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“You must have events that connect employees”, Chelle Neff of Urban Betty and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

We also have a value system of “family first.” If any employee needs to take leave or spend time with family, we will automatically ensure that they get the time they need to spend with their loved ones. During the pandemic, many of our employees have been scared about their family getting sick or getting […]

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We also have a value system of “family first.” If any employee needs to take leave or spend time with family, we will automatically ensure that they get the time they need to spend with their loved ones. During the pandemic, many of our employees have been scared about their family getting sick or getting sick themselves and having to miss work. Once we let them know that their job was safe if they needed to take time off, it relieved that pressure. I always want my staff to know that their family is the most important thing. A place to do hair will still be around, but time with our family may not.


As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Chelle Neff.

Chelle Neff has been a leader in the U.S. salon industry since founding Urban Betty in 2005 and has more than 20 years of experience creating innovative practices in the salon and beauty worlds. Neff has successfully grown Urban Betty’s revenue year after year and today has a space that houses more than 60 employees. The first location was so successful that she opened the second Urban Betty Salon in 2019.

In addition to her work with Urban Betty, Neff is fascinated with Austin architecture. She and her husband, David J. Neff, created The Weird Homes Tour, and their first book, {Weird Homes: The People and Places That Keep Austin Strangely Wonderful}, was released in 2018.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I began my journey as an entrepreneur, first by being an employee in the salon industry. I knew from a young age that I wanted to do hair. I jumped at the offer to enroll in cosmetology school while in high school at sixteen. This opportunity was unique because it meant directing my path toward exploring a real passion of mine. During my junior and senior years, I attended half days of regular classes and a half-day in cosmetology school.

When I received my license, I started working behind the chair at Supercuts. I slowly worked my way up the ladder to more high-end salons. Five years later, I got a small suite at the Gallery of Salons in Austin, Texas, and became an independent contractor. That was my first stepping stone towards running my own business. In 2005, Urban Betty opened and now has two locations and just over 60 employees.

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

The most interesting thing that has happened to me since starting my career was founding a second company! My husband and I call our side hustle The Weird Homes Tour. We noticed an abundance of weird homes here in Austin and we were just nosey enough to want to go inside them. So, we started a tour that happens once a year in Austin. We are in our 5th year, have expanded into five other cities, and wrote a coffee table book. I never could have guessed this would all happen!

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

After doing hair for 21 years, I had lots of points of feeling burnout. I had to come up with creative ways to get myself inspired again. First, I would look at what was causing me to feel burned out. When I was doing weddings every weekend, doing regular hair during the week would exhaust me. I was stretching myself too thin and doing too many things. Look in your life where you say YES the most to the things you don’t want to do and then eliminate them. I stopped doing weddings at that point and only focused on what I loved to do most, which was hair color. I then found my passion again and wanted to go to work. I’ve had many cycles of this throughout my career. As human beings, once we’ve done something for a long time and learn new skills, it’s normal to upgrade and change our path.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Create a Code of Honor. In 2019, I had every member of my salon collectively create a Code of Honor for the company; a set of 10 simple, powerful rules that govern our salon company’s internal behavior. These rules determine how we treat one another and our guests. They are what people are willing to stand and defend and be held accountable for. They will keep the team moving when the pressure is on and help us work towards our vision. We printed and framed the Code of Honor and placed it in our office, break room, & color room. It changed our conversations with each employee and helped us resolve conflicts by treating our salon as a collective whole. Whenever we have an uncomfortable situation, we have something we can go back to and reference to see if it matches our code of honor. This made a significant difference in upgrading our culture to the next level.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

My favorite quote is, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” I heard this quote right after opening my salon company and feeling completely overwhelmed with all of the things I needed to do. I believe that all movement is forward movement. Even the smallest action like having coffee with another business owner — and asking them one question may help you get to where you want to go.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employee’s mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

Mental Wellness for employees is a big part of our company culture.

