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Ali Elman Is Redefining the Nail Industry

Ali Elman is a mother to a 3-year-old daughter (with another on the way) and the co-founder of Base Coat, a nail salon founded on the nail industry’s need for safer environments for clients and fair living wages and working conditions for technicians. “My business partner was inspired to found Base Coat when she was pregnant and couldn’t find any place to get her nails done that wasn’t toxic and didn’t make her feel sick,” Elman says. “I loved the idea of what a company like this could stand for and wanted to help be a part of taking it to the next level and growing this incredible brand.”

Co-founding Base Coat would not be Elman’s first time starting a business. With years of experience as a market researcher and estate manager under her belt, Elman has a keen sense and love for finding promising retail and restaurant spaces. She started her first business, Black Eye Coffee, in Denver in 2012. The community-centric coffee shop was an instant hit, and just a few years later Elman opened a second location in Capitol Hill, which Zagat recently dubbed as one of America’s “10 most Instagrammable coffee shops.”

Base Coat has had similar success; Elman and her co-founders Tran Wills and Sarah Simon have opened three locations (DTLA, Denver, and Aurora) with a fourth location opening soon in Fairfax. Elman and her co-founders strive to prove that their business model works—that a nail salon can be profitable for both the business and its employees, and that their work doesn’t have to compromise their health. “It’s incredibly rewarding to have a company that supports other women,” Elman says.

Elman discusses how she manages running two businesses as well as raising her daughter.

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As a mother as well as the founder of two successful companies—Black Eye Coffee and Base Coat—how do you make it all work?

You have to allocate your time very deliberately and learn how to trust your people to help you execute your vision. I have been blessed with fantastic partners and employees who all care deeply about these businesses. The key is to know that what you bring to the table is vital and what everyone else brings to the table is just as important. There are times I am stretched too thin and some things slip by me. It can be frustrating, but it’s part of the deal when you take on this kind of work and is a reminder that I can’t do it alone.

When did you first feel successful?

There are days I still don't feel successful. I think it depends on how you measure success. I have about 60 employees between the Black Eye and Base Coat locations. Sometimes I feel successful when we have a day where everything runs smoothly, although that is rarely the case in the service industry. I truly want all of my employees and customers to be happy in our spaces, and when they are that feels like a success to me.

As a successful female entrepreneur, what are some ways that you want to teach your daughters about "girl power”?

I was lucky enough to be raised in a family where I was never made aware of the possibility that because I was a girl, I couldn’t do “boy things.” It was a non-issue. I had three brothers, no sisters, and I just thought I could do anything they did—so that’s what I did. We went dirt biking, camping and fishing. One of my brothers did karate, so I did karate. I want to empower my daughters to not even think about the restrictions that she may have as a girl. I just want her to own her power, period.

Has there been anything about creating Base Coat that surprised you or inspired you in a way you didn't expect?

I’ve learned how important it is to have supportive women around you. That lesson has been my saving grace. It sounds cliché but without the love, commitment and support of my business partner and my loyal employees, Base Coat would not be where it is. I tend to think I can do everything myself, but realize now that I don't have to and there are actually others that truly want to help. I have learned that it is OK to lean on others.

What made you go from the restaurant business to the salon industry? What was 
the biggest adjustment for you between the two?

Hospitality is hospitality. I love making people feel good through service and a well-designed space. Base Coat was an easy transition because it is just an extension of this philosophy and had even greater potential than a restaurant. With servicesm you can truly turn someone’s day around and focus on making them feel taken care of for the time they are in the salon. The biggest adjustment was understanding the protocols of a salon and how to run scheduling.

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What's your advice for moms who are looking to start their own business?

It’s hard. Really hard. There is great risk and you are choosing a less predictable path with no safety net. That means no 401(k), no health insurance, no set salary or bonuses.
 All of this has to be worth it for you and needs to be thought out clearly. I don't think it’s fair to just say “follow your dreams” or “just go for it” because it isn't as simple as that, especially when you have a child or children to support. I think we have started to idealize what it is to be a business owner, and the truth is that being a full-time working mother is a huge feat. That said, it is hugely rewarding to watch a concept grow and flourish and know that it’s yours. I absolutely love what I do, and it’s so exciting that each day brings new challenges and small victories.

If you could have lunch with any business person/mogul/entrepreneur living or dead, who would it be and why?

There are so many I would love to meet. One person that would be incredible to have lunch with is Warren Buffet. He is such a unique individual, and his mind doesn't work like almost anyone else’s. It would be such an honor to pick his brain. Plus, he has donated so much to charity. I think he is an all-around wonderful human being.

Are there any new initiatives or products on the horizon for Base Coat?

We now have a complete product line that not only includes our polishes but the lotions, scrubs, oils and soaks that are used in our services. Our goal is to start pushing these out into the market for both retail and professional use.