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Ellen Crupi: “Gently set yourself apart from the pack”

While many people say beauty comes from within, and it does, our outer appearance does matter. It’s our hair, skin, and nails that make us feel beautiful. I know this to be true as sometimes I might feel beautiful, but then I catch myself in the mirror and think, who is that! Think back. When did […]

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While many people say beauty comes from within, and it does, our outer appearance does matter. It’s our hair, skin, and nails that make us feel beautiful. I know this to be true as sometimes I might feel beautiful, but then I catch myself in the mirror and think, who is that!

Think back. When did you last feel beautiful? What made you feel that way? Was it a particular color you were wearing or a favorite shirt? Make a mental list, and when you “catch yourself in the mirror” and need a pick-me-up, you’ll know what to grab.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Ellen Crupi, Director of Awareness at HabitAware and a recovering “trichster”. She works tirelessly towards reducing the stigma around mental health and body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) such as trichotillomania (hair-pulling), dermatillomania (skin-picking) and onychophagia (nail-biting). Ellen, a hair puller herself, advocates, coaches, and educates those in the BFRB community, mental health, K-12 and University. Ellen is passionate about healthy living, exercise and really good dark chocolate.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you for the opportunity to share my story. Once I entered the workforce following college, I truly didn’t know what I wanted to do. My father’s advice was, “Ellen, You’ll probably have many jobs and careers throughout your life…just take a job and learn from that experience…”

He was right. I fell into a career in sales and marketing, working for several different industries and companies. As I moved from job to job, I learned more about who I was, what I enjoyed, and my strengths.

All that said, what brought me to my current role as Director of Awareness at HabitAware began when I was 11. I didn’t know it then, but I had trichotillomania, a mental health condition where the person compulsively pulls out their own hair, wants to stop, but can’t stop. I still remember the day it started. I was bored in class, waiting for the activity to start. One hair felt thicker, coarser, different. I pulled that single hair right out of my head and “ZING,” I was hooked. That was over 40 years ago.

For four decades, I pulled. In high school, I would look down at the floor and see dozens of strands of my own hair. In college, a “friend” called me out after noticing my pulling and said I was “disgusting.” In the workplace, I was always on guard and afraid of being caught and cast out for being weird and not good enough.

Everything changed in May 2017. After a 3-hour hair-pulling session, I googled “breakthroughs in Trichotillomania” and found Keen by HabitAware, a smart bracelet that uses customized gesture detection to help you take control of hair pulling (trichotillomania), skin picking (dermatillomania) & nail-biting (onychophagy), also known as Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs).

I felt the awareness immediately. Whenever Keen vibrated, I associated the reminder as a “hug” on my wrist, letting me know my hands were not where I wanted them to be. This awareness allowed me to take control.

I had a brilliant idea! What if I could take all my sales and marketing experience and help others the way HabitAware Keen helped me? I felt like all my previous jobs were the preparation for working with HabitAware.

I contacted Aneela and Sameer, two of the co-founders of HabitAware, and pitched the idea of joining the team. After a couple of conversations, we decided to give it a try. That was over three years ago. Today, I can proudly say that I am in BFRB recovery. I wake up every morning, ready to empower others to build their Keen awareness muscles.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I recently helped a customer, Deena, in kicking her 70-year-old nail-biting “habit.” During our conversation, she said, “Ellen, I have tried everything and anything over the last 70 years to stop nail-biting. The Keen bracelet is my last hope.”

After I showed her how to train Keen for her nail-biting motion, I asked her to keep in touch as I was eager to hear about her journey to stop nail-biting. A month later, she sent me a note with pictures of her beautiful nails:

“Hi Ellen,

The terrible nail-biting habit seems better. I haven’t bitten my nails since I started using Keen, but I sometimes still pick the skin around my nails. I think everything I’ve done has been helpful, and I’m carrying on!”

A few months later, she sent me another note and picture showing me she was able to let her nails grow so long that she had to cut them!

