Running a business is about a lot of things; every industry has its particularities, and all differ in countless details that make them unique. Still, the most crucial part of any company is the same in any industry: their people. Therefore, investing in human relationships at any level in any company is the best kind of investment any leader can make. That is one of the many lessons our guest, Ashley Cole, learned along the way as an entrepreneur.
Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger – and we have a fun, very capable, and interesting guest with us today. At an early age, our guest had a passion for business and fashion. She is a shoes and accessories designer. In 2013, our guest created Cecelia New York, a fashion shoe company, which is named after one of her daughters. And she is rocking the shoe world and having fun. So, all of this while balancing being a mother of six children, a wife to her busy husband, Matt, and taking care of herself. So, welcome, Ashley Cole.
Ashley Cole: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Steve.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, you bet. I’ve been looking forward to this. So, before we get started, I’d like to tell you a little bit more about Ashley. She was fortunate to be surrounded by an entrepreneurial family. Her father, David Neeleman, is the founder of JetBlue Airways, Azul Brazilian Airlines, and recently launched Breeze Airways. And her mother, Vicki, set an inspiring example and provided a great model in raising nine dynamic, caring children. And I happen to know Vicki, and she is one extraordinary person. So, those are pretty good parents, aren’t they, Ashley?
Ashley Cole: They are. I’m very fortunate, so very blessed to have them.
Steve Shallenberger: Ashley’s fashionable shoe designs incorporate style and comfort with the highest quality of materials and craftsmanship. Her designer shoes use Italian leathers with a range of authentic and luxurious materials and they are fun to buy. I want you to know, I have purchased two different sets as gifts, two different shoes, and those that received them — Anne, our daughter, and one of our granddaughters – loved them. So, nice going.
Ashley Cole: Thank you.
Steve Shallenberger: So, after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Fashion Merchandising, she worked for Giorgio Armani, Diane Von Furstenberg, and JetBlue Airways. And while she was at JetBlue, Ashley pioneered the effort to brand the airline as a fashion-forward company. So, when looking for unique shoes that are made well and that don’t break the bank, these are it.
Ashley Cole: Yeah. I mean, that’s what we’re trained to do.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, good. Ashley lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her husband, Matthew Cole, and six active children. She comes from a family of nine children as I mentioned. So, I just want to mention this one thing before we start our interview. For our listeners that may be new to Becoming Your Best, it was really founded from research. And early on, like eight years ago, nine years ago, when we really launched the leadership company – the research originated from the first company I started. And after a few years, we had 700 employees and the sales reps had come to me and say, “How can I be a top sales rep?” Or the managers would say, “How can I be a top manager?” And I would share a few things. But I was pretty young and a lot I didn’t know. So, I decided to do research. And what I was looking for is what set apart high-performing individuals and high-performing teams from everybody else. So, I interviewed over 150 CEOs around the world, studied the likes of historical figures. Here’s what we discovered.
Steve Shallenberger: We discovered that none of these leaders were perfect. And yet we saw over and over again, 12 things that they did that created the excellence. And this is what I put in my first national best-selling book “Becoming Your Best: The 12 Principles of Highly Successful Leaders”. And as we think about becoming your best, it’s not comparing yourself to somebody else’s best. It’s about you becoming your best. And that is what really has impressed me about Ashley, is I’ve just noticed that she’s working on becoming her best personally, as a mom, as a wife, and professionally. And I’ve also noticed that she really is mastering all of these 12 principles. And it’s one of the things that helped her be able to be successful. So, as we jump into this interview today, Ashley, first of all, thanks for your fun example. It’s so enjoyable, just having the chance to be around her. Would you start today by just telling us a bit more about Cecelia New York? How did it get started? Tell us a bit about your journey.
Ashley Cole: All right. So, just like you said, growing up, I was surrounded by entrepreneurs. My father, but also my great grandfather had the first 24-hour convenience store in the state of Utah. And my other grandfather had lots of businesses. And they were just all around me. And I was very intrigued by what everyone was doing. But I also felt like there was a time that I had that I could work, and then I would stop working, and then I would start my family. So, as the time got closer, I wanted to really maximize my efforts in school. So, I decided to get a business degree in something I was really passionate about as well, and that was fashion. And that’s how I ended up at the Fashion Institute of Technology. But with that, I was determined that I had to finish my four-year degree in three years because my time was limited. I had to get out of school so I could work as many years as I can before who knew when I was going to get married, have a baby, and then that time of my life would be over.
