Community//

Natalie James: “To develop grit, look to others who have demonstrated their ability to persevere through hardship and learn from them”

Look to others — Grit is a learned behaviour. Look to others who have demonstrated their ability to persevere through hardship and learn from them. Ask them how to stay positive when faced with hardship or how to maintain focus when faced with distractions? Life is about learning and growing. Grit is a growth mindset that teaches […]


Look to others — Grit is a learned behaviour. Look to others who have demonstrated their ability to persevere through hardship and learn from them. Ask them how to stay positive when faced with hardship or how to maintain focus when faced with distractions? Life is about learning and growing. Grit is a growth mindset that teaches us to find a way when it doesn’t seem that there is one. To exhibit grit is to make the conscious decision that this pursuit (whatever it is) is going to work — it has to work and I will find a way to get it done.


As part of our series about the leadership lesson of accomplished business leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Natalie James. Natalie is a wife, mom of three, entrepreneur, owner and CEO of Toronto’s exclusive blow dry bar — Vent Blow Dry Bar. With a lifelong love/hate relationship with her own hair, Natalie spent hours learning different techniques for taming her unruly hair. Through her experience she realized the impact hair has on our overall confidence and mood. As Natalie was approaching 40, she found herself evaluating her life. For more than 20 years Natalie had gained valuable experience throughout her long career in politics and not-for-profit, and was fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel and meet various people all across the province and country. Throughout this time, she felt most inspired by the stories of female entrepreneurs, for their sense of adventure and willingness to take risks. They were women from all walks of life who had a vision and were deeply driven by that vision to achieve great things. Feeling unfulfilled by the predictability of her life path, Natalie set out to take a detour and leave the security of a good job to risk everything she and her husband had achieved for their family. She was determined to succeed and motivated to set an example for her two sons and daughter. Natalie’s desire for meaningful work and her desire to make an impact fueled her drive to change her life and find ways to help other women along the way. In July of 2017, Vent Blow Dry Bar opened its first location in Liberty Village, Toronto. Vent quickly gained momentum and has welcomed thousands of clients from the GTA and visitors from all across the world. Clients who have experienced Vent’s unique approach to affordable luxury and exceptional customer service. Dedicated to providing outstanding experiences, Natalie believes in challenging her team at Vent to be the best in Toronto and promotes a workplace culture that treats her team members like family. She believes that the best way to achieve an outstanding customer experience is to treat her team members as Vent’s most important asset. Vent Blow Dry Bar mission is to fill the gap in the hair industry by providing an alternative to the full-service salon. It is a place where women can get a professional service in a unique atmosphere complete with high quality beautiful finishes. A space designed to save busy women time, empower them and build their confidence through a self-care experience unlike any other.


Thank you so much for joining us Natalie! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Finally taking the leap to leave my career and start my business was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done. It had been something I had contemplated for a long time. I think there are points in life when you are faced with a choice, do I keep going or do I pivot and go for it. For me this feeling grew stronger and stronger as I began to get closer to turning 40.

I was inspired to change my life. I was tired of the predictability of my life, my job and my future. My husband and I knew for the most part what our lives would look like for the remainder of our careers and life thereafter. I was seeking excitement, change, an opportunity to do more and see just what I was capable of. While I had a dream of opening my own business for much of my life, which certainly played a large role in my decision, I wanted to experience all that life had to offer.

They say that best business ideas are the ones created out of a need for something that doesn’t exist. I am not suggesting that we invented blowouts, but as a busy working mom, I wanted a place that saved me time, was convenient, and made me feel great. It always angered me when I tried to book last minute with my hairdresser and was told the next available appointment was 4–6 weeks away. In response, I tried the discount chains only to find myself having to go home, frustrated with having to redo my hair myself. I simply wanted to remove the somewhat simple aspect from the standard salon setting and create an elevated experience that delivered blowouts in a convenient, luxury and affordable way that didn’t feel like another appointment.

Our mission at Vent Blow Dry Bar is to fill the gap in the hair industry by providing an alternative to the full-service salon. It is a place where women can get a professional service in a unique atmosphere complete with high quality beautiful finishes. A space designed to save busy women time, empower them and build their confidence through a self-care experience unlike any other.

Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

There were so many! During our construction phase I think just about anything that could go wrong did. I was significantly over-budget, facing delay after delay, suffered from multiple water leaks, and was (or at least I thought I was) about six weeks away from our grand opening and one week away from our millwork installation when I received a call from my husband.