  1. You must have events that connect employees. We host two yearly, mandatory retreats that focus on self-empowerment and abundance. This is an all-day retreat that transforms our staff and motivates them to be their best selves. The session is led by Rebecca Hamm, a therapist/life coach, and we discuss conflicts, areas needing improvement, and anything else we’d like to share in a safe space. The first time we did this, it was powerful and motivated our staff to look inwards at themselves. It was also challenging for a lot of people. I know that I want a culture where people can be safe and vulnerable. If you’re not willing to work on yourself and look at how you need to improve your mental health, it will continuously be a struggle. I want a culture full of people who are willing to be vulnerable and work on themselves, and hosting this retreat reflects that.
  2. We have developed an innovative system of mentorship. We want to shatter the glass ceiling and elevate our industry through emotional growth. We also have mentors inside our company for every employee. Each mentor schedules a one-hour meeting per month to have a personal development session with their mentees. This ensures that the employee is growing, thriving, and emotionally happy with the company.
  3. We also allow employees a more flexible work schedule. Full time for our salon company is 32 hours per week. It has been proven that working less than 40 hours per week can lower stress and anxiety levels. This also increases the amount of time that our staff has to pursue mental health-boosting activities, like spending time with friends and exercising. When we first opened and asked everyone to work 40 hours per week, we noticed that a lot of them were burned out or, even worse, wanted to leave the company. After assessing the most critical company value to millennials with our business coach, we realized that it was “time” that the staff wanted, not more money. After that conversation, we switched the workweek to 32 hours.
  4. We also have a value system of “family first.” If any employee needs to take leave or spend time with family, we will automatically ensure that they get the time they need to spend with their loved ones. During the pandemic, many of our employees have been scared about their family getting sick or getting sick themselves and having to miss work. Once we let them know that their job was safe if they needed to take time off, it relieved that pressure. I always want my staff to know that their family is the most important thing. A place to do hair will still be around, but time with our family may not.
  5. I have an open-door policy with my staff. I’ve personally worked in salons where I was never able to talk to the salon owners. I didn’t like that because it felt like the CEOs were elusive and completely unapproachable as if they were in glass towers. It’s what motivated me to make things different at my own salon. Over the years, my company has grown from just one employee to now over 60, and I have a link where any employee can schedule to have a one-on-one coffee meeting that wishes to have one. I always want to maintain an open-door culture and be an approachable leader for my employees. Employees that feel heard often have better mental wellness.

These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?

I would suggest that it starts with you first. If you are not mentally well, your staff will be a reflection of that. Anyone who owns a company needs someone (preferably a professional) on their side to help them with anxiety and stress. I see a therapist twice a month. If I’m not outwardly showing that I can handle pressure and challenging situations, employees will not feel safe. You have to do the work yourself and be vulnerable around others. I had paid for a couple of my staff to see counselors when they felt overwhelmed or unsure. I also like to talk openly about my therapy and how much it has helped me. Your mind is like a gym. If you just work out (or go to therapy) when you don’t feel like you are in great shape, you’ll never get into great shape. You have to consistently do the work and be willing to share it with others.

From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious, and having other mental health issues? Can you explain?

Listening will be the first step toward effectively supporting another’s feelings of being stressed or anxious. Most of the time, all someone wants is to be heard. They don’t want an answer or you to aggressively try to help them. I have found when I simply “listen” to employees, it can go a long way. And you want them to come up with a solution or strategy on their own. That way, they can feel empowered to actually act on it. Another step is to not avoid tough conversations. I have opened up to all of my employees about my own struggles with mental health. By not making it taboo, you then open the door so that people can feel vulnerable and willing to have conversations with you about their mental health.

Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?

I know a lot of people will say, sleep right, eat right, and blah blah blah. We all know that song and dance and have heard it a million times. I will say what I just said above. Find someone you can talk to and schedule seeing them regularly. Make it a habit. It’s going to suck at first. But everything worth it takes time. The first year I started seeing my therapist, it was like torture. I was dreading what she was going to say I needed to change every time I saw her because deep down, I knew I already needed to make some difficult decisions regarding my relationships and family. I stuck with it and would not be the success or the person I am today without therapy. It’s like a gym for the mind! And we all need a good regular workout for the body, mind, and spirit.

Do you use any meditation, breathing, or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?

I am in constant motion and always looking ahead, so of course, I get anxious. And any person who is a busy body like me can find it hard to sit and meditate. I had to put it on my calendar so that I would be reminded of it every day. It pops up on my phone screen as a to-do as well. I have to give myself 10–15 minutes a day of some sort of mindfulness. Last year I started working out from home and using Peloton. I noticed that they also have meditation on their class lists. So now, every time after my workout, I automatically load a 10–15 minute meditation. Recently, to help reinforce this habit, I will let myself watch any sort of TV only if I have already meditated that day. If you have an hour to sit and watch The Real Housewives of … (this is me talking to myself), you can spare 10 minutes to meditate. Insert whatever timesuck you do, whether it be social media, gaming, or TV, into that sentence. We all are busy, and we have time for whatever we make time for. No excuses. Doing this practice has helped me to become more self-aware and calm starting the day. This makes a huge difference when I have conversations with others or check my email. Starting the day being in a place of peace and gratitude will significantly improve your health.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown. This book taught me about true belonging and how important it is to be yourself, surrounded by loving people. I am on a personal quest to be my authentic self, and this book reflects that. It’s okay to be different or a weirdo, and you should celebrate it! I often worry about what others think of me. It’s hard to keep everyone happy when you have a small business. I love anything that helps me to be okay with myself and to celebrate mistakes.

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. 🙂

I would love to inspire a movement of supporting other people’s successes. The world is not one pie for everyone. We each have our own pie! When one person is successful, they are never taking away from you. And the same goes for you as well. When you are doing well, you are not taking from another.

Your worth and all that you have are based on your emotional well-being and your beliefs surrounding that. Whenever you celebrate another person’s success, you draw that same energy onto yourself. I would love for everyone out there to want others to succeed and be happy for them!

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

Facebook: https://facebook.com/urbanbettysalon

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/urbanbetty/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/urbanbetty/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/urbanbetty

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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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

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