Power Women: Chelle Neff of
Urban Betty On How To Successfully Navigate Work, Love and Life As A Powerful Woman
An Interview With Ming Zhao
Be social. Having a simple conversation with someone can change your life. And it’s usually not something that you have orchestrated. Before I opened my salon company, I scheduled coffee dates with 3–4 salon owners in my city, and I had a list of questions that I asked each of them. This action helped build my confidence and created the momentum and motivation I needed to get started. There will be people that show up when you least expect it and drop a couple of seeds of knowledge. Trust that guidance.
How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chelle Neff.
Chelle Neff has been a leader in the U.S. salon industry since founding Urban Betty in 2005 and has more than 20 years of experience creating innovative practices in the salon and beauty worlds. Neff has successfully grown Urban Betty’s revenue year after year and today has two salon companies that house more than 70 employees. For four years consecutively, Inc. 5000 named Urban Betty as one of the fastest-growing privately held companies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
My parents had me when they were teenagers, and we lived meagerly when I was young. I grew up in a family where I was the person that had to take a lot of responsibility. I knew that if I wanted to go to college, I would need to find a way to pay for it myself along with my cost of living. The silver lining is that it gave me the drive to start my own business because I was used to managing people and being responsible.
Growing up, I had a natural knack for doing hair and art, and I enrolled in cosmetology school at the age of 16. At the age of 18, I was a fully licensed cosmetologist. This plan was much more affordable for me than the traditional college route, so that’s what led me to pursue it. Ten years later, I opened Urban Betty.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
When I received my cosmetology license in 1995, I started working behind the chair at Supercuts. I slowly gained more confidence and worked my way to higher-end salons. After five years, I got a small suite at the Gallery of Salons and was an independent contractor. That was my initial stepping stone to running my own business.
I was all by myself for the first week when I opened Urban Betty Salon and had only one hairstylist/contractor for the first three months. I didn’t hire my first employee until six months after opening. I figured out after having one employee that it was much more profitable to have employees rather than booth rental/contracted hairstylists. After about six years, I slowly phased out all of my contractors and transitioned to a 100% commission-based salon.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When I initially structured the pricing list for services at my salon, I offered package deals and all sorts of special discounts, and I thought this was the best way to draw in new business. After struggling to make ends meet, I finally ran a report to see how much money we gave away, and it was an astonishing $50,000 in just one year! After that, I hired a salon consulting company and a business coach — Summit Salon Business Center. Within the first three months of hiring Summit, we restructured the pricing on our service list to an a la carte menu with only a limited amount of discounts. Our revenue grew by 30% the following year! Once our profits quickly turned around, I could retire from doing hair in 2017 and focus solely on managing Urban Betty. My passion then became marketing, social media, and growing the profit. I honestly never knew this was where I would end up. I now do things I WANT to do, not things I HAVE to do.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Be social. Having a simple conversation with someone can change your life. And it’s usually not something that you have orchestrated. Before I opened my salon company, I scheduled coffee dates with 3–4 salon owners in my city, and I had a list of questions that I asked each of them. This action helped build my confidence and created the momentum and motivation I needed to get started. There will be people that show up when you least expect it and drop a couple of seeds of knowledge. Trust that guidance.
- Get comfortable with the uncomfortable. I once asked my business coach, “When will things get easy?” She laughed and said, if you want to keep growing, your business will constantly be changing, and you will have to evolve with it. There will always be a “fire” to put out, and I know now that the building is not always burning down. Learn to get OK with the things you are not OK with. If something is not falling into place, the harder you push to make it happen, the worse you will feel. Now looking back with 3 locations, I can tell you that when everything went a little glitchy or crazy, I’ve learned that everything always works out somehow, someway.
- Be flexible. The biggest mistake we can make is putting a time frame around big goals that we haven’t met yet. I had to go through many steps of losing people, changing my business structure, and personal actions that had to be secured within me. In 2005 when I started Urban Betty with one contractor, I was opening my salon company and not thinking about the longevity and where I would be 15–20 years later. It’s great to set and have goals AND know that your life and experiences will change. Where you end up might be 1000 times better than what you ever expected. Be open and flexible to allow that to happen.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?