My husband explained that the millworker who was hired, and given a sizeable deposit to complete our millwork, had not even started our project. Furthermore, they had accepted other projects that would prevent them from completing our job for several months and weren’t very interested in doing what they could to fix the problem. This came as a complete shock but it shouldn’t have. I had failed to stay on top of them and attend their shop to monitor their progress. I didn’t maintain sufficient communication or give it the attention it required.

Needless to say, this was a significant failure on my part and a setback that added to our list of expenses but I learned from the experience. I responded by dealing with this in the same manner I had with other challenges in my life, by identifying my goal and finding a way to get there.

In retrospect, this was one of those situations where a negative situation turned into a positive. I ended up working with a fantastic family company that shares Vent’s values and they were successful in bringing my image for Vent to reality and under budget! Needless to say, I made numerous visits to their shop to check on their progress, which helped to develop a great working relationship.

On a lot of days during the construction phase it felt I was taking one step forward and five back but I drove through the challenges and what I learned has been a tremendous benefit for other projects. It seems the more challenges you overcome, the better you get at being resilient and managing them.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

For me, grit and drive are not inherent traits that only some people are born with. I think that they are learned and developed by discovering how to overcome life’s challenges. Coming from very modest means, the desire to have more and do more in my life definitely contributed to my drive, but it was the formative experience of losing my father at the age of thirteen that instilled in me the determination and resilience to succeed.

Looking back, the manner in which I responded to my father’s death and the only way to move forward in my life was to work for what I needed and wanted. My mother had limited means and his death left my family with very little so I had to chase after what I wanted and work hard to take care of myself. Shortly after my father’s death I decided to get my first job, this required my mother to write a letter of permission in order to be hired at the age of thirteen. From there forward I often held two and three jobs until I completed college and moved into full-time employment long before giving that up to open Vent.

Starting your own business is exceptionally stressful and can very quickly become overwhelming. Possessing the drive I developed earlier in my life has been fundamental in working through the difficult days. Having had difficult experiences in life and learning how to respond to them is the training ground for being an entrepreneur. It is through these experiences that I learned how to cope and persevere through the stress and problems entrepreneurship presents without quitting, and while maintaining a growth mindset. I try to look at difficult experiences as opportunities — without them, I would not have the abilities I have today. I have carried this thinking into our customer service model for Vent — in the way we choose look at challenges as opportunities. Every business will have issues but what is so important is the response, which can demonstrate to your customers the capability and positive approach you will take when a challenge occurs.

So, how are things going today? How did Grit lead to your eventual success?

I am happier than I have ever been. There is something special about pursuing a dream that leaves you feeling fulfilled at the end of each day. Having meaningful work through which I am pursuing my vision for Vent provides purpose and a challenge in my life. And while each day has stressors, I am confident I will achieve my goals for Vent as I have learned how to overcome the challenges a business presents.

That doesn’t mean I have all the answers — but what grit develops in you is the determination to find ways to overcome, by asking others for help, growing through researching and learning, tapping your support network, thinking creatively and finding ways to overcome challenges when it doesn’t seem like any exist. I would also not say that I have reached the pinnacle of my success, far from it. But I know that my learned ability to persevere through life’s toughest days will keep pushing me to towards my vision of what Vent can achieve and of the type of woman I aspire to become.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can’t think of a mistake that left us laughing in hindsight but I can attest that looking back at our challenges, they don’t seem as bad as they did at the time. I think this helps to keep my positivity when encountering mistakes. The comic relief that my husband and I did share was our joke that we would wright a book about our experience and call it blood, sweat, tears and vomit. Yes, we experienced each of those through our build out!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I decided early on that at Vent, our business was designed not just for the benefit of the business owner, but for the benefit of our employees. I wanted to have a business that treated our number one asset, our team members and their well-being, as our top priority. I believe that by making my team, or as I often refer to them — my work family my priority, Vent would position itself to provide outstanding customer service. This coupled with Vent’s leadership practices has helped us to maintain that approach.

