“I feel very wrapped up in cords. As a 30-year producer, I am ashamed,” jokes Sheri Salata, former President of OWN, now co-founder of Story, a brand and media company launched nine months ago with lifelong friend Nancy Hala.
We’re sitting in the Garden Room at Salata’s Los Feliz home. She moved in about a year ago. On the coffee table is podcasting equipment (“ordered on Amazon and here in two days,” she says) and a pile of books, including one on meditation, that aren’t there for show. They’ve been thumbed many times; covers creased, fingerprints on all pages.
The women are on single-syllable name terms with each other: “Nance” and “Sher” as they affectionately call each other, have been friends for 26 years. They met in Chicago through Nancy’s ex-husband, Chris, who worked with Sheri at the time at an advertising agency. Chris brought her home to meet his then-wife. “Sure enough,” says Nancy, “I walked in the door, put my stuff on the table, and it was instant friendship affinity.”
The women bonded over a love of books, stories, Bruce Springsteen, and cocktail hour, launching what Nancy calls “our 26 year conversation that we’re still having today.”
Outside of that first meeting, their story really starts with stories—a book club, in which they were the only members. “We were very serious about it,” says Nancy, recalling the first books they chose: Mona Simpson’s "Anywhere But Here" and Wally Lamb’s "She’s Come Undone." At the time Sheri lived in a tiny studio apartment and they’d walk to Barbara’s Book Store (“not there anymore”) to buy their books (“with great ceremony and ritual”) and then walk across the street to Bird Place Bar to discuss, with pen and paper in hand. “And then we started writing stories,” says Nancy. “It is the greatest joy in the world for me,” says Nancy, “to tell Sheri something, or to listen to her tell me something because we unpack it from every angle. She’s the one person in the world who does not care that I repeat myself, because I do. Sheri loves to hear all different iterations of the same idea.”
“I do,” chimes in Sheri. “I do. I just love the details of stories.”
Story in all its forms has been part of their “friendship DNA.” Today, they are proud to be developing a company that is “very authentically our own.”
“We wanted to do the things we loved. Work with people we really enjoy. We wanted to spend our days happy and excited. It makes so much sense that the focal point would be storytelling. That is the one thing that we both have been orbiting in our careers for decades,” explains Hala.
Careers, which, have been rather storied themselves. Sheri has always been a go-get-‘em worker, lapping up the midnight oil her entire life. She walked in the Oprah door in 1995, rose through the ranks to role of executive producer—the consummate storyteller, crafting one story after the next for audiences all over the world. When she made the decision to finally exit, she walked out of the door as President of OWN. These are not small-career potatoes. This is the whole Thanksgiving meal. Plus dessert. The kind of career trajectory that we champion.
Hala has been a storyteller in her own work as well. A writer and brand storyteller, she ran her own company while raising two kids solo. A single mom by the time her children were four and seven, Hala knew that she wanted to be able to stay home. So she started what she dubs “my own little writing company.”
“I think Sheri had anxiety for me. I didn’t have a steady paycheck coming in. I was very entrepreneurial. When you’re self-employed there is very much a dance of cash flow. So I got used to that quite quickly. I had to knock the mortgage out every month, I had two kids to raise, make dinner every night. And I had to write a bunch of articles, annual reports, and ghostwrite books so that I could keep the family going. After a while, you just get used to the shifting sands. But what I really liked that I could work 4-5 hours a day. I didn’t need to be in the office.”
Hala also had the ability to write on subjects she and Salata joke, she knew, “nothing about.”
“You were pullin’ the rabbit out of the hat, man,” says Salata. “And quite successfully.”
They laugh about one particular 5,000-word piece. “I was asked to write an article on commodities. As I was saying yes, I had the phone to my shoulder and I’m typing on my laptop 'What is a commodity?'”
“I so admired her,” says Sheri. “I could see in my friend this totally fearless quality that I didn’t have myself. I was a little bit of a safe Susie, going in with my lunch pail.” 80-90 hour weeks and a 24/7 mentality were her norm. “Nancy was always the most understanding,” she says of their friendship during that time and her dedication to her career.
It’s why they gel. “We’re in concentric circles,” says Sheri. “In the middle, we’re super alike, find the same things funny, like the same kind of storytelling, and adore one another.” In the outer parts they are admittedly different.
She refers to their initial talks as the “chardonnay dream conversations,”—the some days, the one days.
