In My Words: Audrey Bellis
Audrey Bellis found herself with a broken engagement, six figures of debt and no light at the end of the tunnel. Then everything changed.
I was engaged in my mid 20s and I sum this period in my life up with a line from Lauryn Hill’s “Mystery of Inequity”: “You’ll find what you sought was based on the deception you bought.” I had stopped working at the time because my fiancé expected a wife that was going to stay at home. I was told I should be spending my days planning a wedding and after we were married, the focus was meant to be on having/raising kids. We knew then I had fertility issues, and he was older so kids were a priority. I let myself get sucked into the fantasy he painted for me. The Bella Bambino was always my secret little plan though.
Sidenote—when you’re plotting a backup plan outside of what should be a fairy tale, that’s an early sign it's not really a “fairy tale.”
I knew that he didn’t want me to work, but after we were married I figured a great solution would be to have a little family boutique that I could take the kids to and maybe even pass down to a future generation. But ultimately, when we called off the engagement and I started tallying up the bills, I realized this was no longer Plan B, it was Plan Right Fucking Now.
I walked away from that relationship with over six figures in debt (from a wedding I didn’t even get to have), and I knew that just getting a “J.O.B.” would have me paying that off for the rest of my life. My only option was to become self employed—as an entrepreneur my earning capacity would have no ceiling. It took me almost three years to pay off that debt.
I spent 6 months in bed suffering from a severe depressive episode. I was so deeply stuck in a shame pit that I practically gave up on life. Two things happened that broke that depression: My dog wandered into my life— he literally came to my door starving and flea infested, and the other was hearing Brene Brown’s first TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” that had just been released and was about to go viral.
I realized that I was a perfectionist who couldn’t cope when things weren’t perfect. I was so hung up on the story that I “failed,” that I wasn’t realizing that the core of my depression came from feelings of abandonment, not from him, but from myself. I had abandoned my core values and who I was to fit into a picture that in reality, no one actually cares about. I felt unworthy.
Picking up the pieces (and myself) was a process I like to call “bridging small right actions.”
It looked like this: get up, meditate, go to yoga, go to daily mass, get through the day with just a little more grace than I brought the day before, and repeat. I had to find my sense of self worth again.
Finances were an area that had me completely bogged down by this experience. To regain a sense of “worthiness” around this area meant I had to take control of the situation. I was terrified of my bills to the point of just not opening the mail anymore and sending things straight to the shredder. Bridging small right actions started with the most simple of steps—getting a grip on what I owed and to whom. The minute I felt like I was taking control of my finances was the minute they stopped owning me.
Bridging small right actions in terms of my bills meant a spreadsheet that I live by to this day. I started by paying off a small bill. Then a slightly larger one. Every payment that got me closer to the “$0 owed” gave me a little more dignity and a little more self respect. Bridging those together (aka: consistency), combined with tracking where every single dollar I had went, quickly helped me start making traction in paying down that debt.
I started the Bella Bambino with less than $100. I found a local manufacturer that was producing locally made Christening and First Holy Communion gowns. His minimum order was $400. I convinced him that if he sold me $85 worth of product that I would sell it and come back the next week for more. I also told him that to save on shipping, I'd just come pick it up. I bought my website domain, spent $8.99 on hosting that month and made a promise to myself that I would live to see another month. I did. I sold those dresses and kept coming back for more inventory. I learned Wordpress in the middle of the night from Smashing Magazine tutorials. I figured out "content marketing" (back then referred to as stuff that was relevant but not in your face "buy me, buy me" tactics) and every day I built a little more.
The turning point was when I became an Advisory Board member for Catholic Charities LA. Each archdiocese has a Catholic Charities associated with it, and LA is the largest in the nation with 229 parishes under its coverage territory. I started putting together trunk shows at parishes with only 10 samples and a size chart/measuring tape. This allowed me to get on demand inventory. I would take orders on the weekend, then fulfill them during the week at the manufacturer’s.
There were months when I got so tight on money I didn't know if I was going to be able to pay my hosting bill (and it was under $10), but I always managed to pull through. I couldn't take on any more debt than I already had, and my credit had taken a major hit. Rebuilding and staying afloat was my number one priority every single day. It was a very dark and lonely time that first year. Chuck Palahniuk has a great line, “No matter how much you think you love somebody, you'll step back when the pool of their blood edges up too close.” That is some damn truth. Get into deep water and see who's there to support and bail you out…too few. I was so scared to go back to that place of giving up the way I did during my 6-month depression that I found a way to dig deep and much of that strength came from my daily mass practice. I didn't just have hope, I was creating it for myself every single day with small right actions.
Finding a sense of community was another. When I was going through this, I truly felt isolated and alone. I was ashamed of some of the choices I made that had landed me in that position to begin with. I felt like I was carrying major baggage and was unworthy of connection. As I started to find my tribe, I realized just how false that actually was. We all experience shame and feelings of being “unworthy,” but it's in the struggles where we connect. Knowing we aren’t alone is what gives us the hope to know that we can overcome, because others have.
