I MET BEE ABOUT 9 YEARS AGO, in New York City. It was one of my very first trips to NY before I made the move over, & a mutual friend of ours was hosting an intimate dinner for me in New Yorks hip Lower East Side at a restaurant called Gemma on the Bowery, to introduce me to media & social girls. The goal to introduce them all to the SAMANTHA WILLS Brand. I felt like I’d been invited to sit at the cool girls table, among the 12 guests were Lindsay Lohan, Chrissie Miller… and Bee Shapiro. I felt very out of my depth, & even more so out of my league. I did my best to talk to everyone, be cool, poised, but not too cool, or too poised & interesting at the same time, I was nervous as hell & in truth, I actually couldn’t wait for the night to be over. Bee was the last person I had to meet, before I could slip out the side door, and back to the comfort, and anonymity of my hotel room. I was introduced to her, and our mutual friend explained that Bee was the Style Writer for the New York Times – in other words – a really big deal, probably the most important contact I needed to impress at the dinner. With anxiety creeping in at Tsunami speed, I sat down expecting her to have every air of elitist-attitude that I expected would come with the title of being the Style Writer for the New York Times, having to spend her Tuesday night at a dinner, as a favor to a friend, to meet a socially awkward, young, soon to be new to town, Australian accessories designer. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and Bee couldn’t have been more lovely. We chatted for about half an hour, she told me she was moving apartments, asked me if I needed help finding an apartment, because it could be really tough in a new city. She asked me about Australia, & how I was feeling about the upcoming move.
Fast forward 9 years, and Bee & I are in touch every few weeks on email, & Facebook. She one of my biggest supporters, and I, hers. Her company ELLIS BROOKLYN is the creator of the most EXQUISITE fragrance called MYTH, which I wear everyday. It’s one of those fragrances you wear & get stopped by about 5 strangers a day to ask about it. Bee is fierce, and strong, clever….& kind. Here is her story, in her own words. - SWx
NAME: Bee Shapiro
COMPANY: Ellis Brooklyn
INSTAGRAM: @ellisbrooklyn @beeshapiro
How would you describe yourself in 5 words? Loyal, tenacious, strategic, thinking, honest
What is the long version of how you got to where you are today? I started out in New York a little more than a decade ago as a hedge fund attorney in Midtown Manhattan. Every day I’d take the E train to work in my office attire and go about editing offering memorandums, forming hedge funds and dealing with fund counsel. It was a monotonous job; I had zero interest in moving commas and tweaking legal templates.
So one day, fed up with it all, I quit. I had no other job. I had barely any savings. Enough savings actually to pay for my rent for four months and that was it. I decided I was going to try all the things that I had ever dreamed of. I made up a list of three professions that I thought would be fabulous and fantastic: actress, artist and writer. I tackled all three with gusto. I auditioned for all these random parts including Miss Saigon on Broadway. I found out quickly that I couldn’t deal with auditions. The setup (where you stand there, acting your heart out, and getting judged) was too much to take. Then as an artist, I realized I wasn’t good enough. I knew artists who could create exactly what they envisioned, whereas I was always a step or two shy from achieving what I had imagined. Finally, in writing, I found something I loved. I could reread a piece I wrote over and over and find different places to improve. Best of all, I enjoyed the process—everything from the interviewing, to putting the piece together.
From there, I started building my writing credits. Eventually I started writing for T: The New York Times Style magazine. After an editor in chief change, I moved over to the paper. I’ve been writing for the New York Times Style Section for more than 8 years now. I was reviewing beauty products at the Times when I became pregnant with my first child. This was around the same time Tata Harper was getting off the ground and RMS makeup was revamping. Exciting new changes were happening in the makeup and skin care worlds in how companies approached toxins, ingredients and formulas. Being a fragrance lover, I couldn’t find the same parallel happening in scents. I wanted a safe option that didn’t compromise on the quality that I loved.
