Before starting Hedley & Bennett, what did you do?
Ellen: I was a cook in Los Angeles at two different restaurants, and a personal chef for a family. Before that I went to school in Mexico, and had ten different oddball jobs that didn’t seem that important, but I later realized they were the building blocks of my business future. I was basically doing everything and anything I could to pay my way through living in Mexico while going to cooking school.
I also got a condo, split part of the living room into a bedroom, and basically subleased a bunch of the bedrooms to foreigners. I covered all my rent that way while I was living there.
So, you're very entrepreneurial.
Ellen: Apparently, and I didn’t even know it. I was like, “this makes sense and I need to pay my rent, let’s be scrappy about it.”
What led you to start Hedley & Bennett?
Ellen: While I was in Mexico going to culinary school, I already loved design. I loved any kind of design. I loved taking things that were sort of okay, and making them awesome. In my mind these sort of ideas were emerging. I loved the idea of making a better chef coat, a better uniform.
I didn’t really do anything about it until later when I started working at Providence, and the idea became more real and it made more sense to do it because I actually really needed it. Being in a real kitchen every day, and seeing how crappy everything was that we wore. I thought, “this is so weird, let’s change that.” And that’s where the idea sort of spawned. The seed had already been planted in my head earlier, and then it started blooming at Providence.
Did you have any formal business training before you started?
Ellen: No. I’ve taken a ton of classes in communication and economics and things like that, but I wouldn’t say it’s professional business training. I learned things that I needed to learn, and I asked a lot of people a lot of question as I came across problems that I didn’t know how to how to resolve.
Instead of saying, “I don’t know what that is,” or “that is too much for me,” I said, “I’m going to figure it out. I will make it work. I will ask questions and I will freaking figure it out.” If you have that approach, you can get a lot further because you’re not putting walls up around you.
What was your biggest fear before you started Hedley & Bennett?
Ellen: I wouldn’t call it a fear, I would call it more a motivation – but my biggest motivation, was to do something with myself, become something in the world, and to stand on my own two feet. When I was young my parents got divorced, and it was not a pretty divorce, it was one of those awful, tragic divorces. I saw the weight of the world on my mom’s shoulders, and thought, “God I really, I want to make sure that when I am an adult, not only am I not a problem to her, but I’m someone who can help her, and be independent. And whoever I end up marrying, I’m marrying them because I love them.” This wasn’t the case for my mom, but it was a decision I made because of seeing her; I never wanted to be tied to someone because I needed the money, I want to be with somebody because I love them.
People can take different things that happen in their life, and maybe become a victim. Or they can take those things and turn them into an opportunity or a driving force. I think that’s the approach that I took – I thought, “Okay, this is going to make me stronger, now I’m going to fight twice as hard to do well in the world.”
Your Glass Ceiling Turning Point
Do you find that being a woman ever creates challenges for you in the business world?
Ellen: No, I think the more attention you put on something, good or bad, the more it’ll become that. So putting a lot of attention on being a female in the business world would create more of a problem for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to not have it affect me.
If anything, I think that I’ve succeeded even more because I am a girl. I can talk to all kinds of people and it’s not weird. I’m not always trying to make deals – I’m just being friends with people. I think that as a lady, you have even more opportunities. Doors seem to be more willing to be opened because there is a feminine touch to it. People will do stuff with you, they will work with you, and they’ll trust you.
Yeah, we absolutely agree with that, and that there is a way that women do business that's much more collaborative. We also think it's good when you bring a fresh perspective and diversity to situation. You create so much opportunity and better outcome in that sense.
Ellen: 100%. I think that’s been a really wonderful thing that has been well received from my business by other businesses. We have a different approach to selling, to business, to the way we work with people. We’re extremely humble, we are extremely into hearing ideas and taking advice, and we’re just open about stuff.
It helps us as grow as a company, but it also helps us cultivate relationships. If it’s a great idea, I don’t care who told it to me, I’m going to apply it.
When you started, was Hedley & Bennett a side project or did you go in full force, full time from the beginning?
Ellen: No. For sure it was a side project. I didn’t even quit my job at Providence for a year and a half into Hedley & Bennett. By the time I quit, I had an office and employees, and I still went to work a few days a week at Providence.
I was very adamant about not jumping the nest too early. In my case, I liked the craziness of being at the restaurant and then being at my office. It was my safety net; I knew that I had the restaurant, I had the kitchen, and it was there to protect me. But I was also building my business and learning new things while cooking. It was sort of like half my week was market research.
Do you have a mentor?
Ellen: Yeah, I have a handful, and they’re totally random at times. I think that when someone’s willing to learn, people are willing to teach. I have a really amazing uncle. I call him my Jewish business uncle because he’s a brilliant, old school, handshake means gold sort of a guy. He has these amazing toy stores all over California, and has survived every recession that hit the US. He was my go-to guy in the beginning, and then I’ve had amazing people, like designers and other chefs, who have taken me under their wing.
