At first glance, Chloe Brookman’s gaggle of beautiful children, flowing yards of organic linen and seemingly effortless success made me want to breathe into a paper bag as I was consumed by the immensity of my own professional and parenting shortcomings, but then we got to talking.
Chloe and her sister Olivia built their business, Olli Ella, on foundations of honesty, consciousness and a colossal amount of love. The same pillars inform much of her life today, as a parent, partner and low-key Global Business Mogul.
She spoke openly about her experience with self-doubt, the dreaded mum guilt and the minuscule amount of business knowledge she and her sister had when they were starting out.
Needless to say, at no stage during Chloe’s interview did I require a paper bag. Effortlessness isn’t a word that applies to how she operates. The woman I found was formidable, generous, and working tirelessly to fill the world with good.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to launch Olli Ella with your sister?
In 2007, my sister Olivia and I were in our early 20s. We had both just moved from Los Angeles (where we had been living since our teens) to London (where we were born) to start an art gallery. Olivia had been working in galleries since she was in her late teens and I had been working in design marketing. We were excited about doing our own thing, working in a creative field and doing it together.
A couple of years in, we were really yearning for a creative outlet that was surprisingly absent in the market that we specialised in. I was expecting my first baby when Olivia and I designed a nursing chair to have made locally, after I had tried to find one that was contemporary without any luck.
We had such a great response from friends that we decided to make some prototypes in 2010 and take them to a local trade show in London. Harrods picked us up on the spot and that really catapulted us into a business as things took off very quickly.
In terms of starting your family, how did that fit in around your career?
We had our first child, Tennyson, only a few months before my sister and I started Olli Ella and so it has really been all I have ever known in terms of the merging of parenthood and career. In the beginning, it was really challenging because it was my first time being a mother and also a business owner, so it was messy and chaotic, but it somehow came together.
There have always been periods of calm and periods of crazy, just like every mother and business owner will say, and so it’s that balancing act of giving attention to the element that needs you most at that time.
What business knowledge did you have in the beginning of Olli Ella? What were some of the earliest and most valuable lessons you learned on the job?
Very, very, very little. I didn’t go to college. I have always learned on the job and really love not knowing how I’m going to achieve something, and getting there through trial and error (and a lot of winging it!). Olivia and I didn’t even know what ‘wholesale’ meant when we first started.
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is to know when to fight for something that you really believe in, but also to be okay with walking away from an idea. Early on we had several business advisors and accountants telling us that we had no business, that our margins were too low. We wanted to keep our products made ethically and locally while still being affordable for our customers. Even though they had much more experience than we did, we saw the bigger picture and didn’t listen to them.
In the same breath, there have been times when we have poured efforts and resources into a product that just hasn’t come together. And it’s a hard thing to do, but sometimes you just have to be okay with saying: this isn’t going to work and we are going to shift our focus.
What was your original vision for the company and how has it evolved?
Originally it was very close to what Olli Ella is today. Olivia and I wanted to create products that were useful, ethically made, brought joy and are of heirloom quality. While we did start out as a nursery brand, the long-term vision for Olli Ella was to have a lifestyle brand.
What have you learned about yourself across your parenting journey? What do you need to be the most effective parent you can be?
To keep a sense of humour and to not try to be perfect, because it’s impossible. You will make yourself miserable in the process. I’ve learned to really sit with the chaos and the mayhem, to not wish away a second of it because it goes by too quickly.
I think having a hands-on, loving and supportive husband is first and foremost for me personally. It’s grounding and I know we are in it together. Charlie recently left his career in production to be a stay-at-home dad, and his support has allowed me to slow down and not have so many spinning plates. And to be able to take more time with each of the kids instead of just trying to make it through the day.
How do you overcome self-doubt in parenting and in business?
I don’t think I ever do, and why should I want to? To me, it’s through questioning and conversation that I really believe that we grow and evolve. As long as self-doubt is speckled with pride and confidence, I think it’s a good thing.
What is your experience with mum guilt? Do you have any tips to push past it?
Ahhh mum guilt. It’s funny because a couple of weeks ago we took our kids to a wonderful local event hosted by Lunch Lady Magazine. Families were hanging out, some were planting trees, crafting, etc. I had sat under a tree with some friends while the kids ran around. At the end of the day, I realised that I hadn’t done any of the activities with our kids, and I felt terrible!
When I mentioned this to my friend Berry Feather (from Dumbo Feather Magazine) she laughed and said: ‘I love how one can be in an idyllic setting, with four beautiful healthy kids, happy and joyful but still feel like a bad mum!’
That’s what a part of motherhood is, that constant feeling of trying to do your best but always worrying that you are falling short. Tips to push past it would be: don’t hold yourself to an unrealistically high standard, to not compare yourself to other mums, and to have fun!
We love Olli Ella’s focus on sustainable materials and ethical production. How do you go about choosing a supplier that aligns with your ethical standards?
Thank you so much. We go through a vetting procedure to make sure that manufacturers meet our values. We have worked with some of our suppliers since the early days of Olli Ella and have grown together. They value sustainable practices as much as we do and so it’s a journey that we are on together.
Can you give us a glimpse into your daily schedule with your kids, and how you manage the workload?
It’s changed recently since baby Augie was born. I’m home most of the time, which I’m loving and haven’t felt the pull to jump back into outside activities as quickly as I have in the past.
We’re all awake by 6:30am and hang together until it’s time for the big boys to go to school at 8:30am. Nell, Augie and I will hang at home, or Charlie will take Nell with him on the school run and then for an activity afterward.
I used to go to the office four-mornings-a-week and sometimes an afternoon or two. I’ll probably resume that next year when Augie is a bit bigger.
Afternoons are spent either running around with after-school activities or going to the beach before dinner and bed. Charlie and I take turns cooking, although he does 80% of it. I love to do comfort food whereas Charlie is more adventurous. We always sit down to dinner together, which we all love.