That’s how my fragrance and body care company Ellis Brooklyn came about. It started with the idea of making fragrance safer but still as enjoyable as all the classic greats. A grand ambition, I know. But why not shoot for the stars? It took me 2 years to come out with a product, and now we’re about a year and a half old and stocked at Barneys, Sephora.com and more.
I think it is really important people can explain their main message in a concise paragraph – if the above is the full version - What is you elevator pitch on what you do? I’m looking to create the Tesla of the fragrance industry. That is, a line that is green, eco and clean but you wouldn’t necessarily know it just by looking at the outside package. I want our products to stand out beautifully on their own and not just because we’re a conscious beauty company.
Are you doing what you thought you would be doing 10 years ago? Ten years ago was when I made the shift from lawyer to writer, so my goal was to climb the editorial ladder. Anna Wintour was god! The publishing sector has changed dramatically since then. The pathway is different. Most opportunities are in digital. And also, though I love my work at the New York Times, I found myself being intrigued by the other side of the industry; the creation and brand side.
What does ‘success’ mean to you, and do you consider yourself ‘successful’? For me, success means freedom from the usual work cycle. I want to get to a place where I can take my family on vacation for a month in the summer. I think the traditional way of working in the U.S. (that is, to the bone and with only 2 weeks of vacation a year), is broken. It leaves people, who might have lasted in an industry longer, exhausted and depleted. I do think I’m successful, though, even if I haven’t quite reached my goal yet. I’ve found a certain degree of latitude in my writing and in Ellis Brooklyn. I get to see my kids every day. So I think I’m successful but there’s still more to achieve!
What do you still want to achieve (personally & / or professionally) Personally, I’m in survival mode. I have a two year old and a 5 month old. Sleep is precious. I have to carve out time for my two girls, my husband, for myself. There aren’t enough hours in the day! Professionally, I want to make Ellis Brooklyn a brand. A brand should make you feel something. When you pick up Tom Ford, you feel sexier. When you pick up Chanel, you feel classier. When you pick up Ellis Brooklyn, I want you to feel smarter, in the chicest way possible.
Did you study anything specific for the career you are in? Oh my, no! I studied art and finance in undergrad and then I went to law school…
What have been the most rewarding things in your career to date? Launching on Sephora.com was huge for me. That’s how I shop for my own products so it was very close to home.
Tell us about your workspace. What about it inspires you? I work anywhere I can! I work from my bed at home. I work from the business center in our apartment building. I work anywhere close to home so that I can run home and see my girls for lunch or play Play Doh with my toddler for 30 minutes before running back to my computer or to a meeting.
What are some frustrations you have experiences on your career journey? I started meeting with some venture capital players and other types of investors recently and I’m shocked and disappointed at the number of companies with no numbers to speak of, and barely a brand identity who raise millions, and the founder turns out to be some guy who got his degree at Wharton. I don’t think getting an MBA at Wharton or wherever is the be-all-and-end-all. How about nearly a decade of experience in the industry as the New York Times beauty columnist? Meanwhile, many female founders (myself included) gets put through the ringer by these investors; they question everything from our positioning to brand strategy to numbers, which is valid, but we’re put to a much higher standard before they’ll invest.
When was the last time you where overwhelmed & cried from something provoked by work/work load? Yesterday. I do my crying in the shower, which is kind of funny and kind of not. It’s one of my few moments of alone time in a day.
Would you say you put pressure on yourself? I definitely put the pressure on. Part of it is that it’s in my nature to be continually curious. I could have continued on my path as a beauty editor and had a great life, but I wanted to know more. I think the pressure has gotten more intense because there’s more at stake now. Because I launched the line with no outside investors, it’s truly my own bottom line.
If you are a business owner – and you often can’t just check out / have a week off when you are dealing with personal things – how do you keep on keeping on with your business when things get tough? I think in every line of work, even if it’s not an entrepreneurial sort, you’re going to have things to do that I call “homework.” They are the crappy parts of the job that you can’t get away from but you have to do in order to get to the joyful aspects. I just guzzle more caffeine and plow through it.
