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The Passionistas Project: The Meaning of Success

Photo by Pupp Etzioni

We recently launched our own audio series — The Passionistas Project Podcast. We interview women who have thrown away convention, followed their dreams and shaped their own destinies. We call them Passionistas. They already view the world through a different lens than most and we were curious to find out what success meant to each of them personally, in an effort to help define the word for others.

When we came up with the idea for the show, we knew that our first interview had to be with Natasha Case. We’d read a lot about the Coolhaus ice cream founder and she embodied everything we wanted to discuss. Along with her then girlfriend, now wife, Freya Estreller, Natasha set aside the prospect of a lucrative career as an architect, bought an old postal truck and started to sell her unique brand of ice cream sandwiches and pints.

Natasha has taken her wild idea from the back of a dilapidated truck to brick and mortar locations and grocery stores across the country. And she shows no sign of resting on her laurels. But success to her means far more than taking her $10 million a year company to the international market. In fact, she recognized that wanting more can be a hindrance to true happiness.

“You have to be happy with what you have. That's really the secret,” she acknowledged. “There’s always wanting more. You could have one house and be already thinking about the next and the next — it's life. But the house that you have is great because you love spending time there. And I think that that really is key. Knowing that you could have that bare minimum — my wife Freya, my son Remy, family, friends, the people around you that really matter and not the material things. It’s focusing on that principle that there's that satisfaction level. And that, no matter what, those people are there for you.”

And for Natasha, it’s also about inspiring others to feel that joy. “If you are spending a big chunk of your day feeling like you're contributing, that you’re doing something that you love, that you light up other people around you, that they light you up, you are going to feel fulfilled. And that's going to just be a chain reaction for so many things in life.”

Chef Susan Feniger of the famed restaurant Border Grill agreed that following your bliss is a key component to leading a successful life. Along with her business partner Mary Sue-Miliken, Susan received the 2018 Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts Award, was one of the Food Network’s first big stars and has many thriving restaurants and best-selling cookbooks. Although she confessed that she doesn’t have a lot of spare time, she is a founding board member of the Scleroderma Research Foundation and sits on the board of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

She manages to fit all this in because she loves every bit of it. “It's important to be passionate about what you do. Who wants to be working so hard or working a big part of your life and not be passionate about it? I feel badly for people that feel like, ‘Uh, I don't know.’ Even if you just work an eight-hour day and you're not passionate about it, that feels like not that fun. It's a third of the hours in the day.”

Still Susan acknowledged that boundless dedication to a career can come with obstacles. “That’s always been a struggle for me. It's hard for me to find a balance, hard for me to make time to see friends or for my wife, Liz, and I to have a life other than meeting for dinner at 10:00 at night. That, if anything, is the negativity of passion — it's hard to find the balance.”

Susan’s wife, Liz Lachman, also confessed that she’s struggled with what success means to her.

Lis began her career as a singer/songwriter, eventually turning to composition, music supervision and sound editing for Disney and 20th Century Fox. She left behind an Emmy-award winning career as a songwriter to pursue her dreams of being a filmmaker. And although her latest short, Pin-Up, has garnered 20 film festival awards, she admitted that sometimes others’ views of what success is can muddy her own ideas about the concept.

“Every morning I would call my mother and she would say, ‘I just want you to be successful,’ Liz recounted, “I’m like, ‘First of all, I'm in a long-term relationship. I'm happy. I'm doing creative work that I love. We have enough money. I don't get what part of that is not successful.’ So there's a lot of different definitions of that word. And when I use the word being recognized in my industry as success, then I'm not there yet and I'm still working toward that. When I use the definition of all the things I just named, that’s success.”

Liz disclosed that she’s worked hard to embrace this unconventional view. “Being satisfied in life is a good place to start. I realized all the good things I have and use that as a springboard as opposed to using the things that I don’t have as a club to beat myself up with. I look at the things about me that I am very happy with and then I feel pretty good.”

Others we interviewed find the key to fulfillment in helping others. Melody Godfred co-founded Fred + Far, a self-love movement. Her company sells Self Love Pinky Rings, which are “a daily reminder of our collective commitment as a tribe to practice self-love and self-care.” Her online community has given women around the world a platform to share their personal experiences — their challenges, their hopes and dreams.

For Melody, having an impact is her ultimate goal. To her, success is, “getting an e-mail from a woman who just tells me their story and tells me that the ring changed their lives. I'm so fortunate in that the feedback I get is so consistent and so authentic and full of love. I'll get Instagram direct messages where people say, ‘The world is a better place because of you. Keep doing what you're doing.’ And what more can you ask than to feel like you've made an impact on the world and you've made a contribution? So that is extremely rewarding.”

Another Passionista with a similar view was Annette Corsino-Blair who owns The Knitting Tree, L.A. and the Branch Gallery. Annette is a lifelong artist and maker who became an entrepreneur — dying yarns, selling them in her store and encouraging people to learn knitting, crocheting and weaving. Her business is much more than a yarn store. It’s also a destination where a microcosm of Los Angeles’ vastly diverse population gathers around a common table to share their love of fiber arts and a little conversation. She’s managed to build a thriving community within her space while following her own passions. To her those are elements of prosperity that are far more important than her bottom line.

“Success is making a contribution while not sacrificing yourself,” Annette explained, “It's a contentment but not a lazy contentment. I'm doing something good in the world. I'm able to support myself and maybe give to my family and my friends and my community. To have a group of friends that you can support and they can support you. To have fun every day. Success is being able to do the things you love every day and not have anything really getting in your way. It's creating a life where you can do that. It’s creating a life where you can stay in the zone for as long as you can.”