Ashley Cole: So, I’m running as fast as I can, I’m getting all these things done, and I’m marrying my high school sweetheart, and we’re living in Manhattan having the most amazing time. And then it’s time we decided to start having a family. So, I stopped working when the baby came. And when he was about a year old – my oldest – I started thinking, “I don’t know how this is gonna go. Maybe this isn’t exactly how I had pictured it all working out. I think I need to also use these passions and these other skills that I have and how can I make this all work? How can I bring this together?” So, for a few years, I decided I wanted to do a shoe company. And I traveled around. We would go on a family trip somewhere and then I would tag on to do some factory trips. And I just was studying and studying footwear really intently for several years until my third child was born. I had two boys and then I finally had a girl right when I was thinking about launching this company. So, that’s why I named it after her: Cecelia. And we were in New York, so Cecelia New York was born. And I didn’t want to let go of anything being a full-time mom, do every job myself. So, for several years, I would show up to every trade show with anyone I could bring with me. I would do everything on my own. And finally, about four and a half years ago I hired my first full-time employee. That’s when we were able to really start growing the wholesale like boutiques and things like that, and you know, I just needed a team at the end of the day, I think, “Oh no, I got this. I got this.” Well, I learned a lot of lessons along the way in how I got this with a really great team behind me.
Ashley Cole: So, yeah, it’s been a ride, but just like you said, it’s everyone’s journey and how they can be their best self for themselves. I can compare myself to my friends all day who have started companies about the same time I did and where they are and where I am. I’ve had ultimately four kids since I’ve launched this business, and six total. And my journey is I want to have both of these elements to the absolute max in my life. So, we have our own journey and how we can be our best self with everything that is so important to us, and all of our passions and our desires, and how we can fit that all in, and grow and develop to be the best person we can be.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, well, thanks for that background. And I just loved a number of things that Ashley shared. First of all, is really trying to be in tune with her passion – what is the best way to manifest that? And how can you be fulfilled with that? And at the same time, the desire to be a mom. It’s your own pathway. To compare yourself against someone else is a no-win game. So, congratulations on doing that. And to all of our listeners, this is really what it’s about in terms of becoming your best. It’s taking what is your journey and how does that look, and in each area of our life, how do we find the greatest happiness and fulfillment. Because at the end of the day, you want to say, “Well, I have my family. I have my relationships, and the people that I love, and friendships, and those are as great as maybe anything I’ll do. But also, I feel so great about using my talents and trying to leave the world a better place.” So, thanks for sharing that, that’s a great start, and I know that that’ll be helpful to others. Ashley, what are some of your key lessons learned, like, professional lessons that have helped you and your business be successful?
Ashley Cole: So many lessons. I feel like, every day, trying to take things I learned and put them actually into action. But I’ve always tried to juggle so many things. So, one thing I’ve tried to do is just “Get in there, get the work done, and I gotta get out, I gotta go, I gotta move on with my factories. Okay, I’ll come for the absolute bare minimum of time, because I’ve got kids at home, I gotta go.” And then I started to learn along the way as these partners were becoming more and more part of my business, maybe it’s not these long, drawn-out dinners all the time. But what can I do? Because these relationships matter – they matter to my business. When push comes to shove, and we are in a tough spot with a deadline or an order, and we need them to really help us out – it’s those relationships that have gotten us over the finish line.
Ashley Cole: So, things I’ve decided I could do is take a little bit of interest in their life, just socially I’m like, “How’s your daughter? How’s this? Maybe I can’t spend the weekend with you but I can know where you’re at, I can take extra few minutes to make sure our relationship—” And really care about these people and understand their business. This two-way street coming together of having relationships, I’ve had to really work on that just because I’m trying to push so many things at once. But it has really strengthened my business, especially my factory relationships, to have these relationships be strong. So, that’s something that wasn’t natural for me just because I was a busy mom and running, but I had to find my own way to make sure this is really important.