You can get all the advice in the world, but if you don’t use it, it doesn’t mean anything. These guys were giving me the advice, and then I was turning around and doing the work. They would see that, which made them want to help me even more.
The Business of Your Business
How did you finance your business?
Ellen: It was fully, totally bootstrapped. I took my first order, took in money from that, and then I used that to fund the rest of them. I literally just, would buy 5 aprons, and sell 10 and then make 20. I then tried to do twice as much in half the time to save time and money. When we first started our online orders, if someone ordered an apron, I would have rush over to my sewer in Compton to get him to make that apron. I would email the customer and say, “Okay, your apron is being made. It’s going be ready in two weeks.” I had no money, so I had to make ends meet with the little amounts of orders that I had. And when the orders would run out, I would get out there and hustle again. I would go visit more restaurants, and go to more places, and talk to more people. I was calling and talking to people as opposed to being behind the computer and emailing people only. I was actually showing up to places and saying, “Can I show you our stuff?”
Where did you find your sewer?
Ellen: Through friends of friends. I went and made dinner for this other guy, so that he would make me a pattern. I literally used food as my trade. That was my commodity; I cooked food, so I could trade it for something else.
I was working with a sewer on orders, and then one of his employees was like “Hey, I’ll work for you full-time.” So he quit his little sewing shop where he was working with this other man and came to work with me full-time.
At that point I had a full-time employee that I suddenly was responsible for, before I even had a store, and before I even had my first office. That kind of made it really real. I had to get orders for Jose. I had take care of Jose. Fuck paying myself. I needed to make sure that Jose had money. That was another thing that kept me going.
Have you taken in investment at any point?
Ellen: No, we’ve grown organically.
How many employees do you have now?
Ellen: 27. And then separately all of our sewers, but our actual employees are 27.
How long has it been?
Ellen: Almost four years.
What kind of culture do you infuse into your company?
Ellen: I very much want it to feel happy and collaborative, and that everyone is in it together. It’s definitely hard sometimes to do that. Essentially, I’m wearing so many hats; I’m Ellen the apron lady, but I’m also Ellen the CEO, and Ellen the CFO and COO and CCO. I’ve had to mentally separate the different roles that I am in. When I’m being Ellen the CEO, I’m more of a hard ass, and need to get shit done, and it’s important. But when I’m Ellen the apron lady, I’m being myself.
The more I learned to manage all these roles that I carry, the better culture I create around with my staff. The more employees I’ve gotten around me as a team, the better the culture has gotten, because I’m now able to have other people create that culture. We have people whose job it is to make sure that our staff is doing well. That’s really important to me.
I think now we’re in the best place we’ve ever been in, in terms of culture. Every week we have a staff meeting and go over everything that everybody accomplished. Anything that we need to celebrate, we celebrate there at the staff meeting. Any triage situations, we talk about there; we’re transparent with our books, with our staff. We’re just very open about everything because every one of my staff is a pillar in my company.
What growing pains have you experienced?
Ellen: When I started this, I had no idea half the things that I would be dealing with. I don’t think anybody ever knows that when they go into business, unless they go and get an MBA before they start, and in that case, sometimes they end up being too pessimistic.
I really didn’t quite have my wits wrapped around how much time and effort would need to go into employees. I just always thought, “This is a big dream, and it’s awesome, and everyone is going to just want to come and do it with you.” You have to carry the torch and inspire yourself, but also continue to inspire the people around you. And anytime somebody would leave, I would take it very personally, like a breakup. I’ve had to coach myself out of that.
Where do you want Hedley & Bennett to be in five years from now?
Ellen: It’s hard for me to imagine where we will be in one year. So many different things happen every day, we move so quickly year around at H&B that it’s a tough question. I mean for sure, in five years, we better freaking be a household name, no question.
I want to be the Nike of the culinary world. I want every man, woman, and child to be wearing Hedley & Bennett because he is a professional cook, wants to be a professional chef, or loves cooking at home. It’s just the uniform for the makers. If you look and feel the part, you can do the part. It’s epic workwear. The best workwear.
Where do you find inspiration?
Ellen: In doing crazy exercise activity, like a triathlon or doing marathons. I have to do crazy shit to carve time out of my day. And I love big ass challenges. We did a triathlon four or five months ago. By we, I mean my boyfriend and I, who owns his own company – so we both have to inspire ourselves equally.
We have a big target every quarter of something crazy that we’re going to do in terms of exercise, either triathlon, a marathon, or the No Kid Hungry ride. There’s something really awesome about pushing yourself to the brink of, “I’m going to give up,” and then you don’t give up, and you keep going, and you grow because of that.
The other way to get inspired is I’ll go and I’ll cook in a professional kitchen. There’s Bestia down the street, or sometimes I’ll pop into Providence and I’ll just cook on the line for the night.
How have you built a community around your customers?
Ellen: When we took on the apron factory, part of the reason was to be able to offer a space to our community. We’ve done events like throwing a 1,000 person party to celebrate Shake Shack coming to the West Coast. It’s awesome to be able to say, “Hey, you’re in my hood, let’s throw a party together.” To be able to do that is really amazing. That’s been a way that we’ve been be able to cultivate our community even more because we can offer space and ideas.
We are extremely collaborative with everything, including marketing. Our Instagram tends to be a lot of us talking about different chefs all over the country who are wearing our stuff, or doing social media giveaways with companies that we love. Another thing we do, which is really fun, is we took the Birch Box mentality, and for every single order that comes out of Hedley & Bennett, we give something away from a company that we love.
Do you have any business role models?
Ellen: Yes, I think that Danny Meyer is a freaking genius. Also, Ari Weinzweig at Zingerman’s – their books, everything that they believe in, I very much think is brilliant. Also, Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike. I love his book Shoe Dog, which is the story of how Nike was grown. It’s really funny because it’s very similar to how we started to grow Hedley & Bennett in the beginning – just scrappy as all hell. And then the other guy that I think is like a freaking genius too, is Tony Hsieh from Zappos.
How do you keep your team motivated?
Ellen: Every week at our staff meeting we give shout-outs and certificates. And you might think, “My god, that’s so kindergarten,” but it’s amazing. You can see everyone’s face light up because they’re actually being thanked for the things they do at their job on the daily.
We also have family meals at the office. Everybody will bring in food and we’ll cook it all together, and then we’ll eat lunch together. It’s just fun, food related things that are awesome as a group.
When we do have company events for our staff, they’re really fun. Last year, instead of doing a fancy dinner for Christmas, we did a crawfish boil and had giant tables. We plastered them with gigantic buckets of crawfish and corn, and invited all of their friends and family.
Are you part of any professional network?
Ellen: I have a couple sort of, you could say they’re self made groups, that I’m a part of. Every month, I get together with the founder of ban.do and Sugar Paper. We’re all running our own companies, so it’s extremely helpful to have that group. We have a standing meeting to talk about the good things and the bad. We’ll spend four hours together just like pouring our guts out about how things are going. And we just stuff our faces.
And then, I have, you could say, a rough advisory board. When I have big decisions or tough things I call them, or I get together with them.
How do you balance your work and personal life?
Ellen: I think when you’re a business owner, there is no balance, there is no difference. Your life is your work and your work is your life. And if it’s something that you enjoy, you just find ways to braid it together. I can’t quite separate it because Hedley & Bennett is a part of me, and I created it. Sometimes, I feel guilty that I’m not at the office, and then, I realize I have to be inspired to lead my team.
What is the best thing about running your own business and the most difficult?
Ellen: You could say the most difficult part is that it doesn’t shut off, but at the same time it’s kind of awesome, because you are always thinking of new ideas. And also, at the end of the day, if shit hits the fan, you are at the top of the totem pole, so you are responsible for all of it.
So if you’re not into responsibility, don’t open your own fucking business.
I think the best part is that you can make it as big or as little as you want; it’s up to you. You’re driving the car. You can speed up the car, or slow down the car, but it’s your choice and it’s your call.
And that is so exciting to think about. You can change the way you do your day-to-day. It’s not just, “I’m going to get up and go to the office,” it’s, “My life destiny is in my hands.”
What are you most proud of?
Ellen: I’m really proud of my team. I’m really proud of the group of people that we’ve surrounded ourselves with, and how each one of them brings something to the table. And the fact that we’re contributing to the American economy by providing jobs, and then on top of it we’re also creating happiness by creating community. And by creating community, we’re making the world a happier place. It’s so awesome.
Have you had a moment where you thought you had made it, or had a “pinch me” moment?
Ellen: When we got into Heath Ceramics in our first year, which has always been one of my favorite stores ever, it was pretty “pinch me.” Another “pinch me” moment was when I moderated a panel for Cherry Bombe magazine. It was five CEOs – really amazing, epic, incredible CEOs. It was really exciting and awesome to be up there, aligned with the head of Whole Foods, and the head of Food 52, and these amazing women that have done so much amazing stuff.
And also, when we got the factory. It went from me in my house, to this gigantic factory with a zip line, and swings, and slide and stuff. That was, it was a “pinch me” moment, but at the same time it was “punch me, I can’t believe I just did that.”
What advice would you give to people who are just starting out in business?
Ellen: Read as many books, and look at as many things that other people have done, but create something with your own spin. Don’t try and copy what someone else has done. It’s a lot easier to be yourself and to be original than it is to be someone else. Figure out your own flavor, figure out your own secret sauce, and work on you.
Photography by: Katrina Dickson