For Elise Darma, who runs her own digital marketing agency, Canupy, success is a form of freedom. Breaking out of a childhood in a very conservative household, Elise developed an obsession with travel. While working a conventional job, she was able to build a business helping entrepreneurs with social media campaigns and soon struck out on her own. Initially that meant the ability to achieve location independence — working from wherever in the world she wanted to be at any given moment. Once she achieved that physical flexibility, she realized she needed to change her point of view.

“After I achieved location independence, the next definition of freedom for me became, well, what about financial freedom? It's great to work from wherever, but what about a business that I'm not going to have to worry about so much. I'm not going to have to be in the business every single day turning all the cranks to keep it going. How do I create more freedom for myself in the financial health of my business and in the time that I'm spending in it? So my level of success would be a business that I don't need to be in every single day. I don't need to worry about the profit margins and paying my team. I have systems in place. I have really good people in place who believe in the mission of what we're aiming to achieve just as much as me. That's where I'm heading.”

Striving to reach the next level was a common thread for many of our Passionistas. Sashee Chandran, founder of Tea Drops, left the Silicon Valley corporate world to start a tea company, a dream since childhood. Her organic, bag-less, pressed, dissolvable tea is sold in over 1,500 stores nationwide as well as on Home Shopping Network. And Sashee has won numerous awards including the 2018 Tory Burch Fellow and business grant grand prize.

Yet despite all that, Sashee conceded that she’s still contemplating the concept of success. “Success is about being happy with what you have and knowing that there's this underlying potential in you to do more,” she posited. “I think that it sounds like a dualistic kind of perspective. But on one hand, you have to be happy and grateful for what you're given. At the same time, there is in all of us this, whether you listen to it or not, this notion that you can do more, that there is more in you. I always tried to feed that side. Having a successful life incorporates being your best, doing your best. So, it's being grateful but also knowing that you can you can step it up and do more.”

Health-Ade Kombucha co-founder Daina Trout started her business out of the closet in her tiny Los Angeles apartment. She began growing SCOBY (the kombucha culture) as an experiment to save her husband’s quickly disappearing head of hair and with a goal of turning the follicle enhancing product into a business. Instead she started selling the fermented beverage itself. In just a few years she and her two partners (her husband, Justin, and best friend, Vanessa Dew) are on track to sell 2.5 million cases in 2018 and have developed Health-Ade into one of the fastest growing beverages in the category.

But she still feels there is more of her dream to realize. “When I started Health-Ade, what I thought I wanted out of this is now very different. I had something to prove then and I fulfilled that. Now it's something new. So, success is feeling good about what you've accomplished and that ‘feeling good thing’ can change. That hopefully drives what you accomplish in the future.”

While some of the women we spoke to had their eyes on future goals, others are more interested in the journey. Stacey Newman Weldon left behind a decades long career in magazine advertising sales for what some might consider loftier pursuits. Now, she is in the adventure business. Not the bungee-jumping-and-mountain-biking-off-a-cliff adventure business but the everyday-life-is-filled-with-little-opportunities adventure business.

She told us, “My definition of success is definitely not a materialistic one. It would be living a life where I'm allowed to follow my passions, whatever they are, and to be fulfilled in doing that. I don't have to be happy every single day. I don't have to have material things.”

Having had a traditionally rewarding career, Stacey now focuses on each small triumph. “I've already felt like I've succeeded at so many things that it's not like I'm striving for a new goal. I enjoy every success along the way — the success of seeing somebody having an ‘aha moment,’ seeing my children be themselves. I've already had the big job and I have the house and I've had a car and that doesn't make me feel like I was successful. Success is really more about feeling fulfilled with the people who are in my life that are happy and make me happy — and that I'm happy when I'm around them. It’s just a feeling of being fulfilled following my own passion.”

GirlBoss Erika de La Cruz shares Stacey’s connection to the simpler things in life. She helps women live their best lives by turning their dream jobs into day jobs — just like she did herself. After college, she took a job in social media marketing for a radio network and developed that into her own business coaching entrepreneurs. In addition, she is a TV personality, author, speaker and creator of her TV and personal development conference: Passion 2 Paycheck.

And even with all the variety in her day-to-day world, Erika believes the key to a satisfying life is in the more elementary moments. “It’s not really one or two big achievements in your lifetime but taking an average day out of your week, a weekday were nothing special is really going on, but being able to say that's the life that I wanted to create. I wanted to wake up. I wanted to eat this. I wanted to see these people, have these things going on in my life. It’s being able to take a sample of what an average day looks like for you and to say, ‘I am so fulfilled within an average day. I'm coming home to the person I love. I'm making dinner. I went on a few media interviews, maybe I spoke at lunchtime.’ Create what your perfect day looks like. Of course, they're not all going to turn out that way, but then you have an aim for a quality life.”

These Passionistas were on the track to achieve the conventional measures of success, but there was still a need not being met so they shifted the course of their destinies. No matter what word they use to describe it — fulfillment, balance, creativity, freedom, satisfaction, contribution — it all boils down to passion.

Amy and Nancy Harrington have been at each other’s sides supporting each another since day one, even when their careers initially took them in different directions. Most recently, inspired by the #MeToo movement and #TimesUp campaign, these sisters decided to use their skills as celebrity interviewers to work to tell a different kind of story. Where many podcasters reserve their airtime for the elite, Amy and Nancy are talking to amazing women you probably haven’t heard of, who are making a huge difference by following their passions, from the founder of a successful ice cream company to a volcano scientist running for office to an artist who makes sculptures using melted down nuclear weapons. They can all be heard on The Passionistas Project Podcast.

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