Meet and Love: Laura O'Neill
1. First, please tell us a little bit about yourself and your company.
I’m the co-founder of Van Leeuwen Ice Cream which I started with my partners Ben and Pete Van Leeuwen out of an ice cream truck in NYC in 2008. We saw an opportunity to make and serve delicious ice cream made with the best possible ingredients and never any gums, stabilizers or fillers. We now make classic ice cream and vegan ice cream, have stores and trucks in NYC and LA (almost 22 locations!), and sell pints in grocery stores across the country. I am also the co-owner of Selamat Pagi, an Indonesian-inspired restaurant we opened in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 2012. I was born in Melbourne, Australia and moved to NYC in 2007. For the past two years I’ve been living in Los Angeles and traveling to NYC once a month.
2. What was your biggest inspiration for starting Van Leeuwen?
My partners Ben and Pete had driven Good Humor ice cream trucks during college so that’s where the truck idea came from, but what really inspired us was making a way better ice cream than had ever been available off a truck (or elsewhere). We started to look at how other ice creams were being made and the shortcuts that were being taken on the ingredient side and wanted to make something truly exceptional. Good food shouldn’t be a special occasion.
3. What is your favorite part about running your own business?
I’ve always really enjoyed getting to see people experience our ice cream. In the early days that was easy as it was just us working on the trucks, but as we’ve grown and our time has shifted to other areas of the business, nothing is more humbling than seeing how happy our ice cream makes people. We’ve also had a lot of team members who have grown with the company over the years; it’s been really cool to be able to create opportunities for them as well as attract new talent to help us be even better.
4. What is the most challenging aspect of running your own business?
Our story is unique as we started with just $60K in 2008 and didn’t take any outside investments until the 10 year mark, so we have had to work extremely hard and be scrappy and lean. I wouldn’t have done its any other way, but growing a food business without the luxury of a cash cushion can be stressful!
5. Please take us through an average day in the life of Laura O’Neill.
My day starts pretty early if I’m in LA as like to try and keep up with NYC time. I usually crush a few emails on my phone as soon as a wake up. I’m a reactionary worker for better or worse, and would rather reply too quick, than risk something getting lost in my inbox. Breakfast is coffee and muesli or steel-cut oats in the winter. Right now. we are building a bunch of new stores, so there are lots of moving parts to keep this on track. Since we founders are bi-coastal, we do a lot of Zoom meetings to connect with the various departments: operations, production, design and marketing.
For my NYC weeks, these meetings take place at Van Leeuwen HQ in Greenpoint, which is where we make our ice cream. On good days, I get to visit some of our stores, but as we’ve grown it’s become difficult to get to them all as much as we would like to. I’ve become obsessed with trying to hit a least 10,000 steps a day in NYC, so store visits make this a breeze. Lunch is something quick (but often skipped) and exercise is always in the evenings. I love to rock climb and try to go as often as I can. I also go to No Lights No Lycra in NYC and LA whenever I can. No Lights, No Lycra is a dance jam in the dark that started in Australia and that I organized in Brooklyn for seven years and still support as much as I can. When I'm in LA I’ll cook dinner with my boyfriend, Greg or go out. We used to play a lot of music together when we lived in NYC and are trying to do that more too. In NYC, I usually end up working pretty late and often grab dinner at the bar at Selamat Pagi, our restaurant. I always got to bed too late.
6. What are your everyday essentials for when you're on-the-go?
Coffee thermos, water bottle, AirPods, always a backpack, never a purse, comfy shoes.
7. You co-founded your business with a pair of brothers. As the only woman on the team, did you face any obstacles or challenges during the beginning stages of the company? If so, how did you overcome them?
A few times, I felt that I wasn’t seen at the same level of my male co-founders. I think sometimes this came from me not having the Van Leeuwen name, but other times it was someone assuming that "the girl one" wasn’t the boss. For lack of a lesser-used term, it’s important to "lean in" and speak up and set people straight. I’m confident, so this was never a problem for me.
8. In a 2018 interview with Ellevest, you stated you still had about 85% ownership of your company. Can you speak to the other 15% in regards to partnerships and strategy?
The original 15% is owned by a handful of our family and friends who believed in our idea and invested to make up the initial $60K we started the company with. Since we didn’t sell anymore equity until last year when we did our Series A, we were able to raise at a great valuation and only sell a small piece of the company to fuel our expansion. We were able to grow for our first tens years by being super lean and making sure we were actually profitable, so we could use profits to grow. Instead of selling equity when we needed money, we took on debt instead. Its wasn’t always easy, but I’m glad we did it this way.
9. If you could only have one flavor of ice cream for the rest of your life, what flavor would you choose.
Chocolate, for sure!
10. Lastly, what does "Love Squad" mean to you?
Community is extremely important to me and Love Squad provides an awesome platform to share and learn. I'm excited to be a part of it :)