Ashley Cole: Another thing is – I touched on before – delegation. Delegation is so important, you know, I just think, “Oh, this is my brand. This is my baby.” I can’t, like, I hold everything so tight for so long. I can let go and I can delegate. And if something’s not done right, we can go back to the table, but I need to be okay with that. And it has just changed everything, just to let go of some things. Some things that, you know, maybe something will get sent out and I’m not really in love with exactly the way it was. But we can do it better next time. And especially being able to be there for my children, I’ve had to really lean on my team. And leaning on them, they have just stepped up to the plate – have been amazing. But that was hard for me to let go. I’d held everything so tight. But the growth can’t happen until you let go and let people do their job.
Steve Shallenberger: Really great points.
Ashley Cole: All these different pieces and you’re new. So, I’m not new anymore. But when I was at the beginning, in those years, I held on to everything, like, “Oh, this could be the first time someone sees us. This could be the first time. I can’t let them not see exactly what I want to see.” We all have our strengths. I have so many weaknesses. So, I really tried to just “I’m gonna focus really hard on my strengths and have the team members fill in my weaknesses.” And it has really become a much better well-oiled machine.
Steve Shallenberger: Great insights. Thanks so much. I love those. “Growth can’t take place until you let go.” What a great quote, huh?
Ashley Cole: Well, see, that’s for everyone. That’s for me.
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, that’s good. Well, those are awesome. Maybe an experience or two on how you learned those lessons? Do you mind sharing maybe a couple?
Ashley Cole: As I mentioned with my factories, we have had to really manage our cash. And sometimes I always joke, I’d say, “I wish I had a crystal ball. I wish I had a crystal ball; ‘How many units can we sell?’” So that we order kind of safe. Because I’m worried “I can’t get stuck with too much inventory. I want to sell out of everything.” Of course, that’s not always exactly the way it goes. But I have to chase in the season, which means I get my original stock, we’re selling it, we’re marketing it, we’re gifting it to influencers, we’re working 100 miles an hour to get everything moving. And then all of a sudden, it’s selling really well, and I’ve got to get back to my factory, I’m like, “Help me get more. Help me get more.” And they have to really sometimes pull some rabbits out of a hat to get it for me. And they don’t have to. It’s not always a really lucrative deal for them to keep getting my reorders. But they have just done this because they know that as my business has grown, how well it’s helped their business. And our relationship has really been strengthened by that.
Ashley Cole: My strength is I am the problem-solver in the heat of the moment. I don’t just take no. I go every which way until I find how I can make something work. I don’t just let go. Sometimes I drive people crazy because I just try it again. If someone tells me ‘No’, I go to a different resource. We have this boot, it’s our top-selling boot. And it was doing so well. And we had it in a factory in Asia and they could not make enough units for us. So, I decided to send this boot that we had been making there down to Brazil to another factory partner we’ve worked with for many years. But they had never made this boot before. And I gave them a very tight timeline. And it’s flying it on my dad’s planes from Brazil and I had all these puzzle pieces that had to come together perfectly. And we were actually pre-selling the shoe online, pre-orders, and they were going crazy through the roof. And the shoe came – it was devastating. It was something they had done wrong with the back of the boot. When people walked, they came out of the boot. It was an elastic band closure and they didn’t do it correctly.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh no!
Ashley Cole: Yeah, I tried every which way to fix this boot, every repair shop in the entire western United States, factories in California, anyone who could help fix this situation. I had so many of these, and I had already sold them. I know that I laid it all out and I tried everything just to salvage this. And finally, I just had to give everyone their money back. So, I will never just run and move something so quickly and move that fast is something so important. Again, this was a factory partner but they had never made this particular boot, and it was a little bit complicated.
Steve Shallenberger: Wow! What an experience, huh?
Ashley Cole: Yeah, a tough one.
Steve Shallenberger: A little bit of stress involved.
Ashley Cole: Oh yes, yes, yes.
Steve Shallenberger: I knew Ashley really is mastering these 12 principles. Ashley, the first one is “Be True to Character.” When people know that they can count on you, that kind of character in today’s world is worth more than money could ever be, really. It gives you moral authority. And people want to associate with people they can trust and count on, especially when the chips are down. So, great going. That’s a wonderful story. I appreciate you sharing it.
