Bee Shapiro has had an intriguing career, starting with a law degree to freelance writing to becoming a beauty columnist at The New York Times to founding a fragrance line, Ellis Brooklyn. The scents are lovely and eco-friendly. The names of the scents all have something to do with writing. Learn about her story & shop her products below!
When you went to college, did you have a certain career path in mind?
No, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, especially since I didn’t have an internship. It’s different today than when I was in college since now people tend to have multiple internships. Back then it wasn’t as popular, however, I was probably the only one of my friends to not have one.
Did you always know you wanted to go to law school? How has it helped you throughout your career?
During my senior year, I realized I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my finance and art major. I applied to some jobs, but nothing was coming to fruition. I realized if I wasn’t going to get a job then I needed to go to graduate school. I went to Barnes and Noble (since this was before everything was online) to look at test prep books. I looked at the LSAT book and knew I could excel on this type of test, so that’s what I took. It’s important for young people to know they don’t have to have their entire career figured out by graduation. Sometimes it takes experience to realize what you want to do. I went to law school and after I graduated became a hedge fund lawyer. My law degree wasn’t necessarily helpful during my career as a writer, but I have used the skills I learned when founding my line, Ellis Brooklyn. It ended up coming full circle since I’ve used it for my trademark filing, general structure and label compliance.
Tell me about going from law school to deciding you wanted to be an editor.
I went straight from law school to writing. I tried to apply for editor internships, but wasn’t getting hired because I was too experienced, but on one hand wasn’t experienced at all. I couldn’t apply for the Assistant Editor job because I hadn’t had the internship, and I couldn’t apply for the internship because I was too experienced due to my law degree and law firm experience. I was befuddled by this, and decided to start freelance writing. I started pitching ideas to small blogs and from there to websites (which were still new and edgy back then). I collected my clips, which were becoming better, and I started writing for Style.com, T Magazine and eventually for The New York Times.
How important is it to major in journalism if you are interested in being a writer?
I think education is a great platform, but it’s really just to open your door to the world. I don’t think you have to know what you want to do for the rest of your life when you’re a freshman in college. For me, I didn’t need to, but maybe for others it was helpful.
What are the pros and cons of being a salaried employee vs. writing as a freelancer? What was the process of finding each freelancing job?
When you’re a salaried employee, you get health benefits and develop friendships with colleagues. When you’re a freelancer, you have a lot of freedom, but you’re always hustling. If you want to freelance as a career, you have to build longterm relationships with several of the editors. It’s hard in the beginning. You start working with editors that you work well with. At first, it’s you pitching to them to bring fresh, new ideas. Eventually, you will start getting assigned stories.
How did you tailor the stories to each publication?
Each publication is focused as far as what they want their writers to do. Oftentimes, the editors will send me clips of past articles that might relate, writing styles they liked or stories that worked well for their audience. You read all the information they send you, which is tremendously helpful, and tailor it to the publication from there, while keeping your writing voice.
What skills are necessary to become a writer/editor?
As a writer/editor you have to love the written word. It’s not just casually throwing together sentences. You have to love putting sentences together and the editing process (whether you are the writer or the editor). This means that when you turn in something, you have to know the piece will be edited, even if you’re the best writer in the world. You have to love the collaboration or else it can be hard on you. I’ve seen writers burn out. You turn in something that you think is fabulous and that you’ve put your heart and soul into, and then it gets chopped into pieces and can become unlike what you wrote. This is a part of the job. Maybe at the end of the day what you submitted for may be different due to ad space dropping out or the story changed or something happened in the news. Because of this, it is important to stay flexible. Knowing and being precise with your words is imperative. I see some young writers throw out words like gorgeous, beautiful, great; and I feel that there are ways to be more specific.
Start to finish, what does your writing process look like?
It depends on the publication. Sometimes it’s a first person essay, which is about me and my circle of friends. If it’s a research story, I’ll open a word document and get all of my thoughts together, which I use as a notes page. I’ll start researching the topic online, writing out all areas I need to tackle and sources I need to hit. Often for top publications, you need to have backup sources. I write it all out, who I’ve contacted and who’s getting back to me. That way it’s like an organized source sheet of information and people.
What has your experience been like working with The New York Times?
