University of Rhode Island  
Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design

TMD 402 Spring 2012 "Entrepreneurship"

A Shade Above: On Being Your Own Boss Ellen Leys

Summary by Monica Noble


Ellen Leys is the owner and founder of “A Shade Above,” a window covering company. She became a graduate of the TMD program in 1976 and continued on to a two-year certificate program at RISD. After her schooling, Ellen lived in Newport and worked as a waitress before becoming a cook on yachts. She worked on yachts for seven years, broadening her horizons through travel and through working in a field that was unfamiliar to her. This experience helped to shape Ellen, and is an experience that she cannot recommend enough. One of Ellen's main points throughout her speech was about being open to new experiences and going beyond your comfort zone. Ellen believes travel is the best way to do this, and suggested that every single person who is able should travel for awhile after graduating. Ellen found later in life that her experiences traveling not only helped her develop skills that she would use later in her career, but also gave her inspiration for the rest of her life. Being able to look back on her time traveling gives Ellen a unique point of view that she can draw on whenever she needs to.

After Ellen's time traveling, she returned to Newport newly married and began a catering business, also helping her husband run his marine salvaging business. These ventures gave Ellen experience in the practical side of running a business. She learned about licenses, taxes, accounting, workers compensation, and everything else involved in the running of a home business. Ellen also did all of the advertising for her and her husband's businesses. She learned about computers, right in the beginning of the rise of computer popularity. This also helped to give Ellen an edge in her career, and reflects another one of her biggest pieces of advice. Ellen is a huge advocate for lifelong learning, and stressed to everyone the importance of continually educating oneself. Even today, for as long as she has been in business, Ellen still finds time to attend seminars and learning opportunities on subjects in her field. She also keeps her eyes open for new techniques, even showing during her talk a picture of a window treatment that she didn't create herself, but was attempting to replicate as a learning exercise. This drive separates Ellen from other people, but is a trait shared between successful entrepreneurs. Ellen, along with many of the speakers this semester, are not satisfied resting on their laurels. Every success and every failure drove them forward, and all of them treated each stage of their lives as an opportunity to learn something that would be valuable later on.

Ellen used her experiences as a yacht cook and as a business owner while she worked in her father's store. She worked in the custom window treatment department, learning enough while there to open her own store five years later. When Ellen began “A Shade Above,” she had experience with business through her catering company, with keeping clients happy in her yachting career, and in the window treatment industry at her father's store. Ellen took all of this knowledge and brought it together to create A Shade Above, so named to be the first business listed in the yellow pages. Although she presented this information as a small anecdote in her seminar, this information about how Ellen named her business is very telling. With this one piece of information, it is clear that Ellen gave a lot of thought to her business, and also tried to maximize her business even with the name. This creative thinking is also a trait that Ellen shares with many of the seminar speakers, and is a great mark of an entrepreneur. Someone who can see what others cannot, and can implement their ideas in a unique way is also usually a person with the strong drive required to be a successful entrepreneur.

Ellen ended her talk with a list of her top advice to aspiring entrepreneurs. It was interesting to see how much of her list matched up with our other speakers, but some of her points were unique, including her continued stressing of the importance of travel and education. She also suggested to hone our social skills, because all entrepreneurs are also salesmen, whether they are selling a product, a business, or an idea, which is an especially interesting observation. Although Ellen gave examples of her advice through the lens of interior design, it is clear how all of her suggestions would apply to any type of business.


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