Ashley Cole: I trust too. We all do. When someone’s burned you a little bit, you’re very hesitant to work with them again.
Steve Shallenberger: All right. So, if you had the chance to sit down with someone who is joining your team, what would be one or two things you would say to them about what it means to be a great team member?
Ashley Cole: For me, it’s jump in with both feet and get excited. Be excited and give it your heart. Because when people come moseying in 15-20 minutes late and we’ve already started meeting about something, can’t really remember what we were working on. And you can just tell their mind is elsewhere and they’re not really into it. It’s really hard for the whole team. But when we go a little more excited and we are all on board and the ideas are flowing and the creativity, and we’re coming up with new ways of doing things and how we can solve, you know, we’re working on problems all the way from conception of the design through all the phases of that going to market, and samples through production, and getting it all the way back to this country to our factories to the customer – This whole cycle where there’s so many little touchpoints we’re always working on. And we need team members that are excited, and they want to be there, and these problem-solving times are exciting to them.
Steve Shallenberger: Okay, keep going. Those are good. That’s a good one. Good start.
Ashley Cole: And I would just say, honestly, just give everything a little bit more. I try to teach my kids this: “Don’t just do what you have to do.” Just read over that special email one more time. Everything, just give it a little bit more. That extra 5% on our team for everybody just makes such a difference. Because when we just do it just to get it done, there are mistakes that cause so much more problems we have to deal with later. And just putting in that little bit of extra effort goes such a long way.
Steve Shallenberger: All right, that’s good. Good stuff. Well, that’s good advice. Good going. So, how have you balanced, Ashley, being a mom and a spouse with your career and work demands? How do you do it? How do you pull it off?
Ashley Cole: It’s always an everyday thing to work with. But when I worked for Diane Von Furstenberg, at the time, I got out of school and I had an offer to go to the buying department at Bloomingdale’s or to go in sales at Diane Von Furstenberg. And I just thought, “Of course, Bloomingdale’s. Of course, Bloomingdale’s.” Like, it was such a big powerhouse in New York at the time. But I just felt strong, I got to meet with Diane on my interview, and I was so just taken by her shoe, just really struck me. And I thought at the time it was so great because the company was a little smaller than it is now, and it was this amazing kind of smaller building in New York where the downstairs was all the showroom, and the upstairs, you could see down into the showroom. But right across from us was production. Right next to them was public relations. To the right of us was design. And then the international and the domestic office. But it was just this awesome synergy to watch all these departments work together and the size of the company. But now when I look back, that was really cool. But what I’ve taken so much even more over the years is the way Diane integrated her family and her business was just the most amazing lesson I could ever learn.
Ashley Cole: So, Diane – her apartment was actually the third floor at the top level of this building. And she was a grandma at the time. Her grandkids would come running through, her kids, and she would come down in her yoga outfit for a meeting, and then get back up there and come down in a gown for a gala, and we were all just watching her life, and I was just so intrigued by how she put all these facets together so she could be this amazing mother and grandmother but also run this incredible company. And I’ve tried to continue to think about that and teach my children lessons and my kids anytime that they’re around and it’s not something they can’t be at, bringing them into it. And when I have my 9 AM meetings in the morning, my daughter who just turned four, and my baby often are playing with toys and coloring on the floor. Just, it’s around my kids.
Ashley Cole: When our new boxes of samples come, I call my kids, I’ll open them, they lay them out. My girls are trying them on. We’ve had to ship Lord and Taylor orders out of my garage and all my kids were a packing team. And anything I can do to bring both these worlds together has been my constant effort. So, they’re learning something. I don’t have to shut a door and mom’s working. Of course, there are those times; sometimes I’m like, “Guys, Nordstrom is on Zoom right now. I love you. Thank you for your input.” My daughter, Naomi, has this business. She’s always like, “Mom! I got to work on my business.” And the things that — she’s six — she talks about, I’m like, “Wow!” She wants to do tie-dye sweats that she adds jewels to. And it’s called Fashion E. Star. And she talks about her ads online, and we gotta put this website. And I’m like, “Oh my gosh! You’re six turning seven.”
