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Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs

On 12 November 2021, Vanilla Beane was inducted into Babson's Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs.

The first recipient was Berry Gordy. Those who followed are undeniably some of the most POWERFUL names in the world: Soichiro Honda, Diane von Fürstenberg, Rupert Murdoch., J. Willard Marriott, Sir. Richard Branson, Robert Kraft, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Jr., Steve Forbes Jr.

View video of the acceptance speech here.

Acceptance Speech by Jeni Hansen for Vanilla Beane:

I can feel the energy of a lot of hopes, dreams, and dedication in this room tonight, and I can tell you already that I am very impressed.

When they asked me to send over my remarks earlier this week, I got very excited and nervous because I never stick to a script, and I can never find enough words of gratitude for those who celebrate the life and legacy of my grandmother, Vanilla Beane.

She would love nothing more than to be here to thank you in person, but she would also say that she has a hard time expressing herself, and would be bashful about putting into words what it feels like to be recognized for this honor.

My grandmother is extremely shy. She started her business, Bené Millinery, and set out to turn a hobby into a second career after retirement. Making hats is the way that she found she could best express herself. When you’re shy, you like to blend in. You look for ways to not stand out in a crowd. She didn’t even like teaching millinery at the night school for adult education because that’s how much she dislikes public speaking. Instead, she found a way to speak through her craft, and found her calling using her hands and her heart to make an impact, and a living.

She didn’t set out to be an influencer, nor to win the affection of others, and she certainly never expected anyone outside of her family, city, nor church to know who she was.

Her hat store, affectionately called “the shop” was her retreat after retirement, after raising children, after raising grandchildren, and after her beloved husband passed away. Seven days a week, and until the wee hours, the shop is where you could find her.

She would never verbalize that she is an entrepreneur. Instead, she would tell you that she makes hats. Through her lens, entrepreneurship isn’t about what we think it is today. The formula for success doesn't require some of the complexities we are used to - Angel investors, pitches, first-class tickets, and discussions about disruption.

Success in her eyes is sharing her talents with others. Her bottom line is not what she brings in, but what she contributes to the world.

She may never forgive me for sharing her story with the world, but I will never apologize for that. She would love nothing more than to make hats, and not have to talk about it. It’s hard not to stand out when your talents are displayed in a Smithsonian museum, on a US Postal Service stamp, and when Chris Wallace makes you, “Power Player of the Week.”

One of the things I remain most inspired by, and the single-most important differentiator that I think will always set her apart from a lot of people, period, is the desire to do something without being recognized. Can you do something good for another person, can you make a difference without telling anyone else? Can you go out in the world, and do a good deed that no one may know about? Can you follow your passion without comparing yourself to others?

Packing up dozens of heavy hat drums and driving across the country at midnight, after closing up shop, and feeding a family. Expanding into new markets and territories, at that time, when there was no blueprint, and no one who really looked like her. Yes. That was her life every day.

When I have asked for business advice, and believe me I’ve tried to get her to dish on the real hardships, the real worries, the real “will I make it” moments, because I too want her secrets and sage advice to the burning question any entrepreneur has, especially, “what happens if I don’t make it?

It is not because of her shyness, but because of her perspective, and position in this world -- she doesn’t talk about those challenges and doubts.

If I’ve learned one thing from Vanilla Beane, it’s the someone that I will share with you, as it has really become my motto.

A woman came to the store one day. My mother answered the door and the woman said that she was there to pay for a scarf - a scarf she had taken from the store about 20 years before. She felt so incredibly bad about what she did, she wanted to make things right. My mom asked the woman to wait at the door and went to speak to my grandmother. Of course, no one told me this story, I had to hear it from a third-party, because my grandmother would never think to share the ways she is exemplary of "EVERYTHING WITH GRACE." My mom emerged again and went to the other side of the store to fetch a scarf. She handed it through the bars of the front gate and said, "my mother wants you to have this." The woman, who had brought her father for moral support, burst into tears. My grandmother is the moral support we all need.

I’ve come to realize that each and every one of us is a light in the world.

A word of advice - don’t be afraid to shine. Your light may be bright, it may be dim, but, if you are here on this earth - your light is certain. And, you may never ever know the full extent of how your presence lights the way for others.

Your light, like your life, is meant to be shared. And, how amazing is it when we learn that our sparkle isn’t diminished by sharing our light with others?

Her guidance would be:

  1. Do what you love

  2. Do right

  3. Know your value

Through her I've learned, it won’t always be easy, but it will be worth it.

I can’t tell you the number of times as an entrepreneur myself that I’ve considered that I could’ve or should’ve made a different choice. When I think of this woman who at one time earned only $4/week, and used to have to come through the back door of someone else’s home until she could build her own house, who with a needle and thread custom made her life into her legacy, I remember that I have nothing to fear. We are cut from the same cloth.

If she were here tonight, I would tell her there is no greater honor than to be her granddaughter.

When asked the best advice she had ever been given, my grandmother remembered something a teacher once said to her, "Love many. Trust Few. Learn to paddle your own canoe."

People only tell you how to succeed. They never tell you how to fail, or what happens when you do, or anything about the what if‘s, including the big one -- one if I don’t make it? Encouragement sometimes comes disguised as doubt.

If on this journey you meet 100 people who doubt your ability, 101 times you should say, “I will succeed, because I can.” The first time you say it, say it to yourself as an affirmation of why you started out in the first place.

Along the way, you’ll find perspective. While there may be no such thing as creating the perfect hat, there’s getting up tomorrow, starting again, and designing it another way. There is beauty in knowing that your work is never done, and what you may see as flaws are really accessories, custom-made.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart, for honoring my grandma in the most amazing way possible.

For anyone who has ever had a dream, but never thought you could make an impact: shed the worry, ignore the doubt, live the dream, do it alone, do it broke, do it tired.

If you need encouragement just know that there is a lady back home - who is in your corner, and through a trembling voice you will hear her message loud and clear - be fearless.

Do what you love, because the life you lead is the legacy you leave.

Jeni Hansen

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