Building Better Lives: One Table at a Time Carter Ellis - Founder, Ellis Furniture Co.

Carter Ellis is the founder of Ellis Furniture Co. with the goal of helping promote equality through better hiring practices. Carter and I connected during a cross-country road trip he took to explore best practices in job development.

Carter helped launch Loading Dock, a Raleigh, NC co-working space where he served as the Community manager. He helped the space grow to more than 120 members by creating a close-knit community through many hosted events ranging from happy hours to monthly omelet breakfasts. Carter has also been very involved in Step Up Ministry, a non-profit that works with adults and children to transform their lives through employment and life skills training.

He’s moving back to his hometown of Chattanooga to be with his family and get the company fully setup.

Here’s our interview:

Where have you been on your road trip?

I’ve been everywhere. I visited some folks in Memphis doing community development. It was a mix of for profit and non-profit work, including, Advance Memphis, Advance Staffing, and The Collective.

I then stayed with Michael Rhodes, formerly at Advance.  He’s now working on his Phd and a book on work and job development called “Practicing the King’s Economy” which actually comes out this April.  He introduced me to everyone he used as an example in his book and influenced most of folks I visted on the road trip.

I went from Memphis out to Denver to visit Andy Magel in Denver who started the Mile High Workshop. The have a very cool intensive 9-month job training program for people coming out of eviction and prison.  They are non-profit and really programmative and yet still fund the majority of what they do through contract manufacturing.

How do you see furniture changing the world?

In some ways, answering this question is part of the road trip I’m on.

I started building furniture because I wanted to be able to have a table in my house to do community and life together. I want to move into an area where I build tables both physically and also metaphorically, a place where everyone is welcome. I think a table symbolizes that.

I want to move into a low-income neighborhood where I can do BBQs on the weekend and build furniture during the week.

Why furniture? Honestly, I just like building furniture.

But in terms of strategy I do think craft industries or labor-intensive industries are the best for this type of job development.  Someone can start really early on part time who would add huge value by just sanding.  The job training is also stratified and would allow for 2-3 years of intensive carpentry instruction.

I want to hire people who we really need.  That’s the core point of it.  My employees are not a project. We need their help and that’s half the lesson we’re teaching.  We are investing in employment practices to take a chance on someone, but the whole end game is that everyone has value. We want to simply walk in that truth, even if it is messy at times.

The mission is job development and the strategy is business. There’s something about living in the real pressure of having to do good work that sells that forces excellence.

What has inspired you to make a difference, especially in regards to job development?

It comes from reading a book called ‘When Helping Hurts.’ It’s kind of like a crash course in community development.  It’s a faith-based book and the whole premise is that poverty is relational. The key principle is that you should go and be in the community, build relationships, and part of that includes putting business in that area.  It’s life together.  It’s why I wanted to build tables.

Evangelical Christianity can at times dismiss this… it oftentimes falls prey to separating the physical and spiritual or sacred and secular. Personally, I think God comes to make all things new and whole.  Everything is good and holy– from the the BBQ we eat to the table we make to the work we do – bread, wine, worship and work.  It’s all good.  It’s this holistic desire to enter into all of life that is so key….I want to join in the process of making all things new.

I want to work from the framework of “All things made new” – rather than just the half-story of a spiritual personal salvation.

I think Christianity is the most beautiful story of how man runs away from home and God comes to make home with man.  The idea of home is so central this – and living out home means building tables, practicing hospitality, and welcoming all.

There’s also an Old Testament law – gleaning –that backs up the concept of using business to alleviate poverty through job development. I’m ripping off the work done by Michael Rhodes here – God puts into law that mandates that business owners forgo profits, so that all people have access to work.  Farmers were required to leave the edges of the harvest in the field, so that those without access to work can glean what remains.   It’s important to give to charity, but it’s just as important, if not more, to provide people with work. In the Old Testament, this helped the most vulnerable, orphans, widows, and immigrants have a way to provide for themselves.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome to be successful in making a difference?

I thought about this idea for a year. I prayed about it a lot. I talked to a lot of people about it.

To be honest, I wrestled a lot with whether this idea was just me doing something ‘cool’ or whether this was a genuine desire.  I wanted to make sure it was really into this project for the right reasons and dug deep on my motivation. I wanted to make sure this was a true calling vs a selfish desire.  I didn’t want to jump in and help people if it was super ego-driven.

Fortunately, over the last year, I developed a lot of confidence as I explored doing this full time.  I realized this is what I want to use my life for, I want to do business in a way that gleans: we operate a business that makes a killer product and yet we leave money on the table so that others may have access to work. Profit’s great and necessary, but profit maximization isn’t the end goal.

Making the action decision to leave my job was also tough. I loved the community and friends I had in Raleigh as well as the people I worked with. But I realized that I wanted to do this in Chattanooga and that meant moving. When I made the decision, I sat down with  my boss, to let him know. Honestly, that discussion was really hard. I learned so much from him and already miss him and the company where I was at.

What advice do you have for people that want to change the world or follow their passion?

Honestly, I think it’s love.  The motivation has got to be love, not ego.  That’s what took me so long.  I want to do this because I know I’m loved and I don’t need to get it from others.  There is always a desire for approval, but honestly taking time to ask that question is important.  If you’re in it for ego, then it’s going to limit your effectiveness.  You will likely hurt yourself and others. It’s like Brene Brown’s saying – you’re already enough. I don’t need to succeed for my life to be worth something.

Then it becomes about joy. It’s not that it’s not hard or stressful, it is work and part of the process of joining in God’s work of making all things new means there’s a lot of grime that is exposed, in others, in the work itself and in yourself.  Yet walking in this story is one of pure joy. I do this for the sake of joy.

If you’re interested in potentially purchasing a table, follow Carter on Instagram @ellisfurnitureco