What I took away from this fantastic experience is that it is never too late to make a positive change. All you need is the right mindset and support tools. I shared this story with our Habitaware Keen community and received dozens of notes saying that Deena’s story inspired them and, best of all, that change is possible at any age.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

In the early 2000s, I began working with an internet startup Packexpo.com. We were the online version of the brick and mortar PACK EXPO Conference. With Packexpo.com, packaging companies could have a 24/7 Virtual Exhibit instead of a once a year booth. I was employee number five, and as with most startups, I did just about everything. Because I had a knack for turning customers around who wanted to cancel, I got thrown into sales. But I had no idea how to sell. I was given a list and told, “Go!”

I was terrified. But I also was curious. I learned early on if you want to do well; you have to align yourself with the top talent and continue to learn about and perfect your craft. That’s what I did. I took courses from the sales greats of that time — Brian Tracy and Stephan Schiffman. I found a top salesperson to be my mentor. Whenever I met another salesperson, I would ask what works for them, so I could continue learning. My advice is: Always be learning — if you are not learning, you are not growing.

In your experience what were the most effective ways for your business to generate leads and sales? Can you share a story or give an example?

In any business, before you can generate leads, you have to understand who your customer is. After you identify your customer, then you have to know how your customer buys.

HabitAware’s customer is anyone with a BFRB, a loved one of a person with a BFRB, or a professional (therapist, medical doctor, hair stylist) that helps those with BFRBs. And our customers, people with a BFRB, live in silence, secrecy, and shame.

Good news, in 2015 technology was, and still is, on our side. We have the internet, where people can privately search “why do I pull out my hair” and find answers, plus, people can come together in online support groups. Equally important, the technology exists today to create a gesture-controlled bracelet.

Online ads were one of the best ways for HabitAware to spread awareness and generate leads and sales. As Director of Awareness, I learned another powerful way to generate leads is by educating the professional community, who treat BFRBs, that this novel awareness bracelet exists and can help their clients.

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

Marge Gold! Marge was my boss several years ago when I worked in publishing, selling a newsletter to investment advisors. Marge had this untethered optimism, and she truly cared about the people she managed. I learned so many incredible things under her watch.

The top three are:

  1. Gently set yourself apart from the pack
  2. Disarm your prospect in a gentle way to catch their attention
  3. Make it easy for people to buy

Setting yourself apart doesn’t have to be hard. It can be as simple as your email signature. For example, Marge’s email signature is: “Energetically, Marge.” She didn’t use a standard signature signoff, like Sincerely, or Best, or Warmly. I hear her voice saying, “People don’t want to work with ‘warm,’ they want to work with ENERGY!” I began using that strategy immediately. And even today, if you receive an email from me you’ll read, “Energetically, Ellen!”

When selling by phone, you are always catching people off guard, and you have to get them open to listening. Here are some of my Marge favorites:

They say, “I’m too busy to talk,” You say, “I love working with busy people!”

They answer the phone in a flat tone, and you know the person doesn’t want to talk, you say, “I know, you weren’t expecting my call. I’m a surprise package.”

The last and most essential is, “Make it easy for people to buy.” Here’s what Marge would do, which I continue to use to this day: In emails, we would write, “Hit reply with YES.” I love receiving an email reply with the word, YES!

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

I thought I was so cool as a young professional, going to happy hour after work. I met up with friends at a Mexican restaurant for margaritas. After a couple of drinks, it was time to find the ladies’ room. I hopped off my barstool and gently maneuvered my way through the other 20 somethings. The bathroom had a few empty stalls, and I entered one, locking the door behind me. Soon I heard voices. Men’s voices. I walked into the men’s room! I was in a Mexican restaurant, and the names on the doors were not in English, and I chose the wrong one. I was terrified of being found out, so I stayed in the stall waiting for the last man to leave. Once it was quiet, I unlocked the door, peaked out to see if the coast was clear and ran out! Always make sure you check the name on the bathroom door before entering it!

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that many have attempted, but eventually gave up on. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path but know that their dreams might be dashed?

That’s an interesting question. I believe people will have many career paths, and the days of one job at one company, or, one job at many companies is over. We have to be flexible and build our core strengths and be willing to learn new things.

Simon Sinek says it best — “What is your why?” Most people know what they do, i.e., accounting. Most people know how to do their job, i.e., balancing the books. But there are many people out there who don’t understand why they do what they do. Ask yourself, “why do I get out of bed in the morning and go to work?… Is your work fulfilling?… Does the work you do align with your values, or are you just working to make a paycheck?”

