Like many high school seniors, Chelsea Ellis-Hogan wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next. She had been accepted into the business programs of several local colleges. But she wasn’t sure which one to pick, or if she even wanted to go to college at all.
That’s when her father asked if she wanted to join the family business, a Louisville-based paving company started by her great uncle more than 30 years ago.
“When he said that, I think my eyes just lit up,” says Ellis-Hogan. “I’m a hands-on learner, this gives me an opportunity where I can truly just get out there… as well as I don’t have to worry about student loans. It just made sense.”
Just a short eight years later, Ellis-Hogan is the president, CEO and co-owner of Jim Reynolds Asphalt Contractor. She is one of only about 58,000 Black women who work in the construction industry, which employs 10.7 million people nationwide.
The Daily Life of a Young Entrepreneur
Although she had been raised around the business, the 26-year-old feared she wouldn’t be up to the manual labor required for a paving company. But then her father reassured her with some important advice about her new job.
“As a business owner, it’s not about doing the physical work,” Ellis-Hogan recalls her father telling her. “It’s about figuring out and putting the pieces together to make the business make sense.”
Now her days are filled with sales and marketing tasks, doing job estimates, checking on employees, dealing with unexpected emergencies, and developing business growth strategies with her father. But she also devotes a few weeks during the paving season to work alongside her crews and get hands-on experience with the products and services the business offers.
“I wanted to learn more about the process because I knew it would be easier for me to be able to sell it or be able to talk to other people about the company if I knew exactly what it took to do the work,” she says.
Another important part of Ellis-Hogan’s day is the morning meeting she has with her employees and contractors. She says she often brings in guest speakers to talk about personal finance issues like credit, homeownership, and saving for retirement.
“A lot of people… never learned a lot of the basic skills that a lot of us may have,” she says. “So we try to use our business as a platform that allows us to help those people learn and continue to grow.”
Creating a fun environment and positive mindset for employees is critical, she says. It helps the business run smoothly, empowers employees to address problems more quickly and effectively, and fosters loyalty.
“We want you to come to work happy, to be able to go home and make a living, to be able to take care your family, and grow,” she says. “If you’re able to accomplish and do those things, we feel that people will stick with us.”
Empowering Others to be Successful
Building the family business isn’t Ellis-Hogan’s only goal. She and her father want to help other people make their companies thrive as well. They’ve set a goal of helping at least 100 people in their Louisville neighborhood become entrepreneurs and start their own businesses.
“We realize that ownership is the key of really being financially stable and financially free,” she says.
Ellis-Hogan also does YouTube videos and she’s written a book about her business strategies. “Fail To Success: How to Embrace Failure While Never Losing the Desire for Success” has been a bestseller among Amazon self-published business titles.
“In order to be successful, it’s all about creating a business or creating a career around the things you enjoy,” she says.
The book is a compilation of blog posts Ellis-Hogan wrote about new ideas she’s learned and implemented in her life and work. She is a proponent of the “slight edge” technique, which builds on small, daily goals to chart a course for reaching bigger goals. She says she’s been inspired by people who have experienced failure but never gave up in their quests to achieve success.
“When it comes to being patient with entrepreneurship or with your goals, it’s also about surrounding yourself around other people who are educated and who can help you make your goals a little bit easier and help you reach them quicker,” she says. “We might not accomplish our goals when we think we should, but it’s all about continuing to go and continuing to grow until you reach that success that you truly want to have.”
Another part of being a successful businessperson and effective leader, according to Ellis-Hogan, is to not assume you have all the answers but to ask people what they need. Often times, she says, people need something simple like more love, support, and a second chance. Those things can be especially important for employees who may face life challenges like a criminal record, low educational attainment, or poverty.
“When people are thinking about how they’re going to get their meal that night or that next morning, a lot of times they’re making irrational decisions because in their mind they don’t have a choice of doing anything different,” she says. “So we have to figure out a way of being able to really support those people and giving them opportunities, and in giving them opportunities knowing they may need more than one chance.”
That human approach to work, says Hogan-Ellis, is good for employees and good for business.
“We care about you more than we care about the money,” she says. “The money comes once we’re all good.”