A Greenville jewelry maker whose business grew from a hobby to national recognition has now been recognized for her contributions to the community.

Ileana Maria Rojas-Bennett, owner and designer of Maleku Jewelry, was presented with the Small Business Leader of the Year Award during an event hosted by the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce. The chamber gives the award annually.

Chris Godley of Chris Godley State Farm Agency and Carrie Lewis of Pink A Lilly Pulitzer Signature Store were recognized as finalists for the 2019 award. The small, socially distanced ceremony was broadcast via a live stream from Opendoor Church.

Rojas-Bennett said she was surprised when her name was called on Wednesday. “I actually couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t expecting to win at all,” Rojas-Bennett said.

Maleku Jewelry, located in Arlington Village, offers handmade items crafted with gold, sterling silver, fine silver, copper, first quality precious stones and gemstones. Rojas-Bennett has been making jewelry in Greenville since 2006 and is the recipient of many prestigious awards, including the “Beyond the Runway” award at New York’s Fashion Week in 2010.

Winning the prize in New York in 2010 was important for her career as a designer, Rojas-Bennett said. But she said winning the chamber recognitions in many ways means more to her than previous awards.

She said it is a tremendous responsibility to win because it carries over into customer service and how she carries herself in the community.

“The fact that your own town is recognizing your effort and the fact that you carry the name of the place that you live everywhere you go and you represent them well, I think it’s a tremendous honor,” Rojas-Bennett said.

Bennett, a former educator in North Carolina, began her business as a hobby in her home and quickly outgrew the space, according to the chamber. Following her time at Pitt Community College, learning more about jewelry and metals, Bennett opened her store and expanded her product line.

Maleku, meaning Indian Love, is an indigenous tribe from northern Costa Rica and most of the proceeds from the store go toward assisting the tribe. Bennett’s work has been showcased in the Latin Grammy’s, Academy Awards, Emmy Awards and Golden Globes.

Bennett is actively involved in the community through her support of nonprofits and organizations including the Greenville Museum of Art, The Oakwood School, St. Peter Catholic School and the Humane Society of Eastern Carolina. She donates custom jewelry to raffle off, generating financial support in return from donations from the raffles.

“Small businesses are vital to our community and make up over 75 percent of the businesses in our Chamber and community — it is our honor to celebrate their hard work and contributions to the Greenville-Pitt County area,” said chamber President Kate Teel. “This year’s finalists have not only had successes in launching and running their respective businesses, but have also invested their time and talents outside of their businesses in the effort to make our community a better place to live.”

The Chamber hosts the Small Business Awards event each year to honor leaders in the Pitt County business community who have demonstrated successful operations of their business as well as made a significant impact on the community.

Finalists are selected based off of nominations from their peers and later recognized at thw event.

Thursday’s event was presented by the City of Greenville and First Citizens Bank.

Gold Sponsors for this year’s event included the Pitt County Development Commission, Executive Personnel Group and WNCT. Visit greenvillenc.org/smallbusinessawards for more on the awards.

Contact Bobby Burns at baburns@reflector.com and 329.9572.