I’ve been in that position where I was just grinding out the job. When I discovered Simon Senik, I stopped in my tracks. I was working in Publishing at the time, selling a newsletter to investment advisors. It wasn’t glamorous, until I found my “why.” I had a product that would help keep Chief Compliance Officers out of harm’s way with the SEC. With this new insight, I enjoyed my work more and increased sales. To ensure your dreams are not dashed, make sure you know YOUR “why” as you embark down a specific career path.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you please share “Five Things Anyone Can Do To Have Fabulous Hair”. Please share a story or an example, for each.

I have curly, wavy hair that is hard to control. I grew up in the ’80s when stylists barely knew how to cut curly hair, and there were limited products to manage my tresses. At the same time, I had another hair problem I couldn’t control: compulsive hair pulling.

My shame began in a salon at age 11. I had no idea that my hair pulling was a problem until I sat in Fatima’s chair. My mother walked over as Fatima pointed her comb at the back of my head, “Look, there are two bald spots behind Ellen’s ears. “What did you do!? What’s wrong with you!?” Both women asked. “Anne put gum in my hair, and I had to pull it out,” I quickly answered. The truth was there was no gum, but I was pulling out my hair. For four decades, I hid my compulsive hair pulling in shame, while also struggling to control my curls.

You shouldn’t touch curly hair as it makes the hair frizz. That was double trouble for me. I was always touching my hair. And by touching, and pulling, I was ruining my curls and my self-esteem.

In my search to find the right hairstylist and products, I learned a great deal about hair. After seeing just about every stylist in the Washington DC area, I nearly jumped on a train to New York to visit an Ouidad salon specializing in cutting curly hair. Then I met Nicole Siri, a stylist who introduced me to the right haircut and the proper products. Nicole and I worked together for a short time when I managed her “Strictly Curls” Facebook group.

Nicole also introduced me to Lorraine Massey’s “Curly Girl” book, a must-read for anyone with curly wavy hair. I devoured that book like I devoured my sales books.

In my quest to help myself and others, I’ve learned several tips to have fabulous hair.

Tip 1: Ingredients matter. No matter what type of hair you have stay away from:

  • Sodium Laureth Sulfates (SLS)
  • Parabens
  • Sodium Chloride
  • Polyethylene Glycols (PEG)
  • Formaldehyde
  • Silicons

Those ingredients will suffocate your hair, plus they are not healthy for you or the environment. Make sure you look at labels. My go-to clean brands are CurlyWorld and YESto.

Tip 2: Conditioner

Many of us “curly girls,” and non-curly, say that our hair’s top layer is the most frizzy. The reason is that the top layer is the one that hits the elements (sun, clothing friction, wind). When you condition your hair, make sure you condition the top layer. I like to put conditioner on the top layer and then take another big glop and put that through the rest of my hair.

Tip 3: Stop touching your hair.

For hair pullers like me, trichotillomania can be managed with awareness and replacing the unwanted behavior with healthier ones. Even without trichotillomania, we all touch our hair to varying degrees. Stroking, playing, picking, twirling, and pulling causes hair damage. Under a microscope, hair looks like a pinecone. As you touch your hair, you disturb and damage the follicles resulting in frizz, breakage, and hair loss. Many hair stylists recommend HabitAware Keen to help their clients keep their hands away from their hair.

Tip 4: Refresh your locks with a DIY Refresher spray

If your hair is looking like it needs a little love, create a DIY refresher spray. Take a clean spray bottle and fill it with mostly water (use distilled or spring water, not tap water) and add a little of your favorite conditioner. You can also add a few drops of any essential oil to increase the scent. Spritz on your hair as needed. If you have straight hair, spray and smooth it down. If you’re a “curly girl,” spray and scrunch.

Tip 5: Don’t blot your hair with a towel.

Cotton towels can disrupt the hair cuticle and cause frizz. Instead, use a cotton T-shirt as your head towel. This technique is gentler on your hair.

