how i get it done

Ellen Bennett Turned $300 Into a Multimillion-Dollar Business

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Ellen Bennett got her start as a line cook. She was disappointed with the quality of the aprons she and her co-workers wore in the kitchen, so in her early 20s, with only $300, she launched her kitchenware brand, Hedley & Bennett. Her stylish, durable aprons, imbued with love for her Mexican heritage, are worn by top chefs around the world and have celeb fans, including Martha Stewart, Chrissy Teigen, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Last March, when the pandemic began, Bennett pivoted her business to producing masks, donating more than 300,000 to frontline workers. On April 27, she released her first book, Dream First, Details Later, describing her personal journey and sharing her secrets for turning dreams into reality. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and her pet pig, Oliver. Here’s how she gets it done.

On a typical (pandemic) morning:
I have a terrible habit of grabbing my phone first thing after getting up. It’s really just for five minutes, checking emails and text messages, which include my assistant, Elliot, basically saying, “Here’s what we’ve got today.” Then I hop out of bed pretty quickly and go downstairs to feed my pet pig, Oliver, who’s like my mental alarm clock and is usually standing at the bottom of the stairs waiting for me. So I’ll go outside for a morning “walk” around the backyard, feed him, and feed the chickens. It’s what my husband and I call “feeding the farm.” I’ll get up to feed them as my first action before I even feed myself.

Based on my schedule, I have three pathways to take. I usually make myself dandelion-root tea with almond milk, which looks and tastes like coffee, since I naturally have a boatload of energy already. If I’m in a rush, I’ll just have a cup of hot water with some lemon before hitting the road. If I have a little more time, which happens roughly three days a week, I’ll make myself a giant smoothie with gobs of kale and all the seeds you can think of — everything you could possibly put in your body that’s nutritious in a smoothie.

On a standard workday:
I’ll be at the house a couple of days a week shooting content and doing different things in the kitchen. The other days are at the Hedley & Bennett HQ. When I go in, I start by setting the tone in my car. I’ll listen to very chill music or sit in silence — my morning driving meditation, if you will, the calm before the storm. When I’m getting close to the office, my assistant will call me to run through what’s happening. I also live and die by my Google calendar as my guiding light. I usually have a lot of meetings: a few Zoom calls in the morning (in between them, I’ll have a smoothie if I didn’t make it at home) and then there are a couple of creative meetings with my team. I get to do a little bit of product development, which is probably my favorite meeting of the week. Then from there, it’s a whole host of things, like onboarding new employees and talking to my team both in and outside the office since we’re half-and-half right now. When I first started my company, more than eight years ago, it was just me, myself, and I, and as the company has grown, I learned to rely on my teammates and not just do everything myself. It was an evolution as a business owner.

On work-life balance:
If you do something you are absolutely in love with, it’s a little less hard to just keep doing it. My world is this awesome blend of food, culture, and fashion. Say I go to a work dinner at a restaurant where they’re wearing Hedley & Bennett and the people I meet are fans of the brand. It’s those moments when I love my job because it’s just fun. How I’ve gained the most work-life balance, if you want to call it that, is by getting great team members. I see it as gaining leverage in my life versus just turning it off at the end of the day or feeling bad because I didn’t turn it off.

On failure:
When I first started, I was a one-woman show, and everything was incredibly difficult, especially with constrained resources. I started my company with $300 I made as a line cook. There’s actually been quite a lot of failure, and I’m really grateful for it because I’ve learned so much. A lot of what my book is about is that it was not just this peachy journey. It’s about crashing and actually having the grit to stand up again, and because you keep going, you’re actually that much better as a person. I literally wrote a whole book about everything I learned.

On taking risks:
There’s actually a line in the book that says, “Start before you stop,” which is the whole idea behind how I began Hedley & Bennett and why I wrote the book. It’s about getting people to begin before they stop themselves with doubts flooding into their minds. If I hadn’t made all these different leaps of faith, failed, succeeded, and learned from each one of them, I would be stuck back there. You may not know where you’re going to land, but know that you’re going to land somewhere. Some of the best things I’ve ever done have been absolutely the scariest, most terrifying, and most gut-wrenching. I strongly believe in action, no matter how bad it hurts when you fall.

On chasing your dreams:
Just begin. Don’t compare yourself to other people and think they have it all figured out. It’s just not true. We all have our own journey, and it’s extremely winding even if people don’t talk about it. Everybody goes through challenges to get to where they are. It’s the people who are willing to dust themselves off and get back up again who are going to make it.

On staying grounded:
I never forget where I come from — my Mexican mother, who raised me as a single mom. I just think about all the people who spent so much time and effort to give me a good enough life so I can find my own way. No matter what happens, there is another day, another opportunity. I don’t take it for granted. Life is a scary, magical, and insane thing that we’re all a part of, and we can’t forget that it’s a beautiful thing.

How Hedley & Bennett’s Chief Apron Officer Gets It Done