My new book, Beyond Barriers, includes profiles of incredible people who have turned their toughest challenges into their greatest strengths. One of these incredible people is Ellen Bennett, Founder of Hedley & Bennett. This is her story.
People look everywhere to find the power they need to become the hero in their own story, but in reality, they need only to look within. By looking inward and connecting with yourself and your life experiences, you gain clarity on who you are. When you embrace that authenticity, you discover the true source of power, but in order to do that, you must understand who you are, what you want, and why you want it.
Ellen Bennett is a twenty-nine-year-old entrepreneur who founded a very successful company called Hedley & Bennett, but her story really begins at nine years old, when her parents went through a bitter divorce. It was an ugly separation that left Ellen devastated, turning her whole world upside down. The shock of that tragic experience destroyed the ground beneath her so that she no longer knew who to count on or who to trust.
As a result, she decided she didn’t want to depend on anyone but herself. She didn’t want anyone to have the power to steal her sense of security ever again, so at a young age, Ellen made the decision to own her life. She would look out for herself and take every opportunity by the horns from that point on. That clarity has driven her ever since.
Ellen began to work at her mother’s small apartment rental business. She crafted lease documents and other legal paperwork, paid bills, helped rent out apartments, and did any other work she could. Eager to gain independence and maturity, she learned everything she could and became very resourceful.
Overcoming Rejection with Tenacity
At the age of eighteen, Ellen moved from Los Angeles to Mexico City. She had absolutely no connection to the city, and her parents couldn’t support her, but she did it anyway. She was completely on her own, and that was exactly what she wanted. Ellen took all kinds of odd jobs to support herself, overcoming rejection time and again and confronting many fears. For a while, she simply tried to survive. Over time, she learned how to promote herself, how to sell to people, and how to create influence. She also learned the power of courage, of never giving up in the face of hardship.
Ellen lived in Mexico City for four years and eventually achieved a modest amount of success. She attended culinary school, worked in a kitchen, and even bought a house. When her dreams starting getting bigger, she began to wonder what might be next in life. Those bigger dreams brought her back to Los Angeles at the age of twenty-two. She had graduated from culinary school by then, and she could have gotten a decent job in a thousand different restaurants in Los Angeles, but Ellen wanted to aim higher. She wanted to work for the best restaurant in town and be an apprentice to the best chef, so she went for it.
Ellen spoke to the hiring manager at Providence, one of the highest-rated restaurants in LA. She made a pitch for a job, and she refused to go away when they showed reluctance. Finally, impressed by her tenacity, they offered her a trial run over the course of a weekend. She took them up on the offer, but at the end of that hardworking weekend, they didn’t offer her a job. Instead, they told her that they simply weren’t hiring.
Even then, Ellen refused to give up. She kept contacting Providence periodically, pitching herself all over again each time. After much persistence, they offered her a position in the kitchen. She worked there for a year and a half, and because she was essentially earning minimum wage, she also worked at another restaurant, Baco, to make ends meet. She hung in there, learning and growing. Though Ellen didn’t quite know what to do next, she knew she wanted to achieve something even bigger.
Everyone Deserves a Cape of Power
During her time at Providence and Baco, Ellen observed just how hard workers in restaurant kitchens have it, slogging away for long hours under intense pressure. She likened it to being an athlete enduring a long, grueling regimen every day. As she thought about the condition of these workers, she realized that part of what makes an athlete successful is looking like a champion. Ellen had recently signed up for a marathon, and when she did, she received a brand-new outfit from Nike. Putting it on, she admired the transformation. Now she truly looked like a champion, which boosted her enthusiasm for the race and actually contributed to her performance by making her feel better about herself.
Why don’t people in restaurant kitchens have uniforms that make them look like champions? she wondered. Superheroes get awesome capes. Where is the cape of power for kitchen workers?
This thought gave her the idea to design an apron that would inspire kitchen workers, making them look and feel like the champions and superheroes they are. She approached one of the restaurants where she worked and asked if they would consider ordering aprons from her, offering to create them faster and cheaper than their current supplier. All of that experience learning to sell effectively in Mexico City served her well—to her great delight, the restaurant took her up on the offer, and she got her first order for forty aprons.
Proactive Problem Solving
Ellen used the money from that first order to fund a brand-new business, Hedley & Bennett, acquiring the materials she needed to fulfill the order and hiring a skilled worker to sew the aprons. Unfortunately, the whole business almost derailed right away. She bought a roll of fabric for the uniforms, but the person making them screwed up the order. By that point, Ellen had already spent most of her money, so fixing the order was no easy feat. She could have felt sorry for herself, cried about the situation, or played the victim. Nobody would have blamed her.
Instead, Ellen went to work, getting proactive and creative to correct the problem. She went back to customers for input and refined the design throughout the process, so she wound up co-creating her core products with her customer base.
That first order was a success. More orders followed, and as workers responded positively, her reputation grew. Ellen is now five years into her business, supplying uniforms to 4,500 restaurants in the United States alone. Her company owns a 17,000-square-foot factory and sells to major stores across the country. Hedley & Bennett expanded their line of uniforms to include occupations beyond chefs and kitchen workers. Mario Batali and Martha Stewart are fans of her products, and her uniforms have been worn by staff at prestigious restaurants like Nobu and David Chang’s Momofuku.
Ellen is a young, successful, millennial entrepreneur with a multi-million-dollar business, but success didn’t come overnight. Looking back, she traces everything to that nine-year-old child of divorce, the child who decided to become independent, to never accept being a victim. She knew that if she couldn’t count on anything else, she could count on herself. No matter what obstacles or barriers came her way, she always looked for a way to overcome them and keep moving forward. Ellen put herself in the driver’s seat at all times, and she is flourishing in a male-dominated industry as a result.
To read more stories like Ellen’s and learn the secrets of those who have dreamed bigger to achieve great things in their life, check out the full book: Beyond Barriers: How to Unlock Your Limitless Potential.