for a wedding and fell in love with the island. I was mesmerized by the wedding and the Nantucket traditions. The whole wedding party wore all white and each member carried a different type of Nantucket basket. This experience left me with such an impressive image, and I became intrigued by the baskets.

Later on, I purchased a Nantucket Friendship Basket. I was so excited to own a basket, but I realized that it wasn’t quite the shape or size that I wanted. I thought to myself, “Someone made this. Maybe I can make one, too.” I started researching basket makers on the island, and sought out the best teacher to learn from. It was then, 20 years ago, that I met Alan Reed.

Alan is one of the best Nantucket Lightship and Friendship basket makers in the world. He is a craftsman with an exquisite attention to detail and distinctive style. For five years after we met, I asked him to teach me to make baskets. He continuously refused, but finally, during the sixth year, he decided to take me on as a student. His skills and dedication to the craft have shaped my life as an artist and businesswoman.

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What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

When I first started out, I was actually told not to pursue this type of business. I was told by a consultant that it would fail because it was such a niche business. I think it’s important to stick to your beliefs and your gut.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

The financial aspect of starting a business was definitely the hardest part. I poured all of my savings into this business, and also the money that I had been saving for my children’s college education. It was a huge risk at the time.

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

I’ve learned that people are the greatest asset for a business. Great people can make a business fly and feel like the gears are always moving in conjunction with one another. Building a great team made of great individuals is the best thing you can do for a business.

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Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?

I used to have a very hard time firing or letting go of employees. I used to believe that I could change bad habits and apathetic employees. I used to hang onto employees even if they were impeding the company goals. It turned out to be a disastrous decision. When the team doesn’t have common goals, it can’t work well together.

If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?

I would exercise! When you’re running a business, there are so many pieces that are moving at all times. If I am in great shape, then I can be better for my business and my employees. I would also cook, which I find very relaxing.

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What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

Sacrificing time with my family was the hardest thing to do when starting out. My kids were very young, and the business took constant attention.

Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?

I’m most proud of creating a company that is bigger than myself. Being able to hire employees and create an opportunity for them is something that I’m so thrilled to be able to do.

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What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

I loved reading The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber, which is a great book about entrepreneurship. The idea of working on a business versus in a business really resonated with me.

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?

Saying “no” to our employees or rejecting an idea is very hard for me, especially when there isn’t time to fully explain the reasoning behind each decision. Sometimes saying “no” is about weighing the big picture and seeing if the idea fits into it.

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Comments

  • Very inspiring. Great example of quality and stylish business. Beautiful and lovely! I am somehow very moved by the baskets story:)

  • Great article, very inspiring story about commitment and willpower. 5 years of rejection! However, when you wrote “under renowned Japanese basket-making master Alan Reed,” I believe you meant “Nantucket Basket.”

  • What a lovely and inspirational story of perseverance! I’ve actually been to the shop and it’s wonderful. Just FYI, the shop is in Cambridge, not Nantucket as the article states.

  • How exciting to see Etsuko’s picture here on designsponge! I’ve just started working at GrayMist part-time and it has a peaceful ambiance, a bit of product quirkiness with subtle Japanese influences. It’s located specifically in Huron Village, Cambridge.

  • Glad to see some recognition of Nantucket basketry. As the daughter of one of the greats (who’s since provided artisans such as Alan with molds), I’d like to highlight two things: this artist is not from or located in Nantucket, and Alan Reed is an extraordinary talent- but a NANTUCKET basket maker- not Japanese! His student in this case is an extension of this extraordinary talent- her work is beautiful.

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