Anew shoe company, Cecelia New York, debuts in February, but the brand got its start around a New Canaan dinner table. That’s where Ashley Neeleman Cole learned to turn passion into profession at the knee of her father, David Neeleman, founder of three commercial airlines, including JetBlue. Here are the business lessons he imparted to her.
Follow Your Passion
“When I was growing up my parents weren’t so focused on my grades,” says Ashley, who is thirty-four years old and lives in Darien. There would be a test at school or report cards distributed, yet no one asked her about her marks. Instead, the Neelemans talked to their children about motivation. “They’d ask, ‘What’s your passion?’ My dad and his siblings were entrepreneurs,” says Ashley. “They didn’t take a conventional path. They focused on the things they were building and growing.”
Build It Better
“My dad would always say ‘How can you make a better mousetrap?’”says Ashley. She applied that question to her passion, which is fashion—and shoes, in particular. “There are so many great designs out there,” she says. “I wanted to use the best construction and materials, but I knew that when you turn a shoe over to look at the price, it’s yea or nay. I aimed for that sweet spot, a number just a bit lower than you’d expect.” Cecelia New York was the result. The brand combines unique designs with natural, high-quality materials (think Italian leathers and furs) and competitive price points.
Ashley, who as a child sketched clothing on her homework, earned a degree in merchandising from the Fashion Institute of Technology. She loaded her college courses into two days each week so she could work in marketing at JetBlue the other three days. After graduation, she landed a position with Diane von Furstenberg, first in marketing, then sales. There she learned about design, production and public relations. When Ashley started her shoe business, she hired designers from Italy and New York, only to mark up their sketches with her own ideas. Eventually she started designing for herself. She hired Annelie Hofstrom, a consultant with experience at Manolo Blahnik and Oscar de la Renta, to go through her line for quality and cohesiveness. Today, the two women are in talks to sell at Neiman Marcus and do a private label for Barneys New York.
By the Bootstraps
It hasn’t always been easy for Ashley to walk in these entrepreneurial shoes. The launch of Cecelia New York in February 2015 will be her second try. The first was stymied after a trademark issue sent her back to the drawing board. “I had to rename everything,” she says. “But I’ve learned a lot from my Dad. I’ve seen how he picks himself up and moves on.”
Ashley believes in nurturing a family while growing a business. That’s why her company’s headquarters is a big office in the attic of the home she shares with her husband, Matt. From there, she connects with factory representatives in China and Brazil while keeping tabs on her four young children. When she has questions, she talks to her father in New Canaan, where she still heads for dinner each Sunday.