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.

 

 

Strap on Your Superhero Cape – I Need Your Help!

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Wilson enjoying lunch

 

Many of you have read the posts about my summer work in the Ugandan orphanage and have indicated that you’ve been moved to find a way to help. Well, now is the time and I’m calling in those favors! The background story of my last visit to Uganda is right here.

 

This orphanage serves 128 kids each day. Breakfast consists of liquid porridge made with water rather than milk. Lunch and dinner are the same each and every day: white rice or posho (ground corn) + beans. Occasionally, tiny whole fish (think: minnow-sized) are tossed into the mix or a visitor will bring a bushel of yellow bananas. It’s an astonishingly monotonous diet and many of the children suffer from both dehydration and severe malnutrition. The swollen bellies and caramel-colored hair (a sign of a starch-rich, protein-deficient diet) are a stark reminder of the fragile nature of their lives.

 

On September 13th, I fly to New York to teach at the SoapMasters event and I’m heading back to Uganda directly from NYC. I plan to spend twenty days incountry, nourishing souls and filling bellies, but I need your help! Will you consider sponsoring all or part of a meal for these children? I can feed all 128 kids at the orphanage for about $100 per day and would welcome donations in any amount.

 

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posho + beans + the occasional fish

 

I’ve put together a few ways to show my gratitude for your help:

 

Just $10 or $20 will make a tangible difference and every donor will receive a “gratitude shout-out” on this blog, as well as my Facebook and Twitter

 

If you’re able to spare $50+, then the children and I will send a personalized  “thank you” picture to show our appreciation (plus the blog kudos + social media shout-out).

 

If you donate $149, then I’ll send you my super-nifty Price-O-Matic software for f-r-e-e. That’s a $149 value, so you essentially score the grooviest product pricing software on the planet + bonus yourself some awesome karma (plus the blog kudos + social media shout-out + the personal “thank you” photo).

 

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Cooking porridge for 128 tummies over an open flame in the outdoor kitchen

 

My goal is to provide milk and veggies every day during my 20-day visit. I’ll do the grocery shopping myself and oversee the distribution to ensure that 100% of the funds directly benefit the children. Donations can be sent quickly + easily via PayPal but I need them in the next 7 days.  I’m fully funding my travel expenses and a few special projects for the orphanage out of my own pocket but it’s going to take a group effort to provide this many meals.

 

128 kids x 3 meals a day x 20 days = 7,680 meals. And I’m just crazy enough to believe that’s possible!

 

I realize that these kids live on the other side of the planet. I understand that you’ll likely never meet them. I know you’re busy and have a hundred other things to fund on a limited budget. And yet I’m pleading for your help. This is a simple way to make a tangible difference in the life of a child who has the deck squarely stacked against them. This isn’t bloated aid heading into a dark abyss. This is a chance to fill the belly + feed the soul of kids I pray for every single day. Bashil and Ronald and Ruth and Edwin and Grace and Nicholas and Shariff and Jeremiah and Britton and Ibra and 118 more. Please donate if you’re able. Say a prayer for these wee ones and help me spread the word even if you can’t.

 

Please send donations via PayPal to lela@bellalucce.com by September 12th. Include a note with the donation referencing the Ugandan Orphan Project. I’ll personally confirm every donation. Kisses on both of your cheeks for the help!

 

Catowah drinking his porridge

Catowah drinking his porridge

 

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

-Dalai Lama

 

“I have an interesting perspective on depending on others. I think it gives people a chance to serve. And I’m not so much big on independence, as I am on interdependence. I’m not talking about co-dependency, I’m talking about giving people the opportunity to practice love with its sleeves rolled up.”

– Joni Eareckson Tada

 

Open call for guest bloggers!

Safari at Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda

UPDATE: All guest blog spots are now filled.  We’ve got some great advice + some inspiring stories planned for you in September and October!

 

If you’ve been following along here at Lucky Break, then you’re likely aware of my summer travels to Uganda. (hint: I wrote about them here, here and here). On September 17th, I’m heading back to East Africa for a little passion project I’m putting together. All totaled, I’ll be away for 3+ weeks and I don’t want to hear an echo at this blog, so I’m hosting an open call for guest bloggers!

 

  • Are you a maker with an inspiring success story you’d like to share: landing a big order or a plum press mention, scoring a win in an entrepreneurial contest, bootstrapping your business to success?

 

  • Do you have pearls of wisdom or “how-to” tutorials of interest to creative entrepreneurs? (web developers, graphic designers, packaging consultants, branding gurus, photographers… I’m looking at you!)

 

  • Are you a crafty chick with a fun DIY tutorial to share with this community? LBC readers are soapers and sewers and stationery chicks and jewelers and ceramic artists and and and…

 

  • Makers: care to give us a peek at your workspace or process? We’d love to see some behind-the-scenes magic!

 

  • Do you have a new project that might be of interest to Lucky Break readers: a book, a workshop, a live event, a webinar that will rock their socks off and propel their business forward?

 

Forward a summary of who you are, what you do and what you’re itching to share with the Lucky Break community to hello@luckybreakconsulting.com. I have 0 spots available and the submission deadline closes at 9pm EST on Monday, September 2nd. There is no fee to participate. I’m looking for compelling material of interest to my readers which is elegantly presented and well-written. Drop me a line… I’d love to hear from you!

 

Lions, elephants and monkeys… oh my!

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My teenage daughter and I had the best time in June on a safari in East Africa! I’d been lucky enough to safari a few times but this trip was particularly special. Not only because I got to see the joy in her eyes as Chloe hand-fed a wild Vervet monkey slices of her watermelon from breakfast, but also because we got super-lucky at Murchison National Falls in Uganda and saw some truly amazing things this go-round: Vervet monkeys, baboons and antelope nursing, an incredibly close encounter with a herd of elephants, a three-legged lion (true story) and several rolls in the African hay (also true- thanks monkeys and lions!).

 

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Safaris necessitate bloody early wakeup calls (4am) but the opportunity to hang yourself half out of a 4×4 as you rumble over rutted red clay roads in a stunningly beautiful park is absolutely worth the early start. And there’s afternoon naps in the hammock, right? We stayed at Nile Safari Lodge, which I affectionately describe as 4-star camping.  Outdoor rain showers, monkeys playing in the trees above your cabin and ice cold Stoneys on the balcony as the suns links down over the Nile River? Yes, please.

 

These are some of my favorite shots from the adventure. Click on any thumbnail to unleash a mondo-sized image. Once you have the super-sized version queued up, then click anywhere on the large image to scroll through a slideshow of them all. And I absolutely wasn’t kidding about the three-legged lion and his roll in the hay. In fact, here’s the video. But be forewarned: you’ll never be able to “unhear” those sounds.

 

Curious about what initially brought me to Uganda? This blog post will catch you up-to-speed!