Women in Business Q&A: Ellen Chen, Founder, Mendocino Farms

16/01/2016 14:53

Founded in 2005, by Mario Del Pero and Ellen Chen, Mendocino Farms is a Los Angeles-based sandwich concept that promotes a farm-to-table philosophy by using local, seasonal ingredients in its sandwiches, salads and soups. As the premier gourmet sandwich company, Mendocino Farms aims to reconstruct fine dining entrees to the sandwich level and take classic regional sandwiches and give them a modern interpretation.

Ellen graduated with a degree in finance from UCSD, becoming a consultant for the prestigious Accenture Consulting firm. There Ellen facilitated the growth initiatives and improvements of some top Fortune 100 companies. Even though Ellen was consulting big business, she was destined for entrepreneurial greatness. Ellen's father was a very successful industrialist in Taiwan, teaching her the values of leading through empowerment and the rewards of building a thriving business from just a good idea and a lot of passion. She honed her business acumen at the marketing firm of Suissa Miller, then at the dot com start-up Target Marketing Interactive. After being part of the internet success of the 1990's, Ellen Chen invested in a start-up restaurant concept, Skew's. Ellen has been the principle investor and business manager of Skew's, CASA, and the Mendocino Farm's concepts.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I love the quote from Vince Lombardi, "Leaders aren't born they are made and they are made like anything else: through hard work". My father was an entrepreneur and grew up in poverty in the countryside of Taiwan. With hard work and commitment, he created a company that was not only successful, but created great livelihoods for hundreds of people. That same hard work and determination that made my dad successful is what pushes me to get better every day.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Mendocino Farms? Through my past experience, I was able to figure out what I enjoyed doing and what I didn't enjoy doing. I started out as a Consultant at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) and then made the switch to Marketing/Advertising. I had the opportunity to work at a couple startups during the "Internet Boom". I loved working at the startups and being a part of building a company and wearing multiple hats. The last company I worked for was acquired by Electronic Arts and provided me the freedom to take time off. I knew after leaving Electronic Arts that it was time for me to venture out on my own. During my time off I was fortunate to meet my husband Mario and we are able to build a company together.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Mendocino Farms?
One of our greatest challenges was probably one of our greatest highlights. It was the opening of our 3rd store in Marina del Rey, almost 6 years ago. It was our 1st seven day a week, lunch and dinner store, the first two had been weekday lunch only in downtown LA at the bottom of two skyscrapers. Mendo MDR had the best problem ever- it was too busy! I mean we were getting crushed every day. We spent almost a year learning how to improve our systems, equipment and training to provide a great experience for those guests. In fact, we changed our ordering style on store 4 because of some things we learned. The store is still our highest grossing restaurant doing over $2,000 a foot in sales. Lately with the phenomenal growth we have seen, the greatest challenge is how to scale our culture. We invest a lot of time and money into our training programs and making sure the tenets of why Mario and I started this company is living at the stores every day.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
1. Be confident - The restaurant industry is a male dominated industry and I have found myself doubting myself at times and not wanting to speak up. It was a challenge that I had to overcome and still continue to work on.

2. Be a student of your business- don't just do your due diligence about your industry and what competitors are doing, learn the history of your industry, work successfully in your industry for a "best in class" company and seek mentorship from the best in your industry. Even when you have some success in your industry, never stop learning.

3. Be a good listener - It's important to understand all points of views before making any decisions. I think that many women find their sensitivity and caring to be a negative attribute. I feel if you pick an organization with the right culture, or build an organization with the right culture, that it is a critical attribute in leadership.

4. Be the best version of you and commit to evolve every day - a great book to read is Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin who presents this idea of "Deliberate Practice". I have lived by this premise of developing a plan to attack the areas that I'm weakest and stayed open to criticism in order to reflect and improve. It's not easy, but overcoming things you are not good at never is.

5. Celebrate everything - we actually start every meeting going around the room sharing appreciations everyone has for each other. It really gets the meeting going with a caring respectful tone.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
To always push and be better than you were yesterday. There are so many great brands out there and in order to stay ahead we need to focus on how we can better. When I take my marketing or culinary teams into a competitor, I have a rule that you can't discuss what we do better. We are only there to hunt for the nuggets of inspiration to elevate our brand.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I don't think there such a thing as work/life balance for myself. I try to stay focused and give my attention to what I am doing at that moment. I stay organized and everything is calendared and when I am with my family I try to put away my phone and not check emails. At the end of the day, I love what I am doing and am blessed to be doing it with my husband, which helps with the balance.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I feel that many women think they have to choose between having a professional career and having a family. Sheryl Sandberg says, "Don't leave before you leave". Progressive companies are getting smarter and realize that women can be even better leaders after getting married or starting their families. I think it is matter of aligning yourself with companies and mentors that have or are examples of women having great careers, while fully participating in the raising of great families.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I will be honest, I have not had many mentors in my life. The one important person that has helped me the most is my business partner and husband Mario Del Pero. He is an incredibly dynamic, intelligent and thoughtful person and has been such a great sounding board for me. Because of this I make myself available to other women/men in business. If I can help people avoid the mistakes I have made along the way, it makes it this journey even better.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are many who I admire but one who changed my perspective and kept me in the game was Sheryl Sandberg. Whether you hate her or love her, her book Lean In is really empowering for women of all ages.

What do you want Mendocino Farms to accomplish in the next year?
My goals for this year are twofold. One, I am really focused on implementing systems that reinforce the culture my team and I have created to enable us to scale our brand and not "water down" what we have today as we almost double in size. Two, I am really focusing this year to be strengthen our supply chain, but slightly a different approach than many restaurant groups take. Instead of beating up our farmers, we have hired a consulting farmer that shares with our stakeholder farms how they can approve their productivity, environmental impact and their ability to better sell to us. We have really taken a lot of inspiration with the Whole Foods business model. We believe that our suppliers are as critical stakeholders in our company as our team members and our guests.