Closing Doors and a Meditation on the Nature of Change

Visiting a Bedouin camel farm in the United Arab Emirates during a business trip to Dubai.
Visiting a Bedouin camel farm in the United Arab Emirates during a business trip to Dubai.

Visiting a Bedouin camel farm in the United Arab Emirates during a business trip to Dubai.

 

In the fall of 2003, I started an apothecary company. Truth be told: I had no earthly idea what I was doing. NONE. I was in the midst of a messy divorce, taking my first steps as a newly single mama on some pretty wobbly legs. I was broke, scared, and deeply humbled. I was raising two sweet toddlers who needed heaps of support and I was woefully low on energy and opportunity.

 

 

I had no job, no college degree, and no economic security. What did I have? A sharp mind, a burning desire to build some stability as quickly as possible, precious little to lose, a deep commitment to my children, and just enough chutzpah to believe that my life could be different than it was in that moment. As it turns out, that was enough.

 

Early packaging and some rudimentary photography... it was a "make it work" moment!

Early packaging and some rudimentary photography… it was a “make it work” moment!

 

With no prior business experience and very, very few dollars, I launched Bella Lucce from the kitchen of my 800 square foot house just outside Knoxville, TN. A few years earlier, my sister had navigated a health crisis, and that scare spawned my desire to know more about what I was putting in and on my body. I began making my own skin care and body care products with natural ingredients, and you could often find my oldest daughter Chloe and I mixing up bath salts, body soaps, and face creams in our kitchen. I never dreamed that my hobby would flourish into a business- I simply wanted to have more confidence in the products I was using.

 

 

Fast forward to 2003 and I had moved into my parent’s spare bedroom on the opposite side of the state while working through my divorce. Both my daughters, my dog, and myself all snuggled in tight in a single bed. After being turned down for a waitressing job at a local steakhouse and standing in line for food stamps at my local social service agency (note: This is what “rock bottom” feels like), my mother gently suggested that perhaps I should set up a booth at the local farmers market to sell my products on weekends while I looked for a “real job.”

 

 

I took her advice… not because I had any real hope that the effort could be successful, but because I was suffering from a dearth of opportunities. I was woefully low on options, and my bills were accumulating quickly and what the hell else was I going to do?

 

Bella Lucce's first commercial kitchen in. It was *tiny* and we outgrew it within six months, but I was positively giddy about having my own space.

Bella Lucce’s first commercial kitchen in. It was *tiny* and we outgrew it within six months, but I was positively giddy about having my own space.

 

Oddly enough, I landed my first wholesale account before I landed my first farmers market. The details of the how and why seem unimportant at this moment, but my beloved Bella Lucce took off like a rocket ship. Within twelve months, I had signed my hundredth wholesale account. I cranked out bath bombs by hand as I watched PBS with my daughters, sitting on the floor together each afternoon. The girls and I ate dinner on boxes of empty jars that doubled as our dining table. And each Saturday, I’d load up my mother’s old minivan with packages and head to the post office. The attendant diligently weighed and stamped each one, a line of patient souls growing outside the door as they triaged dozens of parcels.

 

 

In 2004, I remarried and relocated to South Carolina. Signed the lease on my first commercial space, which I outgrew just six months later. Bella Lucce started appearing in magazine editorials fairly regularly. I signed our first distributor and jetted off to Dubai for my first trade show. 250 accounts, then 500, then 1000. A European distributor and training sessions in Vienna. Business dinners in Rome. Press junkets in Kuwait. Custom development meetings in Jordan. Distributors in Scandinavia, Madagascar, and South Korea. Sell-outs on a home shopping network. Ingredient sourcing trips to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, the jungles of Ghana, and in villages down the rutted, red clay roads of Uganda as I worked to build ethical supply chains for dozens of exotic materials.

 

Bella Lucce has enjoyed press coverage around the world. A sampling, from left-to-right: Italy, the United Arab Emirates, and the U.S.

Bella Lucce has enjoyed press coverage around the world. From left-to-right: Italy, the United Arab Emirates, and the U.S.

 

And with all of that explosive business growth came building expansions. Hirings. Firings. A lawsuit or two. Pitch decks. Sales meetings. Investor meetings. Vendor meetings galore. Being courted for a reality TV show. Walking the halls of Congress to lobby for small business. And lots and lots of time on planes. Which lead to…

 

 

Lots and lots of time on my therapist’s couch. I’m not in the least bit ashamed to share that with you. Growing a business has been the singular most challenging experience of my life. I’ve survived divorce, cancer, cranial tumors, natural childbirth, and bankruptcy… and I’m here to tell you that none of those experiences challenged me more than growing my business. Nothing forced me to go further outside my comfort zone. Nothing forced me to believe in myself more. Nothing forced me to become a stronger leader, or to check my expectations at the door, or to face down my darkest fears, or to become a more attuned “people reader” than running a multi-million-dollar manufacturing firm that hundreds of people around the world counted on to feed their families. Let me tell you, friend: THAT is some heady stuff.

 

Thankfully, our packaging and photography got better over time. I'm especially proud of this handmade soap, wrapped in a beautiful handpainted mud cloth that I sourced directly from Mali, Africa, retailed in handmade baskets that I sourced directly from Uganda.

Thankfully, our packaging and photography got better over time. I am especially proud of this handmade soap, wrapped in a beautiful handpainted mud cloth that I sourced direct from Mali, retailed in handmade baskets that I sourced directly from Uganda.

 

I love the hustle and there’s almost nothing I enjoy more than dreaming up (and pursuing) new opportunities. But while so many of us pray for the kind of opportunities I enjoyed, I can tell you that explosive growth is both a blessing and a curse. Overtaxed adrenals. Cash flow crises. Kids who miss their mom. A husband who often got the remnants of what was left of me at the end of the month rather than my best. And one very, very tired Lela who felt like she had summited the mountain of business only to find that the view at the top wasn’t quite what I had expected. It took me a long time to make peace with that difficult realization, but I finally came to my senses while on a beach in Thailand.

 

 

In 2011, two senior managers resigned at my company in the span of one week. There was no great scandal underlying those departures. One was following her husband to another state as he began a new job; the other was simply tired and fried. I was accustomed to people coming and going- that’s part and parcel of business. But my #1 and #2 leaving in one week was more than my brain could process. It was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

 

Perched atop a forklift in Genoa, surrounded by our Italian distribution team in their warehouse.

Perched atop a forklift in Genoa, surrounded by our Italian distribution team in their warehouse.

 

I calmly told my husband on Friday that I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but I was going to find somewhere pretty in which to have that breakdown, away from the watchful eyes of my daughters. Sunday afternoon- less than 48 hours later- I boarded a plane bound for Phuket. I spent 10 days face-down in Buddhist temples, journaling on the beach at sunrise, and meditating daily in a floating sala surrounded by lily pads. I took wheatgrass shots three times a day, retired to bed by 7pm each night, and forced myself to take inventory of my life and my business.

 

 

And what I realized in those ten days was this: Bella Lucce was my training ground, not my destination. I had always seen Bella Lucce as my “end game”- the alpha and omega of my entrepreneurial life. But I realized that the experiences I’d accumulated were simply a set of training wheels, preparing me for what was to come. The idea of using the wisdom and strategies that I’d cultivated in life and business to support others was born in a kayak, drifting through a series of caves in Southeast Asia. I flew home and got to work. Fifteen months later, Lucky Break launched in November of 2012.

 

If you must have a nervous breakdown, this is a lovely place to do it, yes? My villa had an outdoor shower, a meditation sala, and a private pool. I did some good thinking here...

If you must have a nervous breakdown, this is a lovely place to do it, yes? My villa had an outdoor shower, a meditation sala, and a private pool. I did some good thinking here…

 

A lot has happened since then: I’ve watched my sweet girls enter adolescence. I waved one off to college in the Midwest. I relocated from Columbia to Atlanta. I’ve been blessed to do some passion work via nonprofit boards and personal philanthropy. I’ve seen much more of the world. But at the end of the day, I’ve also been working 80+ hours a week for more than five years, balancing Bella Lucce and Lucky Break. It’s been a fulfilling (but tricky) five years.

 

 

Lately, I’ve been feeling the need for a purge, to burn away that which isn’t essential. I asked myself about what’s serving me well. I meditated on what facets of my life are challenging me to grow. I took inventory of what feeds my energy and what drains it. I thought about what’s “next” for my family. And the more deeply I dug into my own psyche, the more I realized that I’m clinging to Bella Lucce because of my own insecurity.

 

Sitting in on an lesson at a rural school in Morocco. We eventually sponsored that school for several years, supplementing teacher salaries while providing a library, playground supplies, and backpacks filled with school supplies to the kiddos. Some of my favorite work!

Sitting in on an lesson at a rural school in Morocco. We eventually sponsored that school for several years, supplementing teacher salaries while providing a library, playground supplies, and backpacks filled with school supplies to the kiddos. Some of my favorite work!

 

She’s like a warm blanket that I’ve been clutching for fifteen solid years. So much of my identity is tied up in my role as the founder of Bella Lucce. In the back of my mind, I’ve always known that if Lucky Break fails in spectacular fashion, I can always fall back on my beloved Bella Lucce. Will people even recognize my name if that company ceases to exist?

 

 

It’s time to find out.

 

 

I’m finally ready to pull the ripcord. Cut the umbilical cord. [Insert your own odd analogy about cords here.] It’s with great pride (and a tinge of sadness) that I share that the doors of Bella Lucce will be closing at the end of this week. I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t some tears as I cleaned out my office a few weeks ago. But my family and my teams (at both Bella Lucce and Lucky Break) have been so incredibly supportive of this decision, and I know in my gut that this is the right move.

 

Teaching a workshop in Ghana. The ladies and I created a shea butter- based hair pomade product that's still created and sold today. All proceeds benefit a nonprofit that works with widows and orphans.

Teaching a workshop in Ghana. The ladies and I created a shea butter-
based hair pomade that’s still sold today. All proceeds benefit a nonprofit that works with widows and orphans.

 

Change is a hard concept for me. I often joke that I practice Buddhism because the heart of the religion is this: the world is in a perpetual state of change. And I’m stunningly shitty at processing it. There are facets of this decision that are bittersweet. But mostly, I feel excitement. I’m excited to welcome additional mental and emotional bandwidth as I streamline my life and reduce my “to do” list. When I think of flying off this cliff and fully spreading my Lucky Break wings, I’m giddy at the thought of what that could mean for me, my family, my team, and my clients. And thanks to some clever deal-making, pieces of Bella Lucce will live on, even if they aren’t visible in an incarnation that you immediately recognize. *wink*

 

 

I started my first business because:
1. I wanted to prove to myself that I had the power to fashion my life into whatever I desired.
2. I wanted to role model tenacity and courage (on nearly reckless levels) for my daughters.

 

 

One of my favorite sourcing trips: learning about cocoa production in St. Lucia.

A sourcing trip to St. Lucia to learn about cocoa production (these are beans drying in the sun). I so enjoyed the sourcing trips: rose farms and essential oil distilleries, raw clay being pulled out of the mountains, argan oil cooperatives where women smashed nuts between rocks, protected shea parklands in East Africa, and spice factories in India. Every drop of it has been fascinating!

 

I’ve recently come to realize that my life has gotten a bit more bloated than I prefer. My soul is stirring and it’s time to shake things up. To again show my daughters that whatever served you well yesterday may not be what serves you well tomorrow. That part of our journey involves constantly taking stock and fine-tuning our existence. And that sometimes those “fine-tunings” morph into big leaps of faith… but those leaps of faith are always where the magic lies.

 

 

This has been the most wonderfully transformative fifteen years of my life and I’m grateful for every step. Starting a business is a revolutionary act and I’m so proud to support product-based entrepreneurs who are on similar journeys. It’s unimaginably hard, but this work is so worth doing.

 

I once took the Bella Lucce team skydiving. Good times! We also enjoyed some amazing travel all over the world. You all are what I'll miss most!

I once took the Bella Lucce team skydiving. Good times! We also enjoyed some amazing travel adventures together all over the world. You all are what I’ll miss most!

 

I hope you’ll join me in raising a toast to dozens of employees over the years, 15,000+ wholesale orders, 60+ passport stamps, and almost 2 million products sold. It’s been a wild ride and I will forever be grateful for this adventure. If you have a memory of Bella Lucce, then I hope you’ll share it with me in the comments. When we close the doors for the last time on Friday, I’ll be on a boat floating somewhere off the coast of Mexico. But I’ll have a good bottle of Malbec at the ready and I’ll be indulging in a walk down memory lane. I hope to be able to come here and read your memories, too.

 

 

Onward and upward, friends. Always.

 

 

What 10 Years in Business Have Taught Me

Confetti2

Yesterday marked ten years since I started my first company. I spent the day enjoying my family, indulging in a long bath, a pot of fresh ginger tea and a long walk down Memory Lane. I realize it’s cliche, but I could not possibly have imagined this journey when we flipped the switch on the first Bella Lucce website on September 1, 2003.

 

Confetti2

Celebrating ten years with my incredible staff

 

At that time, I was standing at strange crossroads in my life. I’d just walked away from a fantastically destructive marriage with a toddler on each hip. I’d left my hometown of Memphis, TN and 21 years of friendships and memories behind to move into my parent’s basement on the opposite side of the state. I was broke and scared and defeated. I’d graduated high school with so much promise: near the top of my class, a nationally ranked speech + debate champion with a full-ride scholarship at university.

 

And just a handful of years later, I was standing in my mama’s driveway unpacking a car that contained every last thing I owned. I’d gotten pregnant sooner than expected. Was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant. Spent a year getting healthy. My husband had been diagnosed with a small handful of mental illnesses and had run our credit card debt up so high that I was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. I was grateful for the warmth of my parent’s home and my mama’s chocolate pie, but I was bloody petrified.

 

I started my business after being turned down for a job waiting tables at the local steakhouse. Oh, how I wish that were a joke. But it wasn’t and on that very day I realized that no white knight was on his way to save me.  My mom was the first to suggest that I turn my hobby of making soap and lotion into a company and I started in earnest, just trying to keep us fed until I found a “real” job. Something better. I found something better alright… except that I built it myself.