Bonus Tip: For long hair, sleep with your hair in a top pony, like a pineapple at the top of your head. The outer layer of your hair receives the most damage. Protect your hair by gathering it up in a pony at the top of your head and secure lightly with a hair tie. Then let the top just be, like a pineapple. That way, you ruffle the inside of your hair vs. the outer layer, while you sleep.

Can you share 3 ideas that anyone can use “to feel beautiful”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

While many people say beauty comes from within, and it does, our outer appearance does matter. It’s our hair, skin, and nails that make us feel beautiful. I know this to be true as sometimes I might feel beautiful, but then I catch myself in the mirror and think, who is that!

Think back. When did you last feel beautiful? What made you feel that way? Was it a particular color you were wearing or a favorite shirt? Make a mental list, and when you “catch yourself in the mirror” and need a pick-me-up, you’ll know what to grab. Here are my top three things I do to get that “beautiful” feeling:

Beauty tip 1: Wash your face followed by facial oil or moisturizer

Tata Harper is one of my favorite facial product brands. I turned washing my face into a mindfulness ritual that brings me joy every morning and night. Try it yourself: when you wash your face with your favorite cleanser, notice how the water feels on your hands and face and the sounds and smells. After washing, take your favorite moisturizer and rub it in between your palms. Before applying, close your eyes and inhale the smell, then apply and notice the feeling of your hands on your face. Seal in the goodness with a smile and healthy affirmation, like, I am beautiful.

Beauty tip 2: Put on a bright color

When I’m feeling low, I’ll grab a bold shirt to contrast that dull feeling and make my day!

Beauty tip 3: The makeup, no-makeup look

When I catch myself in the mirror and think, “who is that?!” I know a little makeup will help me feel beautiful. I use Ere Perez Calendula Powder Foundation, which is easy to apply and good for your skin. Sometimes I just add that and go. If I want a little more “finish,” I add Ere Perez black eye pencil, only on the top lash line, and then add Saie’s Brow Butter and Mascara. Then I’ll add a little powder blush to my cheeks. My bonus tip is to take a clear chapstick or gloss across your lips and then dip your finger into your powder blush, dotting that on your lips. This is just enough makeup to make me feel pretty, but not so much that I feel made up.

For those who pull at their lashes and eyebrows, it’s good to cover the damage while also applying products that promote nourishment and healing. For damage control, the Ere Perez eye pencil will give you great coverage, and it stays on. Plus, jojoba oil is one of the main ingredients which offers anti-inflammatory properties, and it’s moisturizing, which is very nurturing, helping the area heal. Now you can feel beautiful and nourish your eye area at the same time.

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. 🙂

I fear that the next health pandemic following COVID-19 will be a mental health pandemic. Since COVID began, our business has seen an increase in sales, which tells me that people are suffering. In conversations with the Keen community, I hear about the rise in anxiety and depression. I also see it in the news. And, it has hit my circle of family and friends too. I hope we get ahead of a mental health pandemic before it happens or, if that is not possible, prepare for it. Insurance covers an annual health physical. Let’s add a yearly mental health check-up to that protocol and care for the whole person.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right,” Henry Ford.

I believe in the mind-body connection. This quote has deep meaning for me in my work. When I help others find their awareness, it’s critical to shift to a growth mindset. If you go in thinking you can’t, then you won’t. But if you go in thinking you can, then you have a much better chance of achieving your goal. This quote doesn’t just help me with my work; it’s a core value for me in everything I do.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this. 🙂

Brene Brown hands down. Brene Brown is a social scientist who studies shame and vulnerability for a living. Her work is monumental in helping to move the world forward. People who suffer from a BFRB are filled to the brim with vulnerability and shame. As I mentioned earlier, I believe in studying my craft and learning from experts so that I can continue to improve. Brene Brown, in my opinion, is the ultimate expert in vulnerability and shame. I believe meeting with Brene Brown would be the tipping point in moving our mission into the mainstream. Brene could help us help the world of people suffering from BFRBs go from hurting to healing.

How can our readers follow you online?

[email protected]

www.habitaware.com

https://www.linkedin.com/company/habitaware
https://www.facebook.com/HabitAware/
https://www.linkedin.com/in/ellencrupi/

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