I’ve loved it! As far as writers are concerned, it’s a dream to work for them. It’s different from other places. Since it is a newspaper, you’re turning around copy at lightning speed. They trust you a lot. You’re doing your own fact checking and source verification, which actually takes a lot of time, so it’s not for someone who doesn’t do this. You have to stand by your work. You don’t have the support team of a magazine to help you do all of that. On the flip side, you get an assignment approved and you get to really flex and show what you want to show. For a writer, this is wonderful. You can show exactly the story you want. Yes, it gets edited, but The New York Times is writer driven.
What are your thoughts on where the print industry is headed?
I spend most of my life online. On one hand I would say everything is moving to digital because that’s where writing and advertising is going. On the other hand, I feel nostalgic for print. I miss that sense of discovery that you can get from print. You should broaden your mind with reading. It’s wonderful to discover something you didn’t think about before.
How did you decide to create your own beauty line? I was reviewing all these products as a beauty columnist for The New York Times, and was pregnant with my first daughter, Ellis (hence the name Ellis Brooklyn). I am a huge fragrance fan. At the time, there were a lot of natural skincare brands coming out, for example Tata Harper and RMS. However, I felt that there was nothing in fragrance at the time that had that luxury feel to it. There were natural fragrances here and there from small shops, but honestly, it didn’t smell great compared to luxury brands. I wanted to create something that was safer because I was pregnant. I wanted to take out the toxic ingredients. All my friends were looking for non-toxic versions of the things they loved. Starting Ellis Brooklyn was not as easy as I thought it was going to be. Jérôme Epinette, who works with Byredo, is my perfumer. He was on board with the idea and willing to try it out.
What was it like being on the opposite end of a desk-side?
A desk side is when a PR person, (sometimes the founder, but more often PR), comes to your desk and presents a product they would like to pitch. I feel like press events are more effective. Desk sides are convenient because the editor doesn’t have to leave the building, but on the other side, you’re not getting the full experience of the brand. For Ellis Brooklyn, I meet with editors at their building, but we are usually having coffee while speaking about the products. Sitting at the desk can be a little bit awkward.
How did you learn what it takes to run a business?
Being an entrepreneur, you’re constantly learning. I’ve learned everything from third party logistic companies to how a tube is manufactured. If you want to be constantly stimulated, being an entrepreneur is fantastic. On the other hand, it’s a lot of hard work and doing things you didn’t expect you needed to do. I don’t think you can study to be an entrepreneur, you just have to experience it.
What was your process deciding on the packing, sourcing materials and finding the perfect scent for each?
For packaging, I worked with Yolandi Oosthuizen who is a creative director at an ad agency. I already had an idea of what I wanted the brand to look like from an editors standpoint. I knew I wanted to be clean and visually driven to be representative of what I wanted on my countertop. We are focused on sustainability which sort of chooses my partners for me. For example, our body milks and candles are in handmade, partly recycled glass. For the perfumes, the cap is biodegradable. There aren’t that many people or materials that I can use. We are investigating body wash, but it can’t be in a glass bottle because you can’t have that in the shower. Therefore, I need to look for an eco-friendly material. The plastics in most beauty products aren’t easily recyclable sometimes. I create scents based on what I want to wear. I work with Jérôme, and talk about what ingredients are interesting right now. It’s a dialogue back and forth, but usually there is some sort of background to it. Our scents are inspired by literary works, such as poems or novels, or certain things that tie back into writing, because that’s what I do. I come up with an inspiration idea and some reference scents. I bring them to Jérôme and we talk about ingredients.
Which comes first, the name or the scent?
It goes both ways. Sometimes the name you want you can’t have because someone else is using it. Sometimes you have a working name which needs to get vetted through legal and so on.
What is the meaning behind your logo?
In writing, people who are literary titans are called literary lions. I was at a gala for PEN, which is a writing institution. I realized it was almost all men at the event. Yes, a lot of great writers are men, but I definitely see the future being more diverse. Originally, we were going to do a lion icon, but I didn’t want to do something that was so old and entrenched. The leopard logo is my twist on the literary lion.
How do you balance being a mom of two and running a business?
I try to survive, I don’t know if there is any balance. I work a lot from home so I try to see my kids as much as possible. One of the downsides to freelancing is that you are working all the time.
What advice would you give to someone interested in starting their own company?
Know your industry. If you know what you’re talking about it helps when approaching a new facet of that industry. For example, when I started meeting with manufacturers I didn’t know anything about that world, but at least we could talk about brands and formulations. These manufacturers have seen it all, and worked with everyone from large corporations to small, indie brands. When you showcase your knowledge and your passion for that sector, geeking out with them helps build respect and they become champions for you. You can’t do it alone and you need the help of others.
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