For society to be more accepting of strong women, we must first learn to accept ourselves as strong women. Usually, everything we are experiencing in life mirrors what we feel on an internal level about ourselves. One of the hardest things in life (for me) was stepping into my power. And why is that? I was scared of what people would think.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
In 2010 my salon was busting at the seams with ten stations, including five contractors and five commission stylists. We were doing well and at the height of our success. So I decided to relocate within the same shopping center to a space double the size. When we moved to the new salon space, we went from ten stations to sixteen. Expanding our salon and growing the brand (with employees) didn’t sit well with the contractors that were leasing stations. They wanted us to stay small, and they were not happy with the direction that I or the business was heading.
Half of my staff left one month after relocating to the new space and doubling our square footage. I had to work fast to rebuild my salon. Throughout this entire growth process, I learned that you could be a better salon by commissioning employees instead of hiring contractors. Employees help your salon and culture grow, while contractors manage themselves and do not necessarily represent your salon culture at all times. We love to provide a family atmosphere here at our salon. And the only way you can do that is to have every person at your salon on the same pay schedule and structure. Losing part of my staff and stepping into my power was a blessing. I learned not to care what other people thought and do what was best to keep the business afloat. It was a tough first year, and we made it through and continue to have success.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
A woman should follow her pings of happiness and not ignore her health. When I was a stylist inside my salon, I felt like I had everyone’s respect because I was “one of them.” I didn’t want to make them feel uneasy and become “just the owner” of the salon company. I was scared to get out from behind the chair and run the business. And my health suffered because of that. Putting what others thought about me before my happiness kept me from moving forward. My health was the catalyst to push me to retire from doing hair. It might be the ending of a relationship for some of you, someone who encourages you… there are a lot of ways that the universe gives us that message. I also had an inner knowing; I dreaded coming in to do hair. My HAPPINESS became more important. I would encourage everyone to listen to that ping. It will only get louder. I ignored that feeling and worried about others being uneasy, which affected my health. And guess what? Everyone was SO HAPPY for me. They gave me a party to celebrate retiring from doing hair, and my salon company has grown an average of 30% every year since making the decision to retire (from hairstyling).
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
You see so many people online bashing others that are successful. And I have experienced people turning on me or talking about me when I would do well and succeed. I had to get out of my head and learn to love myself, and then it didn’t matter what others thought. I honestly feel that if you are OK with being strong and powerful it won’t matter what other’s/society thinks, and that’s what we should focus on.
In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?
I am blessed to be part of an industry that celebrates women and is 90.8 percent female. So I can say that I feel lucky that I have not experienced an uncomfortable situation with a man that is related to my success.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Being treated equally would be the biggest challenge. I joined a global organization for entrepreneurs that was dominated by men a few years ago. It was a very different experience for me and not what I was used to inside the workplace. Most people in the organization that I met asked me how I got in, who did I know, or assumed I was the spouse of the actual member. It was alarming how many men made that assessment without speaking to me first. This unconscious bias built into a majority of men needs to be addressed and broken down. I believe it is their job to do that themselves and not us as women to teach them. The best that I could do was inform that organization, and I ultimately decided to leave it.
Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?
In February of 2021, I became a mother and met my son through adoption. So balancing work and parenting was the next big obstacle for me. My husband and I were on an adoption list for 1.5 years and had three days’ notice that our son had come into this world. I quickly had to take unplanned maternity leave for three months. It was the first time that I honestly had to work at balancing family with my life and career.
Asking for help was my greatest struggle. I announced to my staff that I would be putting my family first and that management should handle all things. I wasn’t going to be answering texts, emails, or anything unless there was a literal fire (even then, I wouldn’t have been much help). I learned that my team is full of serious, ass-kicking rockstars). You can’t have time for self-care, family, or balance if others aren’t helping you. You have to learn to ask for help and trust that even if someone doesn’t do it “your way,” that’s okay. Let people make mistakes and learn. I have found out that people end up doing it better than I ever could have most of the time.
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?
For me, my health was the tipping point. I also had an inner knowing; I dreaded coming in to do hair. My HAPPINESS became more important. I would encourage everyone to listen to that ping, which will only get louder. Ignoring that feeling is what affected my health. I slowly started taking more administrative days. At the beginning of my career, I was doing hair six days a week, by 2016, I was only doing hair for 8 hours per week, and the rest of the week, I focused on managing/expanding my salon company. It took me 11 years to get to that point. Taking all of these steps above in the essence of balance helped me become a better parent and have time and energy for my family.
