Employee Ownership Without Financial Tools with Allison Blake and Elisa Van Arnam at SoulKu

Fast-growth companies have one common approach to alignment and cohesion. It is creating a culture of employee ownership. You don’t have to use financial tools and strategies to make this happen. Today’s guest is Allison Blake and Elisa Van Arnam, Co-founders at SoulKu. Inc Magazine ranked their company #944 on the 2021 Inc 5000 list. SoulKu is a mother-owned and operated inspirational jewelry company and is based in Asheville, NC. All of their products are handcrafted by work-from-home moms in Asheville, NC. Allison and Elisa share how employee ownership is a part of their culture. We talk about how profit sharing and options are not required.

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Allison Blake and Elisa Van Arnam: The Transcript

About: Elisa Van Arnam grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. On her 18th birthday, she left home and moved to Los Angeles, CA. She wanted to become an actress and spent years and years waiting tables, doing theater roles, independent films and very small TV roles, and attending conservatory schools. Her last theater education experience was at Balliol College in Oxford, England through Julliard. It was an honor and a privilege to study something she loved so dearly and to have opportunities to perform, but eventually, she had to face the music that she was not going to make a living as an actress. Elisa moved on to teaching acting and private coaching for working actors, and she found work in commercial and music video production. She also started writing, which satisfied the artist in her yearning for self-expression. She got married in 2001 and had her son Brody two years later. Elisa’s husband and she decided it was time for a radical change from their LA lifestyle and literally picked Asheville, NC out of the blue.

Allison Blake grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating college and traveling through Europe, she moved to Breckenridge, Colorado. She has always loved outdoor activities and after reconnecting with a friend from her college days, a “winter” season in Colorado turned into 10 years, including marriage and starting a family. Allison’s husband and she both wanted to be closer to their families, so in 2006 they found that Asheville was the perfect fit. Allison was incredibly blessed with a husband, two teenagers, and a puppy named Sunny. Her husband Scott has worked in multi-family development for 25 years and has been her biggest cheerleader and rock in life, especially when they decided to launch SoulKu. Her daughter Anna Lee is 16 and one of the sweetest, wittiest people she knows. She is adventurous, driven, and the most fun co-pilot anyone could ask for. His son Cole is 18 and loves skiing, kayaking, and lacrosse. He has a head for numbers, a huge heart, and will still hug me in public (which I count as a big win). Allison loved participating in and witnessing her children’s growth. They are two of her greatest teachers, and she can’t get enough of them. While spending time together becomes more challenging with everyone’s busy schedules, she’s grateful for their family suppers.

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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Allison Blake: [00:00:00] We have been incredibly blessed. And as we came to a position where we were hiring staff inside of our office, not just our mama production, which is offsite, but when we hard started hiring staff we really just needed people to help us pack and ship orders in fulfillment. And. We hired and interviewed people that were way over-clocked qualified for fulfillment positions, but they were incredibly passionate about our mission, what we were trying to do in the world where we were headed as a company, what Elisa and I valued in employees. And from there, I think we were able to just start growing a group of women working for us that have stayed with us through the last seven years and carried us to where we are today.

Intro: Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs of the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host. My [00:01:00] name is Gene Hammett. I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow?

Gene Hammett: Employee ownership is a really interesting conversation. We’re going to dive into a deep today, but it doesn’t come without you being really clear about the company you’re creating about who you hire to join that journey with you. And also how you lead them. And today we’ll look at all aspects of that. With our special guests, we have the co-founders of SoulKu. SoulKu is a really interesting business jewelry. They do a really amazing-looking stuff. I checked it out. I really love what they’re up to, but the real story. It’s about how Allison Blake and then also Elisa Van Arnam has been numbered, create the sense of employee ownership across the company and how they got, there was a real special story. Now, some of this you can mimic inside of this. Some of it you can’t, they live in a very special place that people love to, to come to, which is Asheville, North Carolina. If you haven’t been there, it’s an incredible, very different kind of place inside of resort living if you will, but you’re living [00:02:00] in this regular small town.

But it really is a great place. I’ve been there many times, but what you can take away from this is the fact that they are approaching their job as leaders very differently than many people. They’re offering flexibility, where they can, they’re hiring people to come in. That really want to be a part of this culture and be a part of the movement that they’re creating. And that is the reason why they’re getting overqualified. People that are willing to stick around and be loyal and grow into spots as the company grows. That is a really powerful lesson that hopefully, you can learn from. So today we look at employee ownership without financial tools. Those tools are possible to create ownership, but how do you do it when you don’t have options and you don’t have a profit-sharing available to you? Well, inside of this, we look at that as a playbook so that you can borrow it for your own company.

