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Kelly Chapman, Entrepreneur

Be Aligned with Purpose

I was born and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio. I attended Case Western Reserve University and received a general MBA from the J.L. Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

A self-proclaimed “hustler”, I have always worked three jobs since I was in high school. One of them happens to be singing.

I sang in over one thousand weddings, driving from my corporate role at AT&T in Chicago to Cleveland every single weekend.   It was a passion so I didn’t mind traveling for it. I was fortunate to launch a gospel music mission and release two CDs; Real and Great Is Your Grace. Having sung all over the world has been a glorious experience.

My other jobs have been in the corporate realm. I’ve been fortunate to break the glass ceiling, associate in circles with C-Suite Executives, and sit on some prominent non-profit boards. After getting my MBA and even while doing well in Corporate America, I had a passion to be an entrepreneur and build a big company where I could create an amazing culture. Hence, while working I always had my own businesses on the side. At a certain point, it was no longer about personal wealth for me. It was about how I ride out the third and fourth quarter of my life. I need to do it in a way that I feel leaves a mark on this world. I would love to build a multi-billion-dollar business, but that’s not the goal. It was important to figure out how to build a business that follows my passion and purpose and that will allow me to live comfortably.

People love my macaroni & cheese and for years it has been my dream to open a restaurant. I originally thought I would do it in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I had already picked the location thinking, If I ever leave corporate for good, I am just going to make mac’n’cheese for a living.. That dream came true in December 2012 when I launched mac-O-licious in Los Angeles, California.

I knew that combining mac’n’cheese, singing and serving would be a great way to use my two passions. A portion of the proceeds go toward feeding low income families through the Kelly Chapman Ministries food pantry. It felt like a perfect fit. We even opened our restaurant doors to serve homeless individuals a plated, sit down meal. That’s the kind of stamp I want to leave on the world while I’m here. These are the kind of experiences you can’t put a price tag on.

This journey is not for everybody. Some people strive for the “flyest” red-bottom shoes, Birkin bag and big fancy house. I’ve had all of the extravagant material items.. Ultimately, that’s not what brought me joy. It brought me comfort, but not joy. Transforming lives, singing, performing acts of service . . .that’s where I get my joy. You should know that when you follow your dream. It’s fun to appear on television shows, and an honor to receive a lot of press and notoriety.  Yes, you feel like a “Rock Star” from all of the attention.  But make no mistake, this journey is only for the resilient.

You must know what you’re called to do. If it’s, to pursue wealth, go for it. For me, obtaining wealth is a side benefit of me following what I feel I am called to do. In addition to Kelly Chapman Ministries, I’m also passionate about education so I created the Wilma A. Chapman Scholarship Fund which gives scholarships to people with mental illness.  I have to honor a woman who multi-tasked and took care of business despite her challenges:  My Mother. 

What made you decide to finally realize your lifelong dream? 

I was at a point in my life where I had to make some decisions about my personal values. I realized what was important to me:  1) Doing honest work about which I could feel passionate and proud 2) Making a difference in the world:  For customers, employees and those who are less fortunate (i.e. hungry families and the homeless).

What were the specific obstacles that you faced?

I knew very little about running a food business. There is so much to learn! From inventory systems, to payroll systems, quality control systems, bulk recipes, and more.

But most importantly, I learned that motivating employees who make $11 – $15 an hour is totally different than motivating career professionals. Employee attrition in the restaurant industry is tremendously high, due to management apathy about retaining employees and employee apathy about working at a restaurant when their dreams are bigger. I’ve heard about managers who fired someone without any performance improvement plans or warning, and I have worked with employees who couldn’t arrive at work on time from day one. Turnover is normal and expected in this industry. At first, it hurt me when I lost some people, because I had big career dreams for them. I wanted to take one young lady from manager to Corporate Vice President. I wanted it more than she did.

After a while, I became numb to turnover. That is sad, because I really wanted to make a difference in the lives of my employees. But, I didn’t understand the small business restaurant culture. It’s hard to see the career path in one thousand square feet. Building networks with other restaurateurs who are small business owners and chain restaurant leaders has been very insightful and comforting. You learn that we are all going through similar struggles.

What helped you get through them?