Has your career affected your personal life / relationships? Yes. I think after you have a family, something has to suffer. In my case, I chose my family first, personal health next and then career third. So my friendships are not as strong as I’d love for them to be in an ideal world. I barely go out socially now. Usually, if I have an evening event, it has some element of work in play so I can address two things at once.
Has your journey at times felt lonely? Absolutely. See the answer above: I do miss my girl friends. I know I consciously took a step back in that part of my life, but it doesn’t make the path any easier.
What causes you anxiety / sleepless nights? I get anxiety from the possibility that I’ve used my time and funds (both of which could have been spent on my family), on Ellis Brooklyn and then I fail. That would be a nightmare.
If you had your time over again, from when you started your career to right now, would you do anything differently? I wouldn’t, but I can tell you it was an extremely rough patch after I left the law firm. To have no job and no definite direction was like a scene out of Crime and Punishment.
What advice would you give your 21 year old self? Don’t doubt yourself so much, the future will sort itself out. I wasn’t that confident as a 21 year old. I didn’t know myself very well and I was hard on myself for all the wrong reasons. I think moving to New York after law school was a personal awakening for me.
Who are some women in business you admire & why? There are so many. Laura Slatkin of Nest Fragrances is very strategic. Bobbi Brown has a laser focus, and made the brand an extension of who she is. One day, I’d love to meet Kris Tompkins who was CEO of Patagonia. I am a huge admirer of what she and her husband have done with the wilderness conservation programs they put into place in South America.
What traits do you admire in people you surround yourself with? Truthfulness, wit and a sense of humor. I love to laugh.
Work life balance… Does it exist, and how to maintain it, or a sense of it? I don’t think of it as a balance. I think of it as a set of priorities. You have to choose. You can’t have your way with everything because of the factor of time. We have limited amounts of time everyday so you have to choose what are the things that are most important to spend your time on.
Have you ever thought about giving up / quitting? If so, does that feeling hit from the same triggers? Why haven’t you quit? I think all the time how life would be easier if I never started a company! One main reason I haven’t quit is because of my family. They’ve invested in me both on a personal level and on a financial level. That’s a lot of pressure! But also it’s an incredible motivation when the going gets rough.
What is the biggest misconception about what you do? That it’s only marketing and glamour. My favorite part of the job actually is creating the actual product, whether it’s the body milk formulation, or the new fragrance for next year.
What advice would you give someone who is starting out in your industry? Find good partners. This industry is actually still very opaque. It’s difficult to find manufacturers, paper box makers, labellers, you name it. Take the time to seek out recommendations from a reputable source.
If you knew what you know now, about how much work was involved to get you to where you are now, would you do it again or do something different, if so, what? I think it’s better that I didn’t know! It’s much harder to create a brand and run a company than I ever expected. I prefer to dive in and then deal. If I had known the hardships, I probably would have raised outside money first but then I wouldn’t have had as much creative control. It’s a double-edged sword, this seeing the future business!
I like the quote ‘Don’t just have a job, have a purpose’ - What do you want your legacy to be? In my dreams, I would love to change the way beauty brands view sustainability. If you look at the food world, you have amazing people like Dan Barber of Blue Hill changing the way we view what we eat by sourcing locally and also reintroducing heritage types of chickens, vegetables and such. Translated to the beauty world, I’d love to work even more closely with my perfume house on sourcing sustainable raw materials and other programs. I’d love to co-create and introduce truly environmentally friendly packaging. Only by controlling the supply chain can you truly make an impact.
The SAMANTHA WILLS FOUNDATION is about bringing women in business together – why do you think this is important / (why did you want to be involved in this interview)? It’s incredibly important. Starting a company is like running the hurdles only it’s a marathon and not a sprint. Women have it all the tougher because those hurdles are higher. I’m not complaining (although I’ve done my fair share of that as well), but it’s just the way it is. If we can band together and help each other out then that helps level the playing the field.
What are some of your favorite quotes? I love Oscar Wilde quotes. There’s always a sense of humor to them. Here are some gems:
"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about". (I imagine he would have had an incredible social media account!)
"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."
"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars"