From Good Job to Dream Job

Alumna entrepreneur leaves civil service to make “functional art”

By Samantha Bronson, USF News Posted Mon, 10/14/2019 - 16:45

After nearly a decade as a civil servant, Emily Parker MPA ’12 decided to follow her heart and make a career change. Today, she is a leather craftswoman who creates one-of-a-kind ostrich clutches, lambskin sandals, and belts.

Her decision seems to be paying off. Parker launched her label — EM Parker — online in early 2018 and then late last year opened a storefront in Menlo Park’s Allied Arts.

“I find it very romantic and enjoyable to work with your hands and make something beautiful,” Parker says. “It’s basically functional art.”

Restaurant menu covers, iPad covers, leather flower corsages — they’re all among the leather goods crafted by Parker. She’s even working to create leather walls for a client’s home.

Taking the Journey

How does one become an entrepreneur after nearly 10 years with the Social Security Administration?  With the federal agency, Parker began as a claims representative and worked her way up to operational supervisor.

For Parker, the shift began when her then-boyfriend and now husband, Ali Yurukoglu, was diagnosed with cancer. He beat the cancer, the two married, and together they resolved to not take happiness or life for granted. They moved to Boston for a job opportunity for him in 2013. Parker transferred to the Social Security Administration there, and to fill her free time, she started taking arts and crafts classes. After a five-day workshop on leather shoemaking, she was hooked.

But becoming a leather artisan isn’t something you can easily jump into — there’s a scarcity of teachers to learn from and the cost of quality tools and materials make it an especially challenging trade for newcomers. That didn’t deter Parker.

After she and Yurukoglu moved back to the Bay Area, Parker saved up for a year while continuing to work. She crafted a business plan and then quit her job with the Social Security Administration to apprentice for a year with a shoemaker. That was the beginning of her years-long journey to learn from some of the top leather artisans in the country and across the globe.

When space became available in Menlo Park, Parker wasn’t sure she was ready for a storefront, but she took the plunge anyway. Her goal for the first year was modest — make enough to cover the rent. She surpassed that goal with ease.

Still, Parker doesn’t plan to grow her business just yet. She’s happy to keep it small and to work solo. She creates each product from sourcing the leather, to prepping the leather, to creating a pattern, and then eventually to making the item. A typical clutch takes about 12 hours to create. The clutches, like most of her items, are hand-stitched, though she does machine-stitch some items.

Inspired by Jesuit Values

Parker is the first to acknowledge she’s taken a unique path after obtaining a master of public administration at USF. Still, she points out, the lessons from the degree apply well beyond the public sector. As a small business owner, she regularly draws on skills she learned in her classes, everything from budgeting to setting goals and objectives and how to improve performance.

While looking at graduate schools, Parker says she felt drawn to USF’s Jesuit values of community and of helping one another. Parker’s initial career choice as a public servant embodied that approach, but the Jesuit mission still plays a part in her career as a leather artisan. Ask why she travels to Europe to establish relationships with tanneries, for example, and you’ll learn about the strict regulations Europe has in place regarding leather tanning.

“I try to use the best possible products for the environment, for me, for the wearer, and everyone in between,” Parker says. “I really believe in the moral, social, ethical responsibility to make sure I get the most high-quality products available. I could certainly make more money if I used lower-quality materials, but I don’t believe in that.”