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my faith. God sent people out of nowhere. A man came into my restaurant one day ordered, and took a seat. He looked around , and asked a ton  of questions. He just happened to be in the neighborhood, saw the sign and stopped by.  I learned that he is the owner of some of the largest and most successful restaurants in Los Angeles.  He is now a mentor and friend.

Another person stopped by to eat with one of my friends. We stayed in touch and he volunteered to take over my books because I had dealt with two bookkeepers who were terrible. That was a tremendous blessing.

A wonderful lady who followed my Food Truck, contacted me prior to opening the restaurant.  She said she wanted to help with publicity for mac-O-licious.  She said she wanted to “sow” into the business.  And that she did!  We have been featured in a ton of media outlets and blogs.  It is absolutely amazing!

Finally, I learned a lot of from some really awesome employees on my team. I learned that some of your best people may not be the ones who scream “Leader” right out of the gate. Sometimes slow and steady wins the race. I learned that it’s often the people who watch what is going on and learn over time who are the real gems versus the ones that are looking for the “fast track.” Often, the fast trackers jump from job to job always looking for the next, “come up.” The watchers ended up being the ones who were the most loyal, who understood the customers, me as a leader and the operations. They ended up having my back and “flying cover” so I could take a break from time to time.

My progress and successes came as a result of being transparent with others so they could know how to help me, and vice-versa. Also, I took the time to give people a chance and embrace diversity within my workforce. One of my top employees doesn’t even speak English, but she knew the entire operation because she watched and learned. It was incredible!

Were there people that tried to discourage you?

Often the people who are closest to you are the ones who will discourage you. It’s because they care about you and want you to be successful. And often successful means being safe. That corporate job which provides a steady paycheck is safe.

When people have seen you live in luxury for years because of the safe corporate job, they can’t understand why you would choose the challenging road. I believe wealth is even more viable as a small business owner. It just takes a bit longer and sometimes you have to fail a few times until you fail better. So when friends or family members say, “I don’t get it, you could be working at XYZ Corporation right now. . .” I appreciate the comments and I always say, ‘Yes, I made a choice to do what I am doing. I actually love what I am doing, and it’s about Purpose and Passion as I near the Third Quarter of my life. It’s a choice I accept and I wouldn’t trade it, God willing.’ Most in that inner circle don’t get it, but that’s okay.  I think they can only respect it.

Here is a funny story: I was dating a guy who was moving one-thousand-miles-a-minute to get me to the altar. At the time, I had the big title and the big paycheck. When I decided to leave that lifestyle and start my food business, he dumped me. He dumped me 30 days after I started mac-O-licious.  I had met his parents and we had been looking for rings 60 days prior. He told me later, “When I met you, you had the big corporate job and you were sitting behind a computer. I didn’t sign up for you to own a Food Truck.”  Sometimes it is a good thing to know who supports your dreams and who doesn’t – particularly if you are going to marry them. I dodged a bullet!

How did you feel when you finally accomplished your lifelong dream?

When the VEDC (Valley Economic Development Center) held the ribbon cutting at our restaurant in Los Angeles, my lips started trembling and the tears just overflowed. I looked around and saw friends, customers from the food truck, and City officials.  I saw my 14 new employees.  They were all here to celebrate and enjoy my family’s mac’n’cheese recipe. It was overwhelming to know a dream that I had for so long had materialized. It was definitely one of many amazing moments in my lifetime for which I will be forever grateful.

What advice would you give to others that are contemplating finally living their dream?  

Learn as much as you can about the business and the industry. Read books on the topic, and Google your competition. If you are going into the food business, remember – location, location, location.

As you follow your dream, realize that you have a purpose in the world. Your purpose may not align with what your parents expect you to do. It may not make you the next Warren Buffett or Daymond John (of Shark Tank). If you are gainfully employed, be savvy, stack your cash and work both for as long as you can. If you are doing your dream full-time, try to leverage banks for capital.  Always get your loans before you need them.  Even if you don’t use them, get your loans approved and in place early.

Finally, if your dream allows you to fulfill your passion and makes you smile every day, keep at it. You will be so grateful, as you look back on your life that you can say, ‘I lived the life I felt called to live. I never have to wonder, What if . . ? Because, I did it!’

To learn more about Kelly, click here, and here.

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