My job is to be an executive coach to help you grow your company, to help you move past this. If you ever feel like you just can’t let go of everything, you’re just not really leading the way you want to. You’re too much in the. You’re not working on the business, then I totally [00:03:00] get that. I want to help you figure out exactly. What’s next. All you have to do is go to GeneHammett.com and schedule your call. That’ll be a chance for us to talk one-on-one because this is not a one-size-fits-all. It’s very specific to you where you are and the work I do to help you figure out what is next is actually game-changing. If you’re willing to lean in and be honest and be real with me, I will love to help you grow your company. So all you have to do is go to GeneHammett.com and schedule a call. It’s all about you being the leader that your team deserves and about you being an extraordinary leader as the team continues to grow. And I can help you do that. Just go to GeneHammett.com and schedule your call today. Now here are Elisa and Allison.

Hi, this is Gene Hammett with Growth Think Tank. How are you guys doing?

Allison Blake: Great.

Elisa Van Arnam: Great.

Gene Hammett: Excited to have this conversation with you. We’re going to talk about something near and dear to my heart, which is how do you create ownership across your company before we get into that, I’d love for you guys to introduce yourselves and tell us about your company, SoulKu.

Allison Blake: So, yeah, I’m Allison Blake. I’m the co-founder and CEO.

Elisa Van Arnam: [00:04:00] And I’m Elisa Van Arnam and I am the co-founder CCO.

Gene Hammett: I don’t know. I had to ask you, the CCO is a chief creative officer. So tell us about the company and we’ll dive into the full content of this.

Allison Blake: Sure. Yeah. We started our company back in 2011. And it was with a slightly different idea. It was inspirational cards that could be passed and track an infinite number of times. And while people loved our cards and loved the inspirational messages, they felt like the card was meant for them when they received it. So they did not tend to pass it on. So that business model kind of where, where pretty quickly. But we were committed to our vision of being in service and connecting people. And after several renditions of inspirational cards, we started mounting jewelry and focusing on the healing properties of gemstones. And that happened in the summer of 2013 and has been a big success for us ever since. [00:05:00]

Gene Hammett: Well, most great companies had to pivot along this journey. I have moved into a different way to get your message across I’d love for maybe Elisa you to tell us, you know, what’s the meaning behind the name?

Elisa Van Arnam: Well we wanted a business that had the word soul in it because it was, it is a soul-based business, a spiritually based business. And originally when we wrote our inspirational messages, we wrote them in a haiku format. And we were having lunch one day and Allison said, Soulku. Soulku. Like a haiku. And a couple of days later, a friend of ours shared with us, just some random thing. Her kids were doing a some kind of a martial art class and they were talking about the meaning of the word “Ku” in Japanese and what it means. Infinite possibility. So we thought the infinite possibilities of our souls. Yes, that’s it.

Gene Hammett: I knew there was an interesting story there, but I didn’t know what it was. I appreciate you sharing that with us. You guys have had tremendous success being on the Inc list is very [00:06:00] impressive. When you guys got the notification that you made it, you know, just under a thousand, what? 944? Yes. What, what was the first thought that went to your mind?

Allison Blake: We weren’t, we weren’t together, but the email that came over, as soon as we got the notification was pretty amazing.

Gene Hammett: You probably knew you were going to make the list, but you’d probably didn’t realize you could be in the top 1000. Is that fair to say?

Elisa Van Arnam: Yup.

Gene Hammett: When you share this with your team, what was that experience like?

Elisa Van Arnam: I mean, I think it was emotional for all of us and just really exciting. We had a celebration. I think it was about three years ago where our team all got together and bought us each a teeny tiny slice of diamond and they put it on a necklace and gave it to us because we had hit our first million and you know, to have us be at the stage that we are now is, is it’s wonderfully astounding.

Gene Hammett: Now you had told me before you had 52 employees, so you don’t get there alone. You have a group of people that you have been [00:07:00] able to select for this journey. And tell us a little bit about, you know, your team and what really makes you guys special.

Allison Blake: I think we have been incredible and as we came to a position where we were hiring staff inside of our office, not just our mama production, which is offsite, but when we started hiring staff we really just needed people to help us pack and ship orders in fulfillment. And we hired to interview people that were way overclocked qualified for fulfillment positions, but they were incredibly passionate about our mission, what we were trying to do in the world where we were headed as a company, what Elisa and I valued in employees. And from there, I think we were able to just start growing a group of women working for us. That have stayed with us through the last seven years and carried us to where we are today.

Gene Hammett: There was something in there. You said people showed up that were overqualified. Was that [00:08:00] done intentionally or is that just what happened when you put out this job description?

Elisa Van Arnam: I think because you know, a big piece of our business. It’s the fact that we w we are based out of Asheville, North Carolina. So there is a tremendous amount of people who come to Asheville who like throw off their city life and they’re like, I’m going to go, I’m going to be with the mountains. I’m going to be with the trees and I’m going to make it work here in Asheville because I want to live in this beautiful place. And so it is an incredibly rich environment here for, for people just like that, who share our values. But also have, you know, they’ve come from a marketing background where they worked for an agency for six years. And, you know, they, they care about our company. We meet with them and they say, you know what, I’ll pack boxes for you.