This didn’t come about by accident. As I was in the midst of the planning phase for Vent, my husband was completing his graduate degree in organizational leadership. It was through his learning that we evaluated the potential benefits of different leadership methodologies, and is what sold me on taking a unique approach with Vent. I would describe Vent’s leadership model as servant based, whereby we have developed a workplace culture of service to others, which starts with me and transitions through to our customers. We believe that by making our team a priority, that culture will transition through to how our team goes about their work and how our customers are treated. When you are having your hair or make-up done, you want the person doing it to love what they do and love the business they work within — our leadership strategy helps us to achieve that.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Burnout is a real risk for entrepreneurs because of the nature of starting a business. I think it goes beyond just feeling exhausted, overwhelmed or lacking engagement but is the feeling of resentment that can come from working long days, seven days a week for months and even years, sometimes without achieving your goals or realizing the rewards you may have anticipated. There are definitely days when my motivation is lower and I just need to step away and spend some time with family or doing something entirely different. Another tool I use to stave off burnout is having a support network including others who are having similar experiences. I have a number of friends I can reach out to when I need support and I get involved with other women in business, which helps to keep me motivated.

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

Without a doubt I would have to say that would be my husband. From day one he has been my biggest supporter, my right hand, my partner in everything. He has been by my side through all the ups and downs and is always there to help me with anything I need. This goes back to life before entrepreneurship, he supported me in my career and we have always gone into everything 50/50. He is a wonderful father to our three children and has always put our needs before his own.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I had the amazing opportunity back in 2014 to take a trip to Haiti to see how the relief mission on behalf of Canadians had been implemented after the devastating earthquake decimated the Country. It was a life changing trip for me, but if I’m being completely honest I really struggled upon returning home. What I experienced there hit me to the core, the assistance needed was beyond anything I could have ever imagined and it really made me question my purpose back home and what part I could play in improving the lives of people. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I could live a more purposeful life and build something that added value to the lives of others. I spent many weeks and months experiencing a whole range of emotions, from guilt to sadness to hope. I knew that I didn’t have the means to fix the problems that people of Haiti were facing, but I could play a small role in helping one person, and then that one person could help another. I’ve supported a friend (who I met while in Haiti) in acquiring medical tools to pursue his training and dream of becoming a doctor and I hope that one day I will be fortunate enough to have the success and resources to go back to Haiti and do more to help others improve the quality of their life.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)

We will all experience problems and challenges in our lives, what separates us is our ability to use them to create advantages for ourselves.

Mindset / Perspective Taking — Be accepting of life’s challenges. Facing failure can lead to frustration, but what grit has taught me is how to switch that initial reaction to determining the steps I need to take to address it and position myself for success. It’s important to fight the urge to ask “why me?” or feel sorry for yourself as this can lead to negative self-talk and feeling overwhelmed. Look at the issue as an opportunity to teach yourself how to turn problems into opportunities by learning from your mistakes or failures, which will help you to be successful in your future.

Vision & Sacrifice — Have something you are working towards in the future. A goal, a vision, a mission or an idea you can’t let go of. Something you love and are willing to sacrifice other areas of your life to pursue. You have to love what you do because if you decide to make it your entrepreneurial pursuit, it will be such a huge part of your life and to be successful you will need to give up something to make time to chase it down.

Look to others — Grit is a learned behaviour. Look to others who have demonstrated their ability to persevere through hardship and learn from them. Ask them how to stay positive when faced with hardship or how to maintain focus when faced with distractions? Life is about learning and growing. Grit is a growth mindset that teaches us to find a way when it doesn’t seem that there is one. To exhibit grit is to make the conscious decision that this pursuit (whatever it is) is going to work — it has to work and I will find a way to get it done.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

One of the things I feel called to do is help empower other women to do what makes them happy. We have one chance at life and although change can be very difficult, we need to feel supported by community to do the things we have always dreamed for ourselves. I have met some extraordinary women who have inspired me to push through and stay focused on my goals. I want to pay it forward and do the same for other women who are just starting out or who are maybe holding back because of fear of stepping outside their comfort zone. I truly believe in collaboration over competition, there is room for all of us to succeed.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can follow Vent Blow Dry Bar on Facebook and Instagram @ventblowdrybar and my personal Instagram @im.nataliejames

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!
Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Community//

Grit

by Dr Chantal Breytenbach, PhD
Corporate//

How Perseverance and Grit Can Help You Conquer Your Biggest Challenges

by Thrive Global Staff
Community//

Grit, The Most Overlooked Ingredient of Success: ”Giving up is not an option” With Sari Davidson, founder, owner, and CEO of BooginHead and Phil Laboon

by Phil Laboon

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.