In our Women in Business series, female CEOs and business leaders share their stories and weigh in on the challenges they face as women in their industries. In this installment, Lil Lovell talks about how she moved up as a bartender and grew her business. Lovell is the founder of Coyote Ugly, a chain of bars originating in New York City that is known for its female bartenders and portrayal in the 2000 film "Coyote Ugly."
Business News Daily: Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
Lil Lovell: Well, I went to NYU [New York University] and while I was at college, like most college kids, I bartended and waited tables. After I graduated from college, I actually worked on Wall Street for a year, but I made very little money, so I had to continue bartending and waiting tables. At this point I was in my 20s, but as a younger person you don't have a lot of future foresight, so I was making so much more money bartending that I decided to quit the Wall Street job and I continued bartending. And I started managing bars, and I just — in my mind, when I hit 24, I said to myself, I'll either open my own bar in the next year, or I'll go back to 9 to 5. It was just a natural progression for me to go from managing and bartending — I've done everything, I've bused tables. I mean, it's funny, because my son now is the dishwasher and the garbage guy at my pizza place in San Diego, and I was like, "You know what, I didn't do dishes, but I took plenty of garbage out," so don't worry about it.
It's interesting because when I opened Coyote Ugly, I was 24, 25 years old and I was already very popular. I had a very huge following, so when I opened the doors, it wasn't the struggle that some of the other, newer bar owners have. A few months after I opened the bar, the New York Times actually called me, and they said that they were doing an article on the best bartenders in New York City, and that I guess people had submitted my name for it. When they came down to interview me, they actually turned the story into something different, which was the fact that I was a woman owner. I think before that point they thought I was simply a bartender; I don't think they realized that I actually owned the bar that I was working at. That was really the first time it ever occurred to me that there was something to the fact that I was a woman owner. And I think, to me, I was raised with two progressive parents, and it truly didn't occur to me that I was doing anything special. And as I started meeting people, and as I started getting more connections in the industry — you know, whether it be bars, restaurants, nightclubs — I started realizing, especially at that time, in the '90s, that I really was one of the only female owners in New York City.
A lot of people ask, "How does it feel? How did it feel?" but I can't tell you that I felt any incredible pressure because I was just raised to know I could do whatever the hell I wanted to do. If I wanted to be president, I could be president. I mean, the only thing I ever had wasn't even as an owner, but as a bartender — I was short. I was a short woman, so I would have to prove myself as a bartender by making a lot of money in some of the bars that had never really hired women. I had that, and I think that [being a woman] actually worked to my advantage because I was able to make more deals or at least charm some people. I'm very low on charm these days, but back then, I had a lot.
BND: Do you feel like there were times that you faced sexism or other issues just being a woman in your industry?
Lovell: When I was waiting tables, and when I was bartending, yes, absolutely. I think that — they would promote men before me. I think that, also, there is a way men treat women that women do not treat [other] women in the same way. With the "make sure you're wearing something sexy, make sure…" and not that you shouldn't, but there were times I felt that that was my role. My role at that particular bar or restaurant was to be sexy, and they didn't care about anything else.
BND: So how did you deal with that while you were working?
Lovell: I wanted to make money — to me it was, you know, "So what?" I'll look sexy and I'll make a million bucks and I don't really care!" It didn't offend me, it was just how it was. I knew that it would've been very, very hard for me to move up the ranks in some of the places I worked. So, honestly, the way around that was to open my own place.
BND: How did the movie about your bar, "Coyote Ugly" affect your business?
Lovell: Well, I mean, you can't buy that kind of marketing. So, honestly, I had been working on another project — I was working on a fast food/health food chain. If you can believe it, I'm kind of a health nut. Nobody would ever think it because of Coyote Ugly but the reality is I eat very healthy and I've always exercised. But, when they approached me about the movie and it was actually taking shape, that's when I realized it was the chance of a lifetime to expand [the business], and you just don't get that kind of press normally.
BND: Do you think the business changed a lot after the movie came out? Do you think you changed?
Lovell: I think that the bar was wilder before, yes. And I think, the other thing is, it's a learning process to move out of New York City and to start opening bars around the country where there [could be] drinking and driving, whereas, New York City, you know, people walk or take a cab. I had to kind of change things to be more concerned with the areas that we were opening in. And I think I've changed because I've grown up. I'm not 25 anymore. I think that I've just evolved as a person, and I'm sure some of it is through Coyote Ugly — I love my business but now I've got a lot of people who work under me so I don't have to go to the bars every day. So I've changed. And the movie — it took me years to accept and acknowledge that the movie created a kind of celebrity for me. That's just so now who I am and it — there were years of being embarrassed when people would recognize me on the street or come and ask for my autograph and I was mortified, because I was a business woman and that was so odd to me. It was so surreal that I could own a bar and people would want to get my autograph or take a picture with me. It really has only been the last few years that I've embraced it. I'm realizing that Coyote Ugly is part of a kind of subculture — kind of a cult thing — so I've only recently embraced it.
The realization that I want people to understand is that this is not just about wild women, it's about women who are trying to do something more. So they're able to go work at this bar, where they're sexy, smart, witty and funny, and they can make money so they can do their other things. Most of my bartenders — they're going to college, they're getting their graduate degrees, they're moms, maybe they're supplementing their income from another job. I find it very empowering that through this movie and through our expansion, we've affected lives all over the world. And I'm sure some don't have the same experience, but I'll tell you that most of them do.
BND: What do you think makes a strong leader?
Lovell: I think you have to surround yourself with good people. One of the things that I see about people who fail is that they are very concerned about having people around them that are actually better at certain things. But, I feel that that's what you should look for — I want to surround myself with people who are good at things that I might not be as good at. I want to have a strong foundation around me in all areas, not just the areas that I excel at. I think that creates a stronger foundation for a business.
BND: What is your advice for other women looking to start their own business?
Lovell: One, you can never go into anything undercapitalized — that's the biggest mistake people make. And two, research. One of the biggest things I get, all over the country, is people emailing me and saying, "My town would be awesome with a Coyote Ugly in it," and it's awesome that they want that and they think that, but that's not always the reality if you go through the numbers. The reality is doing your research, finding out the things you need to do for your particular business, and part of that is looking up demographics and really immersing yourself and not letting passion guide you the whole way.