For Ellevest’s "Women in Power" series, we talked to women entrepreneurs about the real struggle of starting a business when only 10% of venture capitalist money goes to companies with even one woman co-founder. In this episode, Laura O’Neill talks about building Van Leeuwen Ice Cream from a single food truck into an ice cream empire, what she’d tell her 25-year-old self, meetings with potential investors who were “surprised” she’s a woman, and why she’s a financial feminist.
Laura O'Neill on Building Her Business
I don't recall having formal conversations about money, but I definitely saw my parents work hard. I think that was instilled in me. As soon as I was old enough to have a job, I had a job. My name is Laura O'Neill, and I'm the co-founder of Van Leeuwen Ice Cream.
Van Leeuwen Started in a Kitchen
We started Van Leeuwen with about $60,000, and that just trickled in with small investments from family and friends. My past experience was in event production, so I treated starting Van Leeuwen like any of the projects I had worked on before, except that it was going to be a forever project.
We started making ice cream at home, the three of us: myself and Ben and Pete Van Leeuwen. The three of us just picked up whatever jobs we could to pay the rent and the bills while we were getting started.
Just Say No … to Funding?
We definitely considered taking outside funding. But what we often find is that by the time we get to the point of someone actually writing the checks, we've done a lot of what we set out to do without the investment. To be ten years in and still own about 85% of our company, it doesn't really make sense to start selling off chunks of equity when we've come so far on our own.
Venture capitalists, they're usually pleasantly surprised by how young we are. Maybe they're surprised that I'm female, and that I'm Australian. I guess it's kind of sexist if they're surprised at all that there's a woman behind the business.
So we want to make sure that if and when we ever do take outside investments, that it's a great partnership, and it's with people that we love, and who are definitely on the same page as us.
A Great Life Is the Sweetest Success
We've grown the business to a certain point, but I want for us to start focusing on, “How do we make sure that we get a great life out of all the work that we've put in?” And make sure that we're setting ourselves up, as well.
Over the last ten years, there've been many ups and downs. Everything can feel catastrophic at times, but you always get through it. We're always improving.
We started with one truck in 2008. We now have six trucks, four of them here in New York City, two out in L.A. Three stores in Los Angeles, seven here in New York City … It’s gonna be a really big year for us.
I didn't go to college, and I've been able to build this. I think when you're young, you doubt yourself in many ways, and so I would just tell 25-year old Laura that, "You're smart, and you're doing a great job, and believe in yourself."
I'm Laura O'Neill, and I'm a financial feminist because I'm in control of my own future.
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