And hopefully, at some point, you can move me into a marketing position as you grow. And so we’ve just had an incredible experience like that. Again and again and [00:09:00] again, with people who are aligned with our values. And also are willing to be in, get in, on the ground floor because I think they believe in, we’re doing.

Gene Hammett: This topic of values comes up quite a bit. When you talk about hiring people, how do you guys use values in the hiring process?

Elisa Van Arnam: You said, how do we use them? Or?

Gene Hammett: How do you use them? Like, do you have certain questions that you use to make sure people are in line with the values, or is it something else?

Allison Blake: I wouldn’t say that we have specific questions. I think our interviews are incredibly personal. , while we go through, you know, a typical resume and asking about previous employers and what they did, we really do a much deeper dive and wanting to get to know the person that we’re interviewing. And I think it’s through organic conversations and I guess you’re right. Questions, specific questions that are more about, you know, why they’ve chosen Asheville, what they’re, what’s important to them and their family life and their personal life to try to get a really big picture, a better picture [00:10:00] of, of what is important to them and how that aligns with SoulKu.

Gene Hammett: We started this whole place of inviting you to be on the show because you had said that you have an incredible group of people that are able to take ownership of their work. And it really is something that I think a lot of leaders are striving for. What is your understanding of people taking ownership of the work in front of them, where the client experience?

Elisa Van Arnam: Basically to, to us, what that means is that they’re taking their job personally, they’re taking what they’re doing personally. They are being a representative of SoulKu when they speak to vendors or to our stores or even our mail person that, that they are really genuinely invested as a human being into what we’re doing as a company that it’s not just, they don’t just come here, they clock in, they do their stuff and they go home. It’s so much bigger than that. There’s, it’s like, there’s a piece of their heart that’s involved in, in, in [00:11:00] what they do there. They have a lot of pride in what they do. We tend to say, we ha we’ve hired a tremendous amount of overachievers. And when somebody does come into the mix who is not an overachiever, they stick out like a sore thumb, you know, which is like, we can see it really easily.

Somebody that isn’t a team player or somebody who’s not invested at the same level. And we’re always just so humbled by it. I’m, I’m always amazed at when people take. As seriously as we do, like as, as owners for our own company, when they are that invested, that it feels like they have ownership as well. It’s, it’s really humbling.

Commentary: Hold on for a second. What they said was really interesting. Each employee feels like a representative of the business when they talk about it with customers or partners or suppliers. And what I call this is, is creating internal brand ambassadors. I think that every leader should be thinking about this. It’s like, how do we give you a chance to, you know, be an ambassador to the company, even though you’re an employee, like being [00:12:00] able to share the message of this, share the vision, share the mission that we’re on. And then more often they do that. And the more powerfully they do that, the better it will be because not only will your business grow, but you’ll also attract more people that want to have a voice. And that is a really attractive magnetic thing inside of a company. You want to make sure that you’re encouraging people to be those internal ambassadors and then share this across this. I really believe that if there’s opportunities for people internally to be able to give speeches, I think you should allow them to do that because it creates a place for them to grow as people, but also to spread the message of the company. And it’s really a win-win for everybody. The internal brand ambassadors is a great strategy to understand and use inside of your business. Now, back to the interview.

Gene Hammett: Do you actually give away ownership in some way with options or profit-sharing or anything like that? Or is it just done through the environment that you create?

Allison Blake: I think it’s just the culture that we have.

Gene Hammett: I the reason I asked that question specifically because I think a lot of people misunderstand that you can [00:13:00] actually do this. The sense of ownership without the financial tools. And I had no idea where that was. And maybe I should have asked you that in the pre-interviews and such, but really want to dive in deeper to how do you create this environment for people? So part of it’s hiring the right people, but there are other parts to it. You’re onboarding them. Is there anything specifically in the onboarding process that has provided impact to the team?

Allison Blake: I think one of the things that we did very early on when we did not have a lot, Elisa and I were not even paying ourselves and we were starting to pay employees. And we did not have a lot of cash readily available in the beginning. And so we offered a lot of flexibility with the job. We offer a tremendous amount of pay time off holidays. If they needed time off flex schedule. We did whatever we could to support what was important to them, which was their family life and getting to enjoy this beautiful area that we live in or travel. I think our understanding and just really [00:14:00] open communication in that way. And we still continue to do that to this day. It’s a really big part of the whole package at SoulKu that, that they love.

Gene Hammett: We know that the great resignation is something that’s in the news all the time about why people are doing. And one of the biggest drivers behind that is flexibility. You guys have a physical product that has to be shipped. And so I know that there’s people coming into certain places, maybe some people are at home and some people have to be in the office and the warehouses have you guys decided how that’s going to look as you guys continue to grow?

