Thursday, July 5, 2012

Member Insider: Cutting Edge Elite



What would you do if your boss sent you out to do a job without telling you what to do, where to go, or how to dress? If you are a resilient entrepreneur like Lucas Mendieta and Nathan Perry, you use those experiences to build your own staffing company that is founded in integrity, class, and respect for all individuals. Find out in this interview how these two ambitious young professionals have started Cutting Edge Elite during the worst recession in recent history, coped with inner fears and insecurities, all the while giving back to LGBT themed organizations and charities.

Damon L. Jacobs: So tell me how Cutting Edge Elite got started.
Lucas Mendieta: I was working in the business catering, assisting where I could, and freelancing. I knew I wanted to get more involved. While this was happening I met Nathan and we became great friends. I was staffing, assisting different caterers, event planners, on a tiny basis here and there. Nathan and I had a friendship, we trusted each other, and incorporated in November, 2007. Knock on wood, we are here 4 1/2 years later still going strong.

Damon L. Jacobs: And you do corporate events, non-for-profits, even weddings and bar mitzvahs?
Nathan Perry: We staff everything. Think of us as an event mercenary swat team. We staff all kind of caterers, all kinds of corporate clients.

Damon L. Jacobs: How did you meet?
Lucas Mendieta: We met while working at a bar. I was assigned by a staffing company to go to a work event and was told I would have a certain assignment. But when I got there I learned I would be bartending behind a full bar. They had every drink you could ever think of, and I had never tended bar a day in my life. Nathan was there. I looked right at him and said, “Hi I’m Lucas, sorry to bother you, but someone just sprung on me I’m a bartender. I’ve never bartended in my life. I am going to need some assistance.” Nathan was really good about helping me out.
Nathan Perry: I thought this was great. In staffing, bartending is the cool thing to do, so everyone says they can do it. But often they can’t. They’ll ask “Which one is the whiskey?” So I thought Lucas was cool because he said, “Hi, I’m your bartender today. And I don’t know how to bartend!” My first impression of him was, “Cool, I can work with this guy.” He was honest. We hung out after work and told each other all these horrible staffing stories. For me, I was told once not to go to an event dressed up. And when I showed I learned I was supposed to be in a tuxedo. The caterer came out of the tent screaming at me, “Why aren’t you ready? How could you be so stupid? Don’t you read your emails?” So Lucas and I started swapping stories about these kind of events. I eventually thought, “This is not how it’s supposed to work, it’s not supposed to be this stressful. It’s catering, it’s not that hard, it shouldn’t be filled with fear.” As I watched Lucas I saw he could manage staff, he has a gift with people. He can discipline staff but not in a way in that is degrading or angry or frustrated. It just snowballed after that.

Damon L. Jacobs: What was it like to start a new event staffing business in such an economically volatile time?
Lucas Mendieta: It was pretty hard. It was kind of ridiculous. The one thing we did have in our favor was that we were starting at the very bottom. We only had one way to go and that was up. We used that to our advantage, as opposed to companies that had seen their peak and were suddenly going straight down. We didn’t experience that, we were just getting our feet wet on a small scale. So we were going up in the midst of the economy going downhill. But still, we did a lot of running around, a lot of pulling our hair out, wondering if this was the right decision.

Damon L. Jacobs: How many of the events staffed by Cutting Edge Elite are LGBT focused?
Lucas Mendieta: It really depends. There are certain clients we partner up who do more LGBT events. Like, we partner up with Kurt Kretzchmar and Mike Watts of Cocktail Caterers whom we adore and love. They were the ones who introduced me to the NGLCCNY. We’ve also donated staff to Broadway Cares and to various NGLCCNY events such as Shining Stars. We work with Robyn Streisand and Lynda Lupino’s house and just donated staff for an AmFar event.

Damon L. Jacobs: So when you say "donate" you mean you are actually giving staff to fundraisers that raise money for LGBT charities?
Lucas Mendieta: Yes, we give bartenders, wait staff, pretty much everything when organizations want to work us. We’ll donate the wait staff, bartenders, coat check, hostesses.  We offer our services to help out fundraisers.

