What inspired you to start your business? Where did you start and where are you now?
I am the founder of The Gentle Barn, a sanctuary for abused, neglected, and unwanted animals, and host to groups of children who are at risk, from the inner city, or who have special needs. We bring the children and the animals together to share their common stories, and inspire each other to reach for infinite possibilities and hope for the future.
The Gentle Barn has been my dream since I was 7 years old. I loved animals and nature since I was born and would always play in the lakes and woods near where I lived. As I got older I would find animals that needed help and I would bring them home. My plan by the time I was 7 years old was to have a house full of animals that I saved and they would be my friends. My parents were not amused and would send them away and tell me that when I grew up I could have as many animals as I wanted. I decided then and there that when I grew up I would have a place full of animals, and I would show the world how beautiful they were. And together with the animals we would help give love and healing to all the lonely people of the world.
It took me many years to finally start my dream. I brought the first group of animals home in 1999 from an abusive petting zoo to my tiny half-acre back yard. Soon after more people found out about me or I would find out about more animals that needed help and I soon found myself with a small backyard full of animals. Once I realized I had finally started my dream, I called out to foster agencies, rehab centers, inner-city schools and special needs classes and invited them to bring their angry and shut-down children to meet the animals and hear their stories. From that original backyard and handful of animals in 1999, we have grown to 21 acres and 175 animals in Los Angeles, California, and 12 acres and about as many more animals in Knoxville, Tennessee.
What do you see for your future?
Our goal is to create a gentler world by having Gentle Barns in every state in the country—and then the world—so everyone can hug a cow, cuddle a turkey, feed a horse, give a pig a tummy rub, and look into the eyes of animals and know that we are all the same—we just look different.
What do you see as challenges for you and your business? What are some opportunities?
Of course being a non-profit organization, funding is an ongoing project that we need to focus on daily. Dealing with hundreds of volunteers and staff members in different states is challenging as well. But bringing the kids and animals together and seeing new hope and joy in their eyes is so rewarding. And seeing how we are not just helping the animals and the kids we host, but the community as well. We bring in corporations and volunteers to be part of our work as well and seeing them benefit, be part of something, and giving back is rewarding as well.
How can we help your business?
There are many ways people can help The Gentle Barn. Getting a Gentle Barn membership is a wonderful way to help us heal more animals and host more children. People can sponsor animals and groups as well. And if people can spread the word about us and come visit, that would be great as well.
Where did you grow up? And how is where you came from material to your identity as an entrepreneur?
I grew up on the East coast: Boston, St Louis, and Connecticut. The woods and the lakes by my houses were my playgrounds and the animals there were my best friends and teachers. It’s that connection to nature that saved me in my darkest times, gave me hope, showed me that I was wanted and loveable, and kept me going. It was from a very early age that I knew first hand how therapeutic animals were. The Gentle Barn was born out of that connection, and that desire to help animals help more people.
Tell us a story about a success in your business? A mistake you overcame?
Healing animals and children is the easy part of our business. Staying funded and connected to the community is the more challenging part. One of the things we do as an organization is to connect with larger companies so they can support us and be part of the miraculous, feel good work we do here. A few years ago we partnered with an organization called Sun Chlorella and they not only give us enough algae superfood to keep our animals healthy and happy, but they funded our healing center both in CA and TN. We in turn are constantly talking about them, bringing them more business and our fans awareness of this wonderful company and their products. This partnership led the way to more connections with many more companies and it has allowed a lot of great work and love to be shared.
We have overcome many mistakes. The last 16 years have been all about learning. One of the mistakes I made early on was to be very naive. I trusted everyone and allowed everyone who wanted it a place in our organization as a visitor, volunteer, or staff. I knew how healing The Gentle Barn was and I wanted to share it with everyone. But not everyone I let in was healthy, or functioning, or beneficial to the organization. I learned the hard way to put heavy screenings in place to protect the organization. Since then we have learned a lot and established many practices and procedures that not only protected the organization, but prepared us to go national.
What picture is on your phone’s home screen?
Actually the picture on my phone is of my son, Jesse riding his dirt bike. I am a workaholic and tend to work 7 days a week and late in the evenings. I keep that picture on my phone to remind me about work/life balance, and to encourage me to make time for fun and family as well.
What do you love about being an entrepreneur?
I love the creative process; coming up with ideas and practices that don’t exist, putting them into action and watching other people and animals benefit from it.
What about your business matters most deeply to you? How does it engage your values?
What matters most to me is working with people to create a gentler world. I think as a species we have gone a little nuts and forgotten about family values, healthy eating habits, kindness to animals, and reverence for this planet. It’s time to put things back in order and have future generations protect the things that matter. Hosting school field trips and being open to the public gives us an opportunity to help people remember their love for animals and be more caring to our mother earth.
What would you say is your “entrepreneurial superpower?”
Being stubborn! Never taking no for an answer! Never giving up on my dreams and ideas!
Who is the entrepreneur you admire most right now?
Honestly the people who I admire the most are not necessarily entrepreneurs. They are people who stood for something and changed history because of it. I admire Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jane Goodall. And changing lives and history does not have to be exclusively for individuals; big companies can stand for their ideals and change the world as well.
Why do they inspire you?
Because they figured out what was important, planted their feet on those ideas and acted within those ideals to change the world forever, sometimes in extreme adversity. But they never took no for an answer and never gave up!
What’s the best and the worst thing about being an entrepreneur, as a woman?
The best thing is knowing that I am really doing something with my life and creating change for people and animals, it is so rewarding! The worst thing is being so driven that I don’t invest as much as I would like to in friendships, families, and relaxation. Sometimes I look at moms who have stayed home to raise their kids and I feel a pang of jealousy. I am very close to my children and try very hard to make sure they come first. But my work does take me away from them sometimes. To be with them all the time would be wonderful as well. Because I am a woman I have had to choose between family and work, whereas it is more expected that a man just goes to work.
Do you think male entrepreneurs are “different” from female entrepreneurs?
I think we still live in a society where male entrepreneurs are taken a bit more seriously. I think I have had to fight harder to be heard and taken seriously at times. But this world is changing and hopefully that will be different for our children.
What the best advice you ever got, and from whom?
Several years ago we were in financial crisis and considered giving up. The realtor who came to sell the property heard my story of how this was my dream since I was so small and she refused to sell the property. She looked me in the eye and said, “don’t you ever give up on your dream!” Her words of encouragement not only saved The Gentle Barn, but instilled in me a sense of importance and acceptance to my work that I didn’t have before. I will always think of her as my angel!
How can people stay in touch with you and learn more about The Gentle Barn?
They can follow The Gentle Barn on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Vine, Pinterest, and You Tube, or follow me personally (Ellie Laks) as well on Facebook.
Ellie Laks’ book is My Gentle Barn: Creating a Sanctuary where Animals Heal and Children Learn to Hope or here.