"It is more than a business for me: it is my calling and my life’s work."
Leesa Zelken, CEO (as she says, Clever Entertainment Organizer TM) of Send In The Clowns, is no less than a force to be reckoned with. Speaking to her about her company, where she started, what her process has been and what she provides for each and every joyous 'kid-centric' event - that she amplifies to the nth degree with beautiful, creative, fresh, unique, enchanting and sensational touches, no less - is like speaking to Mr. Rogers and what he set forth to create for children and learning.
I was lucky enough to work for this incredible woman several years ago as a party performer, and to this day, I proclaim her as being at the top of the list of best bosses anyone could ever work for. Not only did I get to create magic for children all over Los Angeles in the most beautiful costumes with the most epic props and games bringing her imagination to life, but she was incredibly supportive of my path (and still is to this day), extremely generous and always had my back. Needless to say, I can guarantee you each of her employees and performers could say the same about her, and because of that, we had her back with every twist and turn of a balloon animal and shake of a magic wand.
From epic celebrity celebrations to having me perform for children at a homeless shelter, Leesa's heart and creativity knows no bounds - read on for this magical human beings rise to being the leader in her field for 27 years, thus far...
After having moved to Los Angeles in 1989 to pursue a career in acting (and landing very notable co-star TV roles on shows such as Friends, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, to name a few), Leesa found herself performing for a friend's child's birthday party completely by chance and it landed her on what she calls the "party career trajectory." As the Universe always works, she was beginning to bubble on needing a career that could provide the 'rush' that she would get from acting and performance, as well as something that allowed for more control, not one of the highlight benefits of an acting career. "I donned a clown suit and performed a fun routine of activities I devised (...) I was the original “clowns are not scary" clown. It was a big hit, I was a natural, and extremely inspired and excited to find a perfect blend of performing and money making. I immediately saw this as an opportunity to start a business, came up with a catchy name, and learned the “tricks of the trade,” such as balloon making and face painting to get the ball rolling on these very basic beginnings of my business."
And so it began...
Jessie: What were the steps you took leading up to taking the leap into your business? How long was this period?
Leesa: In the beginning, I recognized that getting my name out there was the biggest goal. Keep in mind this was 1990/1991, long before social media existed. It was “old school” pound the pavement, pick up the phone approach. I knew I was onto something, but needed opportunities to create interest and word of mouth, which would lead to getting hired and getting paid…oh, yes, getting paid. So, along with my new balloon making and face painting skills (did I mention that I was a “natural” at those, too?) I reached out to local fair and festival coordinators, (was met with a few “no’s” but many welcoming “yes’s”) offering my services for free in exchange for being able to pass out my business card. Immediately, I booked jobs, created cash flow, and took the early steps to establishing my business.
J: When did you know it was time to take the leap full time into SITC? Had you set a specific date? Or did you follow a feeling?
L: Very quickly the interest in me, my business, and what I had to offer caught on. Clients were reaching out, along with their friends, and their friends. I was one of the few people offering services such as mine, and the demand was high. I was honing my “show” adding more services to it, and working non-stop weekend after weekend. I was good at what I did, but there was only one of me. It became very clear, very soon, that I needed to train and hire equally enthusiastic people to do what it was that I did, and this was probably the moment that my labor of love turned into a full time gig. (...) I didn’t follow a predictable path for starting a business. I had no business plan, no forethought into “starting something.” I just stumbled into what I did and learned literally everything I know and have expertise in by doing it day to day (...) Along the way, I learned some things about myself and life and others that added to my success: refrain from saying no to things that simply seem scary but say no to things that seem amiss (<--- Jumping in here to point out that Leesa has refrained from saying no when things seem simply scary because those are thoughts of her own making that are pointless to believe and could keep her frozen, as fearful thoughts do to so many! And saying no when things seem amiss? That's following her wisdom, her gut instinct, which is ALWAYS right. Carry on...), reach out to others for help and support, feast or famine is the way of business and both are necessary and good, have fun in whatever you do.
J: Did you ever have doubts or fears in the beginning?
L: In the beginning I was quite fearless. The quick success, easy money, and—I’ll say it again—“the control” were all exhilarating. I always felt like a rock star, either as a performer or as a party planner. I provided a service for people for a happy occasion and the vibe around what I did and what I offered was pretty positive. I always had cash flow, because of the way in which the operations of my business run, and there was always a confidence in making money and securing clients. In the more recent years, there has been more competition, more changes with social media, and more skepticism on the part of clients, due to financial constraints and just the changing nature of the world, and these things have me more doubtful and fearful as a business owner, at times.
J: Did you have an investor?
L: Nope. Nada. Never. No investor. I only pay for what I can afford when I can afford it. That has always been my approach. If you are running a business at a deficit you are running a business in fear-mode and clients feel that. I run my business in abundance, and that infuses my interactions with clients and staff. (<-- I love this. When we are moving through life in fear-mode that others feel? That is believing our thinking that makes us feel desperate and I can tell you with all of me that the Universe does not respond to desperate energy... ever. She's right on the money).
