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Lela Kelly of Volto Urbano: “Persistence, grit and an action bias”

Persistence, grit and an action bias. When one thing doesn’t work out — pivot. Our mistakes are our most important teachers and almost always the prelude to success. When the status quo is less than what you see for your life, shake everything up to create and seize the opportunities to take your life to another level. As […]

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Persistence, grit and an action bias. When one thing doesn’t work out — pivot. Our mistakes are our most important teachers and almost always the prelude to success. When the status quo is less than what you see for your life, shake everything up to create and seize the opportunities to take your life to another level.


As part of my series about prominent entrepreneurs and executives that overcame adversity to achieve great success”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lela Kelly, Founder of Volto Urbano.

Moving from the Philippines to Hawaii at a young age, Lela was born with a strong sense of self and determination, which served her well throughout her life. At eighteen Lela’s hard work paid off when she received a full scholarship to attend The University of Southern California (USC) undergrad and a few years later obtained her law degree from The University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). During this time Lela was balancing school, a part time job and supporting two young children on food stamps and local government aid. After completing school with an undergrad and law degree from two elite universities, Lela was accepted into a prestigious law firm, Jones Day. After years of global travel, takeout and lack of sleep Lela’s skin and overall health began to suffer.

Eventually Lela departed from the law firm and formed her own technology and legal consulting business with longtime friend Mark Tennenbaum called, Tennenbaum & Kelly, Inc. (T&K) to help young businesses grow better as a way to fuel their entrepreneurial pursuit.

It was during this time that Lela continued to experience skin breakouts and sensitivities while traveling. Eureka! She was inspired to develop a facial care line alongside business partner Mark Tennenbaum dedicated to tackling environmental effects on the skin.

In early 2020, Volto “face” Urbano “city” was born offering a complete range of skincare for all.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was born and raised in the Philippines and moved to Honolulu when I was around 14 years old. I had my first child at 16 and second one at 18. I could have chosen to be comfortable with my friends and family with a basic 9 to 5 job in the hospitality sector, but that was never going to be enough for me. Instead, I applied to mainland universities and received a scholarship at the University of Southern California. I didn’t just study and raise two daughters there; I graduated with high honors and an acceptance in hand to attend the UCLA School of Law.

I really wanted to be a dermatologist or plastic surgeon, but my life did not make that choice as easy as choosing the law. Medical school and residency would have taken too many years to stabilize my family’s situation, so I chose the more expedient route that also matched my talents — law. If you go to a good law school, get good grades, in three years you can land a six figure job at a big law firm. I needed to get there quickly to provide a better life for my kids.

Can you share your story of when you were on the brink of failure? First, take us back to what it was like during the darkest days.

I was working my first postgraduate job with a big international law firm when it happened. Working at Jones Day’s San Francisco office while my children were finishing up the school year down in Los Angeles, the grueling hours, and commuting down to LA to be with my daughters burnt me out within two years.

The big lesson here was doing work because I could do it well versus doing work that fed my soul and drove me through all the hurdles rather than dragging me down. Being a corporate attorney is not my destiny because it doesn’t lift me up at the end of the day. However, knowing the law and how it applies to the language of business is an invaluable tool I carry with me.

It’s a lesson I pass to my children and everyone I work with — do the work that motivates you to do it more and more, to do it better and better because doing it the best you can is a worthy goal.

What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?

The nature of reviewing other people’s dreams and big deals left me far hungrier to be the client one day than to be the attorney. In my experience, being the lawyer also meant sacrificing home life, which is not something I could do as a single mom without tearing my heart to pieces. Finally at my whit’s end with my legal career, I asked a very successful female colleague how she balanced her family life with her career. When she answered, “you’ll never be the best mother or the best lawyer,” I realized my mistake in joining the firm and that I needed to pivot. Knowing that I had put everything I had built at risk because I didn’t love the law only emboldened me further to pursue work that stirred my passions.

Tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve massive success? What did the next chapter look like?

I met my business partner Mark in Los Angeles just before joining Jones Day and we stayed in touch. He inspired me to make the uncomfortable choice and start thinking outside the box. I took the plunge and we started Tennenbaum & Kelly, Inc in 2011 to invest in and take a role in start-up companies. Of our first 4 investments, 2 thrived, including a niche professional skin care line for which we operate the online retail channel. I also spent 6 months as an outside counsel to goop to learn even more about skin care industry practices and norms.

Finally, I called Mark with my idea for Volto Urbano and we agreed to launch our approach to looking at skin wellness — our environment and lifestyles are just as important as our skin type when choosing the most appropriate skin care regimen.

Based on your experience, can you share a 3 actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Persistence, grit and an action bias. When one thing doesn’t work out — pivot. Our mistakes are our most important teachers and almost always the prelude to success. When the status quo is less than what you see for your life, shake everything up to create and seize the opportunities to take your life to another level.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My current business partner, Mark Tennenbaum. I met Mark through a blind date that had strong intellectual and mental connections without any romantic tingling — we became very good friends and over the years he encouraged me to make the leap from big law to explore entrepreneurship.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We have just introduced our Radiance Recovery Biocellulose Mask that elevates the sheet-mask experience to a whole new level by defending against digital pollution and environmental irritants as well as being biodegradable.

After that, we are looking to extend the line to sensitive/sensitized skin and explore new technologies as more environmental irritants are identified in the peer-reviewed scientific journals on which we rely for both the scientific evidence about these irritants and the validated solutions we can deploy to combat them.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Environmental change is very important to me because it goes to the heart of why I created my skin care line. Environment is just as important as skin type when determining an individual’s skin care needs. We need to pay attention to how we are making our environment change not just for our skin health, but also for our survival.

Any parting words of wisdom that you would like to share?

It’s good to invest in uncomfortable choices that help you thrive and grow in the future.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@voltourbano on Instagram

https://www.facebook.com/vuskincare

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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