Ashley Cole: Obviously, then there’s the whole juggling thing. My goal is I take my kids to school in the morning. I drop them off at 08:15. I have one that’s still in the home full time. I have two of them home two days a week. And then as soon as they’re dropped off, it’s focus, focus, focus as much as I can. I do have help, that is wonderful. And then when they are home at 03:30, I really try to focus right back on them. Of course, there is summer, there is a lot of other things that make it juggling every single day. But I know this is me. I always have known I thrive on chaos. If I don’t have too much to do, I get distracted and I’m looking at random real estate houses I can flip or something. So, it’s like, basically, I just decided, I’ve got ADD, I’ve got to channel my hyperfocus into one thing, or I would just be throwing big parties and flipping things. I would have 100 projects going, which would also be good, but I think that would actually be harder for me than just focusing into one business.
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, you gotta watch out for the shiny objects, right?
Ashley Cole: Yeah, I know. It just kind of helps me keep my head down a little bit and just go for my goal.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, it’s really fun hearing about this, Ashley, because it’s bringing back great old memories for me. In my first company, we had a 30,000-foot building. So, if you have a lot of work, like, I’d worry about it and wanted to take care of my — be a good dad, and we had five boys, and finally a girl. Well, when the first three boys were, like, nine and under, if I had a lot of work, I’d take them down to my office, which was maybe five minutes from our house, and man, they’d have a blast. They would go under my desk, they would play hide and seek in the building. They’d use the intercom system in the whole building. Nobody else was there, it was at night.
Ashley Cole: Oh my gosh, I bet they had such a blast.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, great memories. And then they would find the candy machines. And they’d get their little tiny arms way up in these candy machines. Oh, what a ride. Anyhow, I had to put extra money in those machines to make up for the vendor’s loss, I’m sure.
Ashley Cole: We were the same way. I ended up at my dad’s office building at Morris Air a lot when I was growing up. I don’t know, it’d be like we’d be leaving a family party and we’d have two cars and he’d stop by to get some stuff for the office. And those poor people probably came into work the next day were like, “Wait, where’s the chocolate from my drawer?” I would raid the drawer, and I would raid the fridge, and I’d be living the high life with all their snacks. And I don’t think my dad even ever knew or he’d be so mad at me. But a young girl walking around a dark office at nine o’clock at night, she’s gonna find something to do.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh man, I’ll say, well, those are great memories. Well, I’m always amazed at how fast our time goes. So, what’s one final tip that you would leave with our listeners today? It’s been such a delight to have you on.
Ashley Cole: I would just say enjoy where you’re at. Enjoy that moment where you’re at. I’ve always had this problem, I’m looking to the next thing, I’m rushing through school, “Okay, I’ve gotta get my six kids. I’ve got to do this and this.” When I look back at these moments like that was a really awesome time of life. The next thing is not always going to be the next best thing. It’s just now is also the best. I always said to myself, “The best is yet to be.” But the best is now. You always have to live in the moment as well as look to the future.
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, well, that’s great. That’s a good tip; to make the very best of today. I’m kind of laughing a little bit because I’m doing a backup recording on my iPad and I just noticed that a Cecelia New York flash came up: “Here’s your chance! Classic and classy! Dress it up, dress it down!”
Ashley Cole: We’re targeting our customers, and you are a good customer.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, Ashley, how can people learn more about your shoes?
Ashley Cole: You can look at our website, cecelianewyork.com. And our Instagram is the same, @cecelianewyork, that’s the handle. We’re on Pinterest. That’s probably the best way to find us. If you want to look through other websites, we’re on Anthropologie, we’re on Nordstrom.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, perfect. Well, thank you, Ashley, for being part of this show today. And it’s been so fun. And what a great and productive visit this has been. And we wish you all the best in making a difference in the world for good.
Ashley Cole: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. It’s so great to speak with you.
Steve Shallenberger: And to you, our listeners, what a privilege to have you with us. It’s such an honor. You know my admiration for you. Thank you for listening and blessing so many other people’s lives in the process. This is Steve Shallenberger with Becoming Your Best Global Leadership, wishing you a great day.
Founder, CEO, passionate about business and fashion, loving wife, mother of six beautiful children.