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.

 

 

The Most Important Thing We Learned This Summer

Chloe bungee jumping over the Nile River in Uganda

I know it’s cliche, but I pinkie-swear that I blinked and summer was over. How on earth is that even possible?  I spent yesterday helping the kids sort supplies, loading up their backpacks, walking through schedules and selecting outfits in anticipation of their first day of school. Chloe is a sophomore this year and Celie is in seventh grade.  Most days it feels like I blinked and their childhood was almost over, too. Where’s the pause button so I can slow this train down and savor these last few precious years?

 

We treated ourselves to a fun dinner out last night and chatted over fajitas and queso, looking both forward and back.  What are they most looking forward to in the coming year? What was their favorite moment of summer? What did they learn about the world and themselves during their break? I adore these conversations and last night solidified something for me: these past few months have been the Summer of Fearlessness. Okay, perhaps not a complete absence of fear. Wouldn’t that be lovely? To wake up each and every morning afraid of not a single damn thing? In my Buddhist faith, I imagine that’s what nirvana will be for me- a complete and persistent absence of any fear.

 

But we’re all plagued by it. We’re fearful of not being smart enough, or skinny enough, or savvy enough. Fearful of not being well-liked by our peers. Fearful of being rejected. Fearful of failing.  I see it in myself, my children, my friends, and the entrepreneurs I consult for each week.

 

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Skydiving over Pattaya Beach, Thailand in 2010

 

In 2007, I made a promise to myself to begin staring fear right between the eyes. I was (and am) terrified of heights, but I promised myself that I’d push myself past that fear and jump out of a perfectly good airplane.  It took me until late December to actually talk myself into, but I did eventually get myself out of that plane. My brother, sister and mother all tumbled out of a plane together at 14,000 feet. It was absolutely exhilarating in ways that I can’t communicate in words.  It changed my entire psyche when I realized how little control I truly have over things. I’ve been working towards a level of comfort with that over the last several years. I’ve found it to be an insanely liberating process (though I still have a long way to go…)

 

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Skydiving over the Persian Gulf in Dubai, 2009

 

I decided to jump again over the Persian Gulf near Dubai in 2009. And again over Pattaya Beach in Thailand in 2010. Some days, when the world seems particularly heavy, I make the hour drive to our local jumpsite and shove myself out of a plane while the kids are at school. It still makes my heart pound and my head spin and my spirit fly free every time I do it. I always emerge acutely aware that I’m actually not in control of very much at all, and yet I feel immensely powerful.  It’s an odd juxtaposition, but wildly healthy for me. And it’s an awareness that I want my children to have, too.

 

Chloe bungee jumping over the Nile River in Uganda

Chloe bungee jumping over the Nile River in Uganda

 

So this summer, my fifteen year old daughter and I headed to Uganda. We got ourselves into and out of a few fine messes. I passed out cold on the plane on the way to Brussels and gave Chloe quite a scare. Chloe developed a systemic staph infection and was admitted to a Kampala hospital (and gave me quite a scare).  We went on safari and I was chased by a rather displeased baboon. We spent 10 days volunteering in an orphanage and found ourselves trying to talk 128 severely malnourished children out of dry fasting for days because of a covenant they made with God (it’s a loooong story). We both bungee jumped over the Nile River.

 

Chloe immersed herself in a radically different culture than what she’s known all of her life.  She went 3 weeks without hot water. She learned to do dishes and laundry by hand, both without running water. She faced down her fear of needles with a series of vaccinations and IVs and medical tests in that Kampala hospital.  She ate essentially nothing but rice + beans for weeks on end.  She didn’t put on makeup or straighten her hair. She discovered to use a pit latrine.  She learned to live without her cell phone and electricity. She tested her patience thresholds with  40-hour flights and 9-hour drives down rutted red clay roads. She sat with survivors of the LRA rebel army and bore witness to the atrocities they suffered. And she experienced the profound loss of saying goodbye to an orphan she’d come to love. I asked her tonight if she’d do it all again. Her reply? “Yes, next summer.”

 

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Chloe and Bashil making kiss-y faces 🙂

 

My wee Celie has always been a spunky girl. She’s tiny for her age- weighing in at a lean 79 pounds as she chases down her thirteenth birthday.  She’s always been the “little one.” The little sister, the littlest one on her sports teams, the tiniest one in class. She packs some serious energy into that petite frame but she still likes to lay in my bed at night before tucking into her own. She takes awesome care of me: wandering into my office to tell me it’s late and I should get some sleep, drawing pictures and slipping them into my luggage when I travel, trying her hand at preparing dinner so that I can enjoy an evening off.

 

Celie (far right) and her shipmates

Celie (far right) and her shipmates

 

Last summer she attended a surf camp- her first “sleepaway” experience- and fell madly in love with the ocean and all things marine biology. I then discovered a company that invites kids to live on sailboats for 3 weeks at a time in the British Virgin Islands.  I was excited to share it with Celie and wondered if perhaps she’d like to attend someday.  Though I initially envisioned her at 16 years old adrift on that boat, I decided to surprise her with the trip last Christmas.  The minimum age was 12. She was 12.  And though my gut (and my husband) told me that I was crazy for sending a twelve year old on international flights alone, nuts for letting her live on a boat during hurricane season and foolish to believe she could live away from all the comforts of home + family for 3 weeks, I decided to push past my fear. Celie pushed past hers, too, and boarded her flight to Tortola in early July.

 

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Celie and friends jumping off giant boulders and into the sea

 

Over the next few weeks, she’d call home whenever she was in port to share her tales of adventure: hiking island mountains, learning to water ski and kneeboard, swimming through ocean caves, leaping off giant boulders into the waters below, sleeping on the deck of a sailboat beneath the stars.  The calls generally went like this:

 

Me: “CELIE! I’m so glad you called. How is everything?”

Celie: “Mom, it’s amazing. Totally amazing. Like uh-maze-ing. I can’t believe I’m here!”

 

No hurricanes struck. She didn’t miss her layovers. Her tiny sea plane didn’t crash. Her scuba gear didn’t fail. Her boat didn’t capsize. She didn’t get sick at sea. The other kids weren’t mean. She wasn’t stung by a  jellyfish or eaten by a shark. She didn’t fall apart and request an early flight out because she was too homesick. In fact, Celie managed to earn both her PADI open water scuba certification and her IYT sailing certification while away. She swam through the ruins of a sunken ship. She saw a squid and scores of stingrays. Sixteen boats sailed together and Celie was the youngest and smallest of all 160 occupants. And I’m proud as hell to tell you that she held her own (though she was so tiny that they had to acquire special scuba gear to accommodate her!).

 

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Celie (middle) on her first dive as a certified scuba girl in the British Virgin Islands

 

I’m officially declaring 2013 the Summer of Less Fear. All of us pushed past our comfort zones and took risks. And our lives are all the richer for it. I’m hoping that we’ll carry what we learned during break into this new school year. Both kids are starting new schools and staring down other types of intimidating challenges, too: learning to drive, applying to colleges, puberty (blech).  They’re going to have plenty of opportunity to conquer their fears in the coming year.

 

As am I. As are you. How will you handle your fear in the coming months?