Damon L. Jacobs: What are the greatest rewards of this work for you?
Nathan Perry: We treat our staff very very well. That makes sense because we need their loyalty. We may not always be there at an event. So if a staff member hates us and resents us then the whole event is going to fall apart. I remember what it was like to be an actor, to be worried about a paycheck, have a boss screaming at me, and then going to an audition the next morning. I’d say the actors who work with us have a better audition the next day. That’s the hope, at least, and I do hear that back from our staff.
I would also like to think that Lucas and I have set a good example for a gay-owned business. A lot of what we do deals with the flesh. We have shirtless parties, big buff guys with muscles and all that. We deal with a lot of straight Midwestern actors looking for work who have never met a gay person before, and we treat them with respect. And even though we send them to sex themed parties and the guys are really sexy, we make sure they are treated well. I want to show these boys that there are nice gay guys out there and we are not the stereotypes they hear about it through the church. The best way is just to show them.
Lucas Mendieta: I also really enjoy getting to meet all these people. Jonathan D. Lovitz is a dear dear friend now. Or another gentleman named Sam Underwood started his own theater company, and tells me time and time again, “Lucas, I can’t thank you enough because you donated staff and collaborated with other collaborators to help me.” We were able to donate food and staff to help him launch his own theater company. He sent me an email saying, “You were a big reason why I succeeded, you were able to be flexible with my schedule, you were a big part of me getting to this point.” I get that a lot.

Damon L. Jacobs: What are the some of the biggest struggles?
Nathan Perry: Going through the recession, it was hard to see our business cut in half in a month. But a lot of the struggle too has been being the new kid on the block. It’s been hard to get people to try us. But once they try us, they are extremely happy.
Lucas Mendieta: To this day we’ve never made a sales call. All of our clients are through word-of-mouth. Or they meet us at an event and they like our chemistry. But I agree with Nathan, the economy has been hard.

Damon L. Jacobs: Has joining NGLCCNY assisted you in establishing your reputation and building Cutting Edge Elite?
Lucas Mendieta: Yes, I swear by it. Whenever I meet people at an M3, I encourage them to join. We’ve met so many amazing people through The Chamber and plenty of business has come through that.

Damon L. Jacobs: You are in the process of getting Certified as a Diverse Supplier through the Chamber. Why?
Nathan Perry: We’ve been engaging with more corporate clients, department stores, marketing firms. So to be Certified helps. They see that, they take notice.
Lucas Mendieta: For me personally, it’s been to show my family that someone in this community can succeed and can achieve. My family...can be a little narrow-minded. In South Carolina they are around a lot of different religions and most of them aren’t too keen on the LGBT community. They already have assumptions of what I could or couldn’t accomplish professionally. They assumed I would not be doing the best of anything. It was tough for me, I got scared. I had a lot more to prove to my family because they never really believed in me. They thought people in our community just went down the drain and end up getting a disease of some sort. It’s personal for me.

Damon L. Jacobs: Lucas, I think people would be surprised to know you have self-doubt. You always appear so cool and in control.
Lucas Mendieta: I’m scared. All the time. But I use it. I feed off that energy, I use it to move forward. I have definitely grown since I started. I had a lot more self-doubt when I started because of my personal life and my past and my history. I barely made it out of high school, let alone college, so the business is the last thing my parents thought I would ever succeed in. We didn’t part ways on good terms. I didn’t have a relationship with my family for a little bit. I got into a lot of bad situations, got in with the wrong crowd, did a lot of things I shouldn’t have done.

Damon L. Jacobs: What advice might you give to someone starting a business?
Nathan Perry: Emotionally when you are running your own business it is hard. There is no boss, no one to tell you, “Good job.” Sometimes you’re doing an incredible job - and a recession hits. So you have to find a way to tell yourself, “You are doing a good job.” Even when the money isn’t there, even when the business isn’t coming in. You can’t let the whole system affect your sense of accomplishment. Your business can be doing badly even when you are doing everything right. To get through that you just have to find a way to see you are doing the right thing. Even when the sales aren’t there, you are still doing the right thing.
Lucas Mendieta: And the end of the day you are only here once. If you have the drive, the passion, just go for it. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to cry. I can’t tell you how many time I did cry. I was doubting myself, thinking twice, or just trying to run away from it, scared of letting people down. But you have to go for it, what have you got to lose? You fall on your face, you get up, you dust yourself, you keep going.

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist who helps individuals and couples learn to experience more serenity and satisfaction in life by working effectively with issues related to anxiety, stress management, grief and loss, health issues, depression, anger management, addiction, ageism, HIV specific concerns, bullying trauma, and caretaking fatigue. He is also the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." To schedule a counseling visit or speaking engagement, call 347-227-7707, or email at Shouldless@gmail.com. An initial complimentary consultation is offered to NGLCCNY members, or people who are referred by NGLCCNY members.

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