Business Women & Money Issues

I recently spoke at a culinary professionals conference and decided it would be fun to speak candidly about what so many women in business struggle with; money. More specifically, asking for and taking what we deserve in a culture that largely believes we should accept less simply because of our sex. I’ve never have and never will accept this and have spent my career empowering myself and others to be loud, be the squeaky wheel, and take that sass to the bank!

I’ve been a food stylist, chef and author for 30 years in Hollywood. My company, Denise Vivaldo Group, Inc., continues to thrive through good times and bad. I’m good at making money and I like money. I like being paid what I’m worth and, by being honest, I find it easier to get what I want from my clients.

“Hope” is not a strategy.

I gave up a full-time job as an executive chef with extraordinary benefits in the ‘80s so I’d to have time to learn to be a writer and write my first book. Again, in the ‘90s, I gave up my lucrative catering business to pursue food styling on a full time basis. I found that hope was not going to help me reach my goals, ie “If only I could publish a book” or, “If only Bon Appetit would hire me.”

Instead, I taught myself simple money planning. How much money did I need every month? I was single, buying a condo, keeping my paid off 8 year-old BMW pristine; how much wine could I buy? What if my cat got sick? Every month I made a personal profit and loss statement with a pencil and paper. I still keep it simple, and I have a bookkeeper. I know how much money I have coming in and I decide how much money goes out. You have to make a budget and stick to it. You’ve got to be your own boss, and a proper boss always has a clear budget.

The Qualities of Wealth or a Princess Charming.

I grew up in a family where my mother had been born poor as dirt. When my father made a few bucks she was thrilled, and she loved to shop BUT she was constantly hiding what she bought or lying about the price or telling my dad, “I got it on sale!”

I decided early on that that was horseshit. I went to work at 13, and my money was my money. I put my first husband through college and dental school. Then he fell in love with marijuana and a tall blonde; not a good investment on my part. Seven years and $140,000 dollars later, I was divorced.

I went into my thirties with two dimes to rub together. My Prince Charming had turned out to be the only poor dentist in the history of the profession. I decided that I’d better take care of myself because no one else was going to. I got smarter and wiser.

I went to work figuring out what I wanted from money. I wanted a career that was interesting, fun and would pay me enough to support myself and then some. Not a salary; a career. No ceilings. No statistics of being paid less. As I moved up in kitchens, I always I asked the man whose job I wanted, “How much are you getting paid?” When I was promoted and they offered me less, I said, “No. I want what you were paying Dick! Oh, his name isn’t Dick? My mistake. I guess he just has a dick.”

Why would I take less when I was of equal value or even better? In several jobs, I approached the owners with bonus structures. Did I always get it? No, but I asked. I learned to sell my ideas.

Divorce, Death, and salaried jobs are coming to an end. Life gets messy. You need to be financially solid for you. And what lovely modeling for your children.

Is it a challenge to value yourself in all aspects of your life? 
Self-worth and net-worth? Hell yes. Women traditionally have been valued for their looks not their minds. Or, in the words of the eternally brilliant Joan Rivers, “I don’t think any man ever put his hand up my skirt looking for a library card.” Joan Rivers made and lost several fortunes and was widowed poor but died rich after she took control of her own finances.

Statistics will tell you that women make less money than men. Statistics show us in the hospitality industry woman are not promoted as often as men. As women get older in our business we are called seasoned, men are called experienced.

In the ‘80s, both men and women told me told me I couldn’t be a chef because I was a girl. I couldn’t own my own catering business because I wouldn’t be able to run a Hispanic crew. I couldn’t break into food styling because it was such a small market. Everyone one of them was wrong.

You have to dig deep and believe in yourself. When you are broke, and at some point that will probably happen, that’s when you set your sights higher and look for the best job, project or deal you can. You’re already broke, what do you have to lose?

I have been broke a few times in my career but never poor. To feel and be successful is a state of mind. Determine your own net worth. And learn to sell yourself! Sell yourself, your ideas, your brilliance.

When you work cheap, people don’t respect you. Because you work cheap, they know you don’t know your worth! Put another way, when people ask me to work for the exposure it will give me, I ask, “Like Frostbite?”

Grasping the impact of recent economic changes on your life and looking ahead at the long term.

Publishing, blogging and digital photography. Have these things made an impact of my business? Of course they have. And every few years another recession…ain’t life grand. Advertising budgets are down. My network is retiring or being laid off. I’m taking orders from art directors who are 26, live in their parents’ home, don’t own china, and are telling me how “how-to-entertain” ads should look. Really? I’ve given 10,000 parties. Written nine books. But do I still want to work? Yes. And I have people who want a paycheck! Yes, I still work out there in the trenches. I have to. I want to win.

Am I looking forward to another new future? Yes, and guess what? The best advice I got was from Ina Pinkney who said, “Denise, take everything you know and pivot.” What do I know and what will people pay me for? My food knowledge and my Hollywood stories. Will people pay me to eat fabulous food and tell stories? I’m gonna find out! If the answer is yes, I can talk until they close the box. Ask yourself what makes you special and stand out from the crowd.

It’s never going to be smooth. It’s not how much money you make, it’s how you plan and save. You need to have your own accounts. And keep them private.

What it means to be in control of your own financial destiny.

I am so grateful I remarried a man that thinks I’m better than sliced bread. He’s a hard worker and has made a great living but we still have our separate money and our together money. Has he helped me? Yes, with counseling and advice but not loans. Has he paid the rent a few times? Yes, but I took him on expensive vacations and the debt paid with interest. We found a way to be supportive and plan for our future. A husband’s income can disappear. With that in mind, I have been my own financial planner. Have I made mistakes? Of course. Have I been in charge and made my own decisions? Yes. Have I done alright? Yes. Do I have regrets? No, I’ve lived like I wanted.

I am a firm believer in a yearly wish list. I want to visit Nepal, paint more, buy a huge expensive set of copper pans, save for a facelift and donate some money to something bigger than me. Actually, I’ve decided I have enough money. And guess what? Always have had enough money even when I thought I didn’t. Money is a state of mind. It’s only a tool to move you along the road, it ain’t the journey.

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