 

Lela5

Ten years! Where did the time go?

 

Ten years later, we are still plugging away at Bella Lucce. I now employ a staff of amazing souls who love that company as much as I do. We create our products by hand in a 7500 square foot workshop in South Carolina. Those products have traveled the world and I have, too (thirty countries & counting!). We’ve been featured in magazines and on television. I’ve been hosted in the homes of Middle East royalty and taught business skills to women in African mud huts. I’ve walked the halls of DC and met with legislators to advocate for small business protections. I’ve designed products and spa programs for top-tier, international hotel chains and it’s not uncommon for the Bella Lucce team to be working on an order of 30,000 lip balms for a private label client in Colorado or a pallet of product to be shipped to Dubai or Italy. Most days, I’m neck-deep in one task or another, but when I finally step out of it, I’m simply awed by it all. And really, really humbled. I still don’t have that college degree. I’ve turned down more than one seven-figure investor and a reality TV deal. But the education I’ve earned in this decade of business has taught me much. Here’s what I’ve learned thus far…

 

1. Passion is the great equalizer.
Oh sure, trust funds and supportive husbands and fancy college degrees provide a nice advantage upon inception. As do a network of monied + connected friends and plum media connections. But with enough grit, your company can thrive without any of those trappings. Once upon a time, I marveled at those blessings and lusted after them, too, but I’ve since learned that passion is the great equalizer.

I had none-of-the-above and, in retrospect, I think my lack thereof was an even bigger blessing. I had nothing to fall back on. No plan B. I’ve noticed a phenomenal pattern among successful people: many of them had absolutely nothing to lose when they started their ventures and that mindset has propelled them farther + faster than many of their MBA friends from Cape Cod.  Don’t let your lack of ANYTHING keep you from starting.

 

2. You’re going to have to put yourself out on a limb.
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” – Wayne Gretzky

THIS. So much this. You can’t expect success to be delivered to your doorstep neatly wrapped with a sparkly bow. No, it doesn’t generally work like that. You’re going to have to get out there and pursue success with every breath. Pitch to that account you’re certain will say no,  approach your business idol at a networking event, throw your hat in the ring for that small business contest. Take a risk.  The worst that can happen is that they say “no,” right?  No’s aren’t fatal and I’ve discovered that a glass of wine and a hot bath mitigate 99% of them anyway. And that remaining 1%? Well, I’m half-drunk and squeaky clean and there are worse things to be.

 

Christina1

Meet Christina: Bella Lucce’s Director of Operations

 

3. Tenacity is your greatest weapon.

You’re going to stumble. You’re going to make fantastically bad choices. You’re going to be ridiculed. You’re going to be exhausted and confused and phenomenally tired. Those who  ultimately enjoy success are the ones who push through each and every obstacle.

(…says the girl who’s been sued for a million dollars in a trademark dispute, torn apart on internet forums, had her biggest client go belly up on a 6-figure deal, gone mostly deaf and endured bone reconstruction surgery on her inner ear + skull, and endured a few employee ordeals that could easily be parlayed into TV movies.)

 

4. Let hunger be your fuel.
Entrepreneurial journeys are not for the meek of heart. This journey has been more challenging than that cancer, that divorce and that bankruptcy. But I’ve continually tapped my hunger as fuel to propel me further. Once upon a time, that was a hunger to get off food stamps (did it in 12 months!), other times it’s been to prove my naysayers wrong. On more than one occasion, it’s been to pursue a deal that I have absolutely no business nailing as a pint-sized business. Whatever frustration, anger, and obstacles lay in your path, use them to your advantage.

 

5. Isolation is the kryptonite of success.
“If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.”
– African proverb

One of the greatest joys that I’ve known as an entrepreneur is the network of peers and mentors I’ve established through my business. For years, I slogged through this journey alone until I discovered that isolationism was slowly hamstringing my company + draining my passion + hamstringing my decisions. Build a community of support around yourself. Interact on social media, attend conferences and workshops and fairs, comment on the blogs of people you admire, join a trade group.  Masterminding together energizes my business and these women lend an understanding ear (and a soft shoulder) when I’ve reached my tipping point.

 

Justin3

Meet Justin: Bella Lucce’s Production Manager

 

Those are the lessons of the last ten years in a nutshell. Bella Lucce has been nothing if not a fantastic learning experience for me. I look back at that tender 26 year old standing in her mom’s driveway- so broken and scared- and I hardly recognize her. The journey has not always been easy but it has sure as hell been worth it. Every. Single. Step. And I can’t wait to see what my next ten years as an entrepreneur has in store…

 

I’d love to know what being an entrepreneur has taught you!

P.S. We’re having one hell of a month-long party at Bella Lucce and you’re officially invited.