J: Do you ever have fears to this day? What do they feel like and how do you manage them? What makes you peaceful in these moments?
L: I am very lucky that for the past 27 years I have flourished in my business. I have an 18 year old daughter, headed to Barnard College at Columbia University, and I have been fortunate to run and grown a successful business for all these years, while partaking thoroughly in my “mom-life.” My business has brought me great peace and balance, when the craziness of parenting sets in, and my parenting of a daughter has been more robust because of the role model I have been for her, as I have devoted myself to my work that I love and from which I attain great pride and joy. I think that for me, having one without the other (parenting/business owning) might feel empty, but having both fulfills me in ways that allay all fears and allow for more peace.
J: How do you mentally manage the waves of business that are inevitable?
L: I get pro-active when things seem out of control. I think it is important to not wallow in the dips and bumps in business, but find outlets for revamping, refreshing, and reinventing. Plus, exercise is a great right brain/left brain “workout” and very rejuvenating when I need to step away from “all things party” and give myself a brain break or a kick-start. Thank you, Spin Class, and Pilates for providing great outlets to my work detours and plateaus! (<-- Also, what happens when we work out? We're left feeling more peaceful. When we're peaceful, we naturally make room for fresh, creative thinking to solve a problem, move us forward, or give us fun new ideas!)
J: Any crazy stories to share?
L: In the kiddie party business there is no shortage of crazy stories: like the time we were asked to deliver elephants to an event with just 3 days notice (the elephants were all booked up, but we did manage 2 camels, a giraffe, and a zebra), or the time that our Dorothy character showed up to an event missing one ruby slipper, but managed to find a pair 2 sizes too small on the wicked witch prop for temporary use (her feet, oy—her poor feet!), or the times (yes times) some of our party princesses had to pull off to the side of the FREEWAY with a broken down car in full princess ATTIRE!, and on and on…. Bottom Line: we have a CAN-DO attitude no matter what the “crazy."
J: Any advice for people who are considering taking the leap into their own business?
L: Well, since I didn’t “leap” but “sashayed”, I would probably recommend the latter. Seriously, just love what you do and the rest really does seem to follow. Dive in because of a passion you have, and stay true to your goals. Honor those around you who help you grow and lend support to your business, monetarily and otherwise. Act with integrity and believe in the fact that there is plenty to go around.
J: Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
L: Yes. I most especially want to share this one aspect of my business that I never could have predicted, and something that specifically speaks to my relationship with you, Jessie. I have often said, over the years, “I am only as good as the people I have representing me”, and this adage has really been the cornerstone of my business success. I have been fortunate enough to gather and hire amazing staff, and colleagues to be a conduit to many of my clients. Business owners often talk about how “hiring” and “maintaining” great staff is the hardest part of managing a business. For me, this has never been the case. Not only have my staff over the years astounded me with their commitment, energy, and creativity, but many have become dear friends of mine, and of each other. I have seen these dear friends get married, have babies, and find other fulfilling businesses and careers, and many have remarked how SITC has influenced them in some way or another in these endeavors. Not only can I revel in the accomplishment of a great business with great clients, but moreover I can feel deep gratitude for the people of SITC who helped create this well-oiled party machine.
As Leesa said, Send In The Clowns has absolutely influenced me in braving the world of entrepreneurship, but not in the way you might think. Like the rest of my work and what I share with you all, the feeling Leesa left with me after graduating from her company is what stays with me to this day. Having a boss I admired and respected, standing in her purpose and seeing the strength and joy that came from that is what will always provide a touchstone example for me for the rest of my days. My dear colleagues Molly and Heather wholeheartedly agree and jumped at the opportunity to share their love for Leesa...
From Heather: "What I've always appreciated about Leesa, and found so inspiring, is how she puts her whole heart into each event we do. Whether it's a new client or a repeat, she puts all of herself into the creative effort to make sure each party is fun, flawless and unique for that family. There is never any question about how much she cares about her business and the care and effort that goes into each party."
From Molly: "One of my favorite things about working for Leesa was how appreciative she was about a job well done. You could tell she meant every word and it was incredibly motivating to feel so valued as a team member. I've worked in many industries and it has always stuck out to me how much Leesa recognized and made you feel appreciated for your work. I also loved/love how Leesa really enjoys creating and imagining party concepts from thin air. You can tell it brings her true creative joy and isn't just a job or career or company to her. It's genuine fulfillment and it's such a beautiful thing to see."
Finally, a true testament to what it is like to stand in your purpose and allow wisdom to continue to guide you and allow life to unfold in front of you. Leesa's final sentiment when talking about her beloved company: "I have nurtured it, cared for it, struggled with it, and honored it, much as a parent does with a child. Moreover, I have trusted Send In The Clowns to lead the way, growing and developing at just the right times, maturing and leading when called upon to do so, pausing and re-inventing when necessary."
Thank you, Leesa, for being one of my, and so many others, greatest teachers by standing in your purpose, following your wisdom, and letting life pull you forward. What a gift to us all!
All my love and see you next week,