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As a kid growing up in Senegal, Mamadou N’Diaye was obsessed with “Dynasty,” the ’80s soap opera about a rich oil family.He and his friends would marvel as the characters dropped thousands of dollars on dresses and toys, and try to conceive of what those amounts would by in their own currency.
The characters on “Dynasty” were a world away, but the show had a major influence on Ndiaye’s life.
Today N’Diaye, 44, is one of the top jewelry sales associates at Bergdorf Goodman’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue, selling precious jewelry to a regular group of 50 to 75 customers.
The story of how he got from Senegal to the Bergdorfs’ jewelry counter is an incredible tale of hard work and perseverance. We recently sat down with N’Diaye to find out how it happened.
Finding “Dynasty” In Manhattan
N’Diaye got his first glimpse of New York when a friend who had recently arrived sent home snapshots of lower Manhattan. He was smitten, and convinced his father to let him travel there to study, although he knew practically no one and spoke no English. The year was 1989.
Shortly after arriving and in need of a job, N’Diaye took the train downtown from the East Harlem apartment he was renting—and wound up in front of Barneys, which at the time was located in Chelsea. Immediately, the fancy department store reminded him of the world of “Dynasty.”
He struck up a conversation with the doorman, who was also from Africa, and soon found himself washing dishes in the kitchen of the department store’s restaurant. It was a lucky break.
“There was a chef who spoke French, and he used to teach me some English words,” N’Diaye said, “And in exchange, I had to prep the vegetables for him for the next morning.”
He worked extra hours in the kitchen, saving money and slowly learning to speak English, starting with basic kitchen vocabulary.
Another lucky break came when the chef called in sick on a day when Barney Pressman, the store’s founder, stopped in for lunch. With no one else around to make Mr. Pressman’s favourite meal, a tuna fish sandwich with lettuce and tomato, N’Diaye stepped up.
“Mr. Pressman asked my manager if we got a new chef,” N’Diaye said. “The next day my manager came into the kitchen and asked who had cooked, and everyone pointed at me.” He was quickly promoted to sous chef, where he remained for a year and half.
A Tough Decision
N’Diaye enrolled in marketing classes at York College, and took a series of odd jobs—including unloading delivery trucks at Barneys at 5 a.m. and delivering newspapers—to support himself.
But after three semesters he realised he simply couldn’t afford to finish school, and decided to focus on building a career where he would be able to support himself and send money back home to his family in Senegal.
He took a job as a stock person at Barneys, where he learned about the merchandise and got to know the sales people. Soon after transferring to Barneys’ just-opened Madison Avenue store in 1993, he made his move.
“I went to my manager’s office and said, ‘I want to try and be a sales person,'” he said. “She said, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ and I said, ‘Yes.'”
When the next sales position opened up, she gave it to him. He spent a few years selling accessories before his next lucky break.
An Offer Too Good To Refuse
One day around Christmas, while working at the jewelry counter, a customer (N’Diaye won’t say who) came in and bought out the store’s entire stock of Jeffrey Roberts jewelry, a high-end line sold exclusively by Barneys. He soon struck up a friendship with Roberts and when Roberts decided to take his business to Bergdorf Goodman an avenue over, he asked N’Diaye to come with him.
N’Diaye didn’t want to leave the company that had given him his first job and promoted him through the ranks. But after some convincing he went in for an interview at Bergdorfs, thinking he would name a salary so high they would never make him an offer.
But two days later he got a call: He got the job and the salary he asked for.
The offer was too good to refuse. He told his manager he was leaving, and started working for Bergdorfs in 1999.
A Philosophy For Selling
Most of N’Diaye’s regular clients came with him to Bergdorfs, and today he works with a small group of customers who regularly purchase expensive clothing, accessories and jewelry from the department store. Most of them have been his clients for 10 or 15 years.
He works with foreigners and New York natives—mostly women. And during his decade and a half on the sales floor, he’s developed some insight into his customers.
“A lot of time, you see people come in dressed very well, and you get excited because you think they are going to spend all this money,” N’Diaye said. “And then you see people come with jeans or sweatpants, and they end up surprising you.”
As for his success with big spenders who return regularly to the store, N’Diaye said it has to do with the way he treats people.
“It’s not like I have more knowledge than anyone else on the floor,” he said. “But my philosophy is wanting to treat anyone who comes to Bergdorf like my sister, or someone I know and care about. I think a lot of my success comes from that.”‘
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