She may be best known as one of the Food Network’s superstar chefs, an author, a premier hostess and the “first girlfriend of New York,” but Sandra Lee is also a champion of helping small business entrepreneurs chase their passions.
Lee was her own small business until millions of TV viewers discovered her and catapulted her brand. As the originator of the “semi-homemade” cooking concept, the multiple Emmy and Gracie Award winner’s talent was making would-be chefs feel as though they could pull together a delicious meal without stressing. “I always loved to cook and entertain,” she says, “and I was always a great baker. It was cheaper to make things at home than to go out, so that’s what I did. It was fun. It was when I got older that I wanted to learn the real art and skills of cooking from scratch.” Her ambition led her to Le Cordon Bleu for schooling, and the rest, of course, is history.
Lee says she feels blessed for many reasons, including her success as a chef and her status as a breast cancer survivor. Her cancer diagnosis and recovery encouraged her to be more focused on what makes her happy, and with whom and how she spends her time. Now, Lee is a philanthropist for causes like Stand Up to Cancer (she’s the recipient of the President’s Volunteer Service Award) while also holding intimate cooking classes and helping budget-conscious shoppers put together great meals.
“Even though I don’t come from means, I’ve built a nice lifestyle for myself and my family,” Lee says. “But you have to remember where you came from.” When she needed help in her career, she asked for it. And when she could help someone else, she jumped on the chance. Carol Black, former head of Lifetime Television, was one of Lee’s mentors. When Lee was 26 years old, Black awarded her with a plaque that read: “What would you achieve if you knew you could not fail?” It got her thinking that fear could truly cannibalize ambition. “It was the perfect quote for those who have drive,” Lee says.
Serving as brand ambassador for one of the country’s leading banking franchises, BBVA Compass, during their year of celebrating small business, Lee meets and admires many entrepreneurs with similar drive, including first-time small-business owners. She met Alexandra Stanton at a dinner for auto executive and business icon Lee Iacocca, and since then, not only has Lee become a close friend to Stanton, she’s also become a mentor. “Sandra has a glass-half-full, can-do attitude, and she is deeply generous with her ideas and support,” says Stanton. (Read more about Stanton’s venture below.)
Another aspect of Lee’s life that’s inextricably linked to success? Family. “Working for my family, working toward a future, believing that each day could be better than the last—that’s where I found the positive energy that sustains me,” she says. “Through all the challenges I’ve faced in life, there have been times when I really had to dig deep to find the urge to live bright. But it’s that urge that sustains me every day.”