The “one day” is now.
While we’re chatting Sheri can’t help but produce. “Nance,” she says, “can you scoot your chair around a little this way, just so the eye line is better for her?” she says referring to me. “It’s gonna bother me.” Nancy scoots. We all settle back in.
Nancy has just come from a morning workout of intense interval training. As such, she’s moving “slower” than usual. It’s all part of the life the pair is actualizing at “Belle Vie.” The “name” of Salata’s new home replete with white bright walls, a lit fireplace warming the living room, a kitchen island that makes you salivate, and a pool so blue it could be called Sinatra. In the formal dining room, the co-founders have taped up their first month of content. Nancy likes to look at it on the wall; it helps them visualize and understand how the stories will weave together. Two English bulldogs (Sheri’s), a cocker spaniel (Hala’s) roam the home.
“When she bought it she half-jokingly named it Belle Vie,” shares Hala, “which is French for beautiful life.” Salata laughs loudly. “She’s not some fancy lady who names her properties,” explains her friend who has moved into the guest suite on the property in order to really focus on the first year of the company. They are calling this time together “A Year at Belle Vie,” and they’ve already sold a book of the same title to be published by Harper Wave. “Our agent calls it Eat, Pray, Love in your own backyard,” says Hala.
“The dream for our company is part of the dream for our lives,” shares Sheri. “It’s not separate. It’s an integrated dream. We’re working but we’re living.” It’s all baked into the Story layers.
“For part of our year at Belle Vie, which is foundational to the first year of our company, I’ve brought in the experts, just like the Oprah Show days,” explains Sheri. “We have a love coach and a sex therapist who is part of the team. We do private sessions that we’re chronicling. I think that, honestly, great love is on his way.” Of “those days,” Sheri has nothing but positive feelings, aware that she learned from the best; studied soul with a woman who built an empire. Now she wants to build her own.
“We realized that to build and sustain a Story Empire, which is what we really want to do, we have to be firing on all cylinders,” Nancy says. “So then we started thinking about getting in the best shape of our lives, focusing on spirituality and happiness, meditating twice a day, eating a clean plant-based nutritional program, working out furiously, losing weight, and again, freedom, growth, and joy.”
“And,” adds Salata, “to call in soul mate love.” An essential they will not sacrifice.
But what about the nose to grindstone work? The kind that Sheri spent over two decades of her life committed to? They’re not about that life. At least anymore.
Set to launch at the beginning of May, Story, will be an umbrella brand. As a daily practice they focus on what they call their “pillars” (Spirituality and Happiness, Soul Mate Love and Great Romance, Health and Wellness) and are considering this their year of radical self-care and transformation. With a print division, a production studio named Orange Dragon, and media company, they’ve have already optioned The Gilded Razor, developing the Sam Lansky novel for TV with Nate Berkus, whom Sheri has known from the Oprah Show, and his husband Jeremiah Brent. In fact, Sheri married them at the New York Public Library. Orange Dragon was launched during the middle of a dinner (ordered by neighborhood favorite Little Dom’s) in Salata’s backyard. “We said, ‘Do you want to throw in with us?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’” A few weeks later they found their first book.
If this all seems too simple and easy to be true, it’s not. “I come from the school of hard work,” says Sheri, “I worked my ass off. But I don’t think I was right about that. If you are willing to let some things germinate and let timing come together and gather momentum, build from the inside out, I think there is a much easier process that we’re exploring now. It’s really illuminating to me,” she says. “After a fabulous career, I see that I have much more to learn about creativity and innovation and divine timing. There is a freedom and a joy that I’m unpacking that startles me.”
“It startles me too,” adds Hala. “I’ve known Sheri for a very long time. In Chicago we were really best buds and I think that I had lunch with her twice in maybe 20 years because she wasn’t available for lunch. She’s the kind of person who packs up her lunch pail and reports to duty every day; she takes her job very seriously. She has a mid-western sensibility.”
But now they are in the “land of dreamy dreams.” And damn that time-clock mentality because they are dreaming. Throwing caution to the jasmine-scented LA wind, the pair quit their jobs, sold their homes in Chicago, and leapt without fear. “There’s something in the air out here,” says Hala. “There’s a creative vortex swirling around.”
Contrary to everything you’ve heard about startup life, Sheri says, “Honestly, we’re not setting out with this huge gigantic strategy. