Coffee with Dana Cowin & Ellen Bennett
Thursday morning, 9AM: We discover that Ellen Bennett is in town for a conference and promptly DM her on Instagram, inviting her to a lunch date.
Thursday morning, 9:05AM: Ellen DMs back and says she's hanging with Dana Cowin (!) and leaving town in 1 hour, but would love to meet if we can swing it.
Thursday morning, 9:06AM: We throw on some clothes and rush downtown to meet two of the most badass women-in-food.
The following is an account of our 30-minute coffee date with Ellen Bennett, founder of Hedley & Bennett and Dana Cowin, former editor in chief of Food & Wine, and the founder and host of Speaking Broadly, where we chat about the power of friendship and community in building businesses.
First, how do you know each other? And how do you feel about fostering collaboration over competition among women & how has this idea helped you in your careers?
I admire Dana a lot because she knows everyone in the food space, and is also friendly. Like she’s friends with everyone in the food space. It’s a feeling of mutual respect all around. And I think you could take that direction or you could be like “oh that’s not my crew” - that is super unlike her. And I try to live by that philosophy too. I try to be friendly to everyone. I think it’s best that way. Our Apron Squad is built on community. When I started the company and had no customers, I built it with people. I didn’t build Hedley & Bennett by myself. It was me sitting down with a chef and asking “what do you need?”, “how can I help you?”, “how can I make this better?", and then we collaborate. Our entire company is built on collaboration, really. So the idea of community isn’t this beautiful concept, it’s deeply ingrained in me. That’s how I think. Even when I’m making decisions, I seek collaboration and run around and ask questions and learn. I pool that together to get ideas. I crowdsource through collaboration and my community. So Dana and I have become really close in that sense. Every time I go to New York, I stay at her house - we went from knowing each other in the food space, and then knowing that we were each other’s tribe. Being humble enough to say that I needed her help, or you want to talk to her about something instead of just saying everything’s great! Because I think sometimes women in food - a lot of women are just like “everything’s amazing, the roses are out!” And I’m like - how are you ever going to get past that if you’ve never able to admit the faults that you have or the things you need to work on. Being self aware enough to know when you need help. And you can admit it out loud and say that you’re struggling. When you’re aware, that’s when you can change and make a difference.
I grew my career in the magazine world which is very female oriented. I had male bosses (certainly at Food & Wine) who said - you’re doing a great job, and just going. Keep doing that until you mess up. And so I lived in this bubble for so long. And then, I left and I was amazed at the struggle outside. And not in a completely naive way, but a little bit. Because I’m very pollyanna positive. I believe that you work hard and you have your eye on a prize and you can do it. But what I learned more and more in the real world as a opposed to the media world, is that helping one another and collaborations are essential. In part to help you feel like you’re not alone. I spend a lot of time with founders, and they feel particular alone because they’re leading and you can’t be vulnerable to your team, you need to lead your team. What you really need is either peers or supporters or believers. One of the joys of being an editor or being in charge is getting to hire people you believe in and help promote and encourage that. And in the next phase for me, part of the great joy is spending time with people I believe in like Ellen - who I believe in until the end of time. I believe that she manifested this incredible community out of sheer will and vision and enthusiasm and all of those qualities have made her a great leader for her team - leaving them with strength and dignity, but also the creativity that goes into it. So spending time with her is very revitalizing. As Ellen says, I’m very open minded. I think everyone is very interesting. I find it difficult to find people boring, or people who don’t have something to share.
And your so inquisitive in the best of ways. Dana always asks why. You’ll even see someone be like “Oh, I’m not sure!” She gets them to think past a surface level answer and dig deeper. She always makes people reflect on what people day.
Yeah and on speaking broadly I get to actually share this with the world. For me, I love the one on one conversations. But I feel so connected your mission too - I think #pinefor is great. I think the more you can share the lessons that other people have learned and the more your hear that the path to success is not always a straight road. Like Ellen’s road was wiggly, and will probably wiggle even more. You always want to feel like you’re on a french mountaintop and there are all of these sharp turns but eventually you’ll climb to the summit and reach this beautiful view, as opposed to, you’re on the road going nowhere and you’re running out of gas. And so giving people that encouragement that the road winds. And hearing stories about what people learned in the car as they traveled.
Totally, because that’s where you learn the major lessons. It’s those notches on the belt of life that you don’t realize how impactful they are until later when you reflect back on that one moment on that one profound experience. I look back sometimes on decisions and I think thank god I had those experiences. But sometimes when you’re right there in the thick of it you don’t see how it’s going to help you later. Even right now I’m at this pivotal point with Hedley & Bennett, asking myself where do we go next? And I can feel that i’m in the thick in one of those learning curves and i’m just sitting in the middle of the pudding, covered in pudding. Like my eyes pop out every once in awhile and I’m like, okay I’m going back in! And later I’ll look back at this moment and be like oh wow that was so important for me and for my life and future. You need other people to pluck you out of the pudding.
One thing we see our community struggle with is - how do you run a successful business? What one piece of biz advice would you give to someone and what void are you filling?
I have a peculiar approach to biz - old school and new school together. Like I chat on the phone, I write letters. Things that I feel like are a dying breed. Our good ol fashioned relationships founded on you saying you’re going to do something and then you actually do it. And earning respect and loyalty that way. With the chef’s I’ve worked with it’s like okay “that chef needs this by 8am on thursday morning? I will fly that damn thing over to NY myself and make it happen.Committing to something and owning that you will do it is a great way to grow a company. You’re building trust. I would also say that I’ve always been frugal with our resources. I’m meticulous about how I allocate resources. Because every penny I have - we’ve made it. It’s not like a lump of cash that someone else gave me and said okay 10 million dollars and we want you to do this and achieve this and you have 2 years of runaway, go for it. It’s not that. Our resources are ours. We built it. And so there’s a higher level of ownership. It was my team’s blood, sweat and tears that built our business. So i’m very careful about it. I try put on the blinders and not compare myself to the company that grow 700x it one year but killed themselves along the way and you just don’t know that part. It’s like okay - is that worth it? I don’t think it is!
I think the best biz you can create is the one where you do find the white space. When you set out to do something without knowing who it’s for or how it will resonate is a mistake. If you anticipate that 100,000 people want what you want to give them- that’s great. But if you’re like, well I just want this for myself - not as helpful for the masses. There’s a fear that I’ve seen that there’s no more white space left. That everyone is so busy creating, how could there be white space left for what I want to do or for me to succeed? This is such a myth. You have to know what’s authentically white space. And some people will launch a biz because they saw someone launch a similar business. The me too businesses can succeed but they generally struggle because they’re not able to innovate on that idea, because it wasn’t theirs to start with. Find depth in what you want to do so that you’re not a one trick pony.
I completely agree. Living this business life can be so hard and so much work mentally and physically. To imagine it not being authentic. I’m like woah that seems horrible. I live, eat, breathe Hedley & Bennett and everything we do. Even when it's painful at times.
We love waking up to your waking up to your instagram’s Wake Up and Fight and I’m like "if Ellen is crushing it all day every day, I’ve got no excuses."
The fact that our company makes people feel that way is one of the greatest joys that I’ve had from Hedley & Bennett- the inspiration that people can do whatever they want. It’s by far the best thing that Hedley & Bennett has created for the world. It fulfills me so much. It’s more than aprons, it’s a perspective.