By Bailey Loosemore, Courier Journal
When she graduated high school in 2013, Chelsea Ellis-Hogan was given a choice: Attend college to earn a business degree or take a deep dive into the asphalt industry at Sam Ellis University.
The latter option, admittedly, was a fictional school dreamed up by its namesake, Ellis-Hogan’s dad.
But his pitch was enticing. The elder Ellis would teach his daughter how to run a company through hands-on experience. And eventually, the reins to the family-owned paving business would be hers.
She signed up for Sam Ellis U.
Now, Ellis-Hogan, a 26-year-old Black woman, is the majority owner of Jim Reynolds Asphalt, founded by her great uncle in the 1990s.
She leads the business from its original home in Smoketown, hiring most workers from the historically Black neighborhood south of downtown.
And she’s helping change the face of the overwhelmingly white, male construction world.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 58,000 of the 10.7 million people employed in the construction industry are Black women – less than 1%.
“I just laugh about it because I know everything about me is different,” Ellis-Hogan said. “I’m young, I’m a minority, I’m a woman, as well. I’m the complete opposite of what most people expect in the industry. I love it. It shows whatever we desire to do, we can do it.”
The idea that Ellis-Hogan could build her own path was instilled in her from a young age by her dad, who owned an outdoor clean-up company before joining Jim Reynolds.
Ellis was diagnosed with dyslexia and never attended college, his daughter said. He had his first child at age 16 and didn’t have the same opportunities as his peers.
“He had no choice but to be an entrepreneur,” Ellis-Hogan said.
Ellis’ hard work has enabled Ellis-Hogan and her two siblings – who also work at Jim Reynolds – to have choices he didn’t. But he’s always made it clear to them that other people aren’t as lucky. And if someone needs a leg up, you lend it.
“I remember even as a kid looking at applications that was on my father’s desk where it was grown men not able to spell simple words, but my father was giving them jobs,” Ellis-Hogan said. “People who was just coming out of the prison system, he was giving them jobs. Being raised around that … it made us all want to give back and do more and be a part of something bigger.”
Ellis, who retains partial ownership of Jim Reynolds, said it means a lot for his daughter to enter into the family business, and he hopes to see her grow it to a level past where he could, taking on multi-million-dollar contracts for projects citywide.
She’s got the drive and connections to do so, he said. And combined with her passion for giving people a chance, she has a real potential for making change in Louisville’s underserved communities.
“It makes me very, very happy and serene every time I get up and come to the office and see what Chelsea’s doing and how she’s helping people, changing people’s mindsets,” Ellis said.
“It means a lot because she could have went any direction she wanted to go. Chelsea’s a very talented woman. She could have started her own business. But she decided to be part of my dream, and that is to have a business that we can pass down from generation to generation to generation.”
That dream and the family’s generosity have been an inspiration to Yusef Bibb, 34, who landed at the asphalt company in 2019.
He met Ellis-Hogan through MAF Gallery & Cafe, a coffee shop she co-owned on Barret Avenue that has since closed. The connection led him to Ellis, who encouraged him to pursue his own business – and gave him a job so he could build up capital.
“I ended up very much liking the whole asphalt industry. I actually fell in love with it through the love that Chelsea and Mr. Ellis have for it,” said Bibb, who grew up in Smoketown, down the street from the Jim Reynolds office. “… Just working with them, it showed me how to take pride in what I do.”
Bibb recently left the company after two years to work full time on his own endeavors, including a personal-professional development training program under the name Kocoon Online Academy. He currently has contracts to conduct classes with YouthBuild, Goodwill and Jim Reynolds.
“I look up to Mr. Ellis as a father figure. I look at Chelsea as my sister,” Bibb said. “… I feel like they’re a model of not only business but how a family should work. I greatly appreciate them to allow me to have the opportunity to even experience that.”
Ellis-Hogan said entrepreneurship can open doors for people, allowing them to build personal wealth while also contributing to their communities.
That’s especially important in a neighborhood like Smoketown, where the median household income is below $32,000 – 56% of the median across Jefferson County, as a whole.
“When people have access to information and knowledge about business, it can change things for them,” Ellis-Hogan said. “… It makes all of us passionate to just be an example in our community that, hey, we’re here, we’re trying to do it, we’re trying to improve and learn about our finances. You can do it, too.”