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?
Being in the salon/beauty industry for the last (almost) 30 years has taught me that women care about their appearance. If you look good, you usually feel better. Looking good can only take you so far, and it’s more powerful to know your worth! Self-worth is the value we put upon ourselves. It is also how we communicate what we believe we deserve to receive back to the world. It would help improve your beliefs around your self-worth to feel better. And when you feel better, guess what? You look better! Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and your eye is most important. I also don’t see beauty as something superficial if it makes YOU feel better; if you are doing something to try and make others feel better, that’s when it becomes superficial. I used to worry about what everyone else thought about me. I constantly asked for validation after making a change at work or my appearance, and it felt right for about 5 minutes, and then I was questioning myself again. When you know your worth and step into your power, you learn to ask yourself, “Did I just do that right?” And when you hear a resounding YES! Trust that and let that be your validation, not people around you.
How is this similar or different for men?
I think men battle their self-worth and how they look as much as women do, and it seems they aren’t as vocal about it, and maybe that’s why we think they don’t care as much. Put your feet in any hairstylist’s shoes for one day, and you will see that men care just as much as women do about how their hair looks.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t set an expiration date on success. The biggest mistake we can make is putting a time frame around big goals that we haven’t met yet. I had to go through many steps of losing people, changing my business structure, and personal actions that had to be secured within me. In 2005 I started Urban Betty with one contractor and myself. At the time, I was opening my salon company and not thinking about the longevity and where I would be 15–20 years later. I unconsciously didn’t set goals because I didn’t even know how to! In retrospect, I think that was a great thing. When you set goals, allow yourself to take as long as you need, and don’t give up when you’re almost there. We’d never get there if we all started driving to Canada and then turned around halfway because we weren’t there yet! Be easy on yourself. Now I have many lists of goals, and if I don’t hit them this year, I move them to the next!
- Be happy with where you are at in life. There’s a saying that says, “You are exactly where you are supposed to be.” Not everyone is meant to be an entrepreneur. Go on the journey and see if becoming your boss is truly something you want to do. That’s OK if you are not. Sometimes you are meant to be the catalyst that helps another entrepreneur see their vision and be fulfilled by that. That is your superpower. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help of hundreds of other women.
- Ask for help. Never weather the storm alone. When the pandemic hit, I immediately called my therapist for business help and emotional support. Nothing else will work if you don’t get yourself in check. In less than one week, we found out that we could only have ten people in each salon at a time (and then we had to close for two months). I put my problem-solving hat on during that time, and we made it work. We only had five people when we first moved into our larger salon, so I focused on that last journey and how we overcame it. I chose solutions and hope at that moment, and without a call to my therapist, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.
- Go with the flow. There are 100 different fires to put out all day when you are a small business owner. I remember sitting in my office with my business coach and asking her, “Will I ever feel comfortable?” she laughed. She informed me that different obstacles would present themselves every time the salon company continued growing and evolving. There will always be a “fire” I know now that the building is not burning down. Learn to get OK with the things you are not OK with. If something is not falling into place, the harder you push to make it happen, the worse you will feel. Now, looking back with 3 locations, I can tell you that when everything went a little glitchy or crazy, I’ve learned that everything always works out somehow.
- Have a tribe of other successful women you can talk to. When I started my salon company, it was me and nobody else. After struggling to make a profit for nine years, I learned I needed to surround myself with people in my industry who were making a profit. I like to call them “expanders.” I found most of these expanders by joining the High-Performance Salon Academy. I remember the first destination training that I went to; I met over 100 other salon owners who embraced me fully and wanted to help me succeed. I joined a Mastermind group, and we meet once a week. We talk about what’s working, our wins, and anything we need help with. This weekly meeting is a fantastic strategy to keep you on your toes and motivate you to grow. If you don’t have an industry mastermind group already, make your own!
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to meet Mark Cuban. I recently saw him speak at SXSW, and it was inspiring. We also had a Shark Tank theme for my son’s first birthday this year!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.