Elisa Van Arnam: We love having fulfillment in house and we looked at scent, you know, we did look at it at several three pills and decided that that was not the way that we wanted to go for lots of reasons. But like with our fulfillment department right now, they are mail person comes to pick up the mail at three o’clock. So if they want to come in at seven o’clock in the morning and get everything done and have it all ready to go by three o’clock we say absolutely. You know? Yeah. lets do that. So I think like Allison said, flexibility [00:15:00] really seems to be just an incredible driver. If people want to leave early on Friday and they’ve gotten their work done, we understand that feeling. And so we’re like, go, yeah, go, go ahead. And then when they come back, they. So much more happy to be here because they got what they needed for the week.

Gene Hammett: We’ve been talking about different things that impact this, this feeling of ownership. And I know that there’s many other things that we could talk about. Where do you want to go next and what really creates the team that you have today?

Allison Blake: One of the things that I feel like it’s really important is that. The team comes together. We have there, there’s a lot of passion and excitement about being a part of a startup and to see where we can take it. And I think as Elisa mentioned, our overachievers are really motivated by that. They want to see where, what this next level is going to look like, and in doing so they really support one another. We have a lot of across-department support. And we have just a mentality that we will [00:16:00] jump in at any point. I think our team has seen Elisa and I do that from the very beginning. We have no problem leaving our desk and packing and shipping an order or checking in beads.

They see us constantly. There there’s no task that’s beneath us. And I think that has led to an overarching culture within our team of, of just them taking such ownership, not just of their particular job, but helping out their, their coworkers and, and raising SoulKu along the way that it’s, you know, going to be the best thing to benefit our company in the long run.

Gene Hammett: Elisa, what would you add to that?

Elisa Van Arnam: I think too because we have been a startup, right. And everybody’s had to wear so many hats. We’ve been able to, as we have grown steer people in the direction of there’s a zone of genius. So we hire somebody like we said before, we hired somebody to, you know, fulfill to ship and pack. But they come from a marketing background. And so we said, okay, [00:17:00] you ship and pack for 30 hours a week. And then let’s do marketing for 10 hours a week. And then as we grew that person, that, that role, you know, divert, and then we hired somebody who’s just doing fulfillment and she is 100% doing marketing.

And so I think they have grown with us. They have been able to watch our product evolve. They have been able to just really be honored and celebrated for the talents that they have. And we’ve been lucky enough to keep growing to the point whereas everybody is multitasking, you know, the tasks are getting more and more and more specific. And so, you know, we have the marketing person, we have the person who’s ordering all of the gemstones for us. We have the person who’s managing our mama maker staff, you know, it’s like at one time, one person did all of it and now, you know, we’ve got 16 people who are doing it.

Gene Hammett: I would love to just end this with a little bit of an understanding of your leadership style. So there’s different styles that work inside [00:18:00] of business. Some, some work better than others under certain environments. How would you guys describe your style of leadership?

Elisa Van Arnam: Evolving, you know, humble. , we have a team meeting every Wednesday zoom or in person. And we also have monthly meetings with everyone on our team individually for 15 or 20 minutes where we ask them what’s going right. And what’s not going right. And, you know, we’ll do things like tell us something about you that we don’t know. We are emotional. I think we’re vulnerable with our staff. We ask for prayer requests, you know, we are like a family here. We, you know, we have. We are connected to each other through this beautiful container that’s SoulKu, basically. ,

Gene Hammett: I appreciate you sharing all of the details behind this. It’s really a remarkable story of a company who set out to do something big but then changed it into where you are today. Really appreciate you looking through this and sharing this with [00:19:00] our audience.

Allison Blake: Thank you for having us.

Gene Hammett: Here’s the chance for me to reflect back on today’s interview. I just, I love to be able to talk to leaders that have such, a deep understanding of people. Now, a lot of leaders have a better understanding of technology or, or of marketing or sales or whatever it may be, but, but what it takes to grow a business fast from what I’ve seen, it takes an understanding of people. And that’s what we’ve seen today with these two leaders. , Allison and Elisa are really someone that’s willing to share their real selves inside of this journey and to invite people along that journey and give them space to grow. And that’s exactly the reason why I think they are successful.

So when you think about your own journey of leadership, I don’t know what your next step is, but I’d love to help you figure it out. My job as an executive coach is to help you figure out the little gaps or maybe the skills that you need to work on. Some things you don’t even know, the blind spots, we all have them. , my job is to help you. I spent 10 years working with leaders. Just like you, you have a question about what your next step of growth is.

Make sure you reach out to Gene Hammett and just schedule your call in time. When you think of [00:20:00] growth and you think of leadership think of Growth Think Tank as always lead with courage. See you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.




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