Living a life by design means I stopped caring about what it “should” look like and living from a place that brings me purpose. I don’t care that it doesn’t fit the mold my parents wanted for me—it makes me happy and when I’m creating from a place of joy and purpose, I thrive. I am of higher service to others because I am of service to my highest, most authentic, self.
Today, living a life by design quite literally means I get to build a city. I play an active part in building the Downtown LA ecosystem. Building the city I want to be a part of and not waiting for someone else who build it without me? That is living.
After the Bella Bambino, I wanted to strengthen my tech skills. I truly bought into the “live here, work here, play here” philosophy of Downtown, but I couldn’t “work here.” The only tech jobs available were sparse or in Santa Monica, so I would have had to relocate or work remotely. I opted to work remotely, but that wasn’t enough.
I initially got involved at Indie Desk—Downtown’s first coworking space—when I opened the Bella Bambino, and then again later when I needed a place to work from that wasn’t my living room. I was craving connection and felt so isolated stuck behind my laptop all day. Slowly I started taking on Indie Desk’s community and events, literally creating the environment I was looking for. As people outgrew our space and would leave Downtown, I realized it was because of a lack of centralized community for the DTLA startup world.
I decided to become that tech epicenter. Startup DTLA does three things: we help people find office space, we host a central calendar of events for the community and we keep the largest open database of Downtown companies and their funding activities.
Grid110 is a non-profit economic development group that applies an “accelerator type” model. My big goal here was getting companies access to resources and marketing the existing industries of Downtown, such as fashion, manufacturing, legal, etc.
Another fact about Downtown is that we have 6 million square feet of empty class A office space. Surrounding areas are so saturated with startups that office space, with fiber internet, is scarce. I wanted to create an agency that brands Downtown as the premier place to start or relocate your startup, tech or creative company, and connect people to that space.
I look around Downtown and I see people with pure drive and a deep hustle. This is the place where I thrive. I’ve committed the last four years of my life to building it and there isn’t another major economic city in the country, outside of Detroit, where an everyday person like me can have an impact. This is the place where I will make my mark. I can feel it.
I can honestly say I’m living my highest peak in my career, thus far, right now. Certainly not because I’m making the most money I’ve ever made, but because I feel like my career is an extension of who I am. Marianne Williamson has a great line that I feel like I’m living to the fullest: “A career grows out of who we are are; who we are doesn’t grow out of a career.”
The pit would probably be the tail end of the Bella Bambino. I had grown incredibly resentful of what I was doing somewhere around the third year as I grew closer to the final debt pay off. The ecommerce store was a constant reminder of the circumstances in which the business was born from. I also have gone through challenging fertility struggles and being around baby clothes, newborns and new moms felt like “unworthy” and “you’re not enough” were slapping me in the face constantly.
I needed to make an exit and I took the first opportunity when it presented itself to sell off the brand lines. It was the second biggest relief point in my life I’d felt outside of calling off our engagement and walking away from that relationship.
Q+A with Audrey
Do you have any advice for budding entrepreneurs who are facing financial troubles? Either debt, bad credit, seeking financing?
Know what you owe. Make a manageable—I emphasize manageable—plan to get through it. Understand your credit report. I use Credit Karma to track mine and a spreadsheet to correlate/track my progress. It feels overwhelming, but the sooner you start, the sooner it will get better. Each small right action of payments and consistency will pay off and get you closer to reducing that burden entirely.
This leads me to my mantra: “ You can’t raise your net worth until you raise your self worth.”
I’ve never had to raise money for any of my businesses. I’ve always bootstrapped or self funded and I advise to do that for as long as it makes sense for you. Building a product doesn’t have to be perfect on the first iteration, it just needs to be enough to test and refine.
What are the common threads you see among successful creatives?
Creatives are resilient. I’d argue they are the bravest and most resilient group we have among us. Creatives understand that to “not create” is to die. People that look down upon creativity as being a “non grown up thing” are people surrounded in their own fear of doing what they love and a shame for disowning that part of themselves.
Creatives are also very ritualistic. We have our processes to get into the deepest part of ourselves and allow that to come forward (similar to actors getting into character).
Creatives are brave. We forgo the “pleasing, proving and perfecting” behaviors others think we should have to do what we need to do to live our fullest lives. That is the thing everyone wants to do but too many are scared shitless to do.
Any other pearls of wisdom you’d like to share?
I think regardless of knowing that we shouldn’t listen to external opinions, it's easy to get sucked into people’s well intentioned fears. Some of the best advice I ever received was being told, “Your experience is not my reality.” My reality is my own. I feel like I am living my best life and that’s my experience. When my parents don’t understand it or it doesn’t fit a norm someone thinks I should have, that line has been my saving grace. I always tell people: It’s ok for others to have their fears, rants and projections. They will inevitably emote them onto you in the most well intentioned way, but those don’t have to be “my fears” or “my narrow limited thoughts.” You choose how you want to feel, choose what’s most authentic to you. Your future self will thank you for it.
The last thing is—don’t give pain purpose. I understand that things get hard, and sometimes life sucks, but it doesn’t have to define you. You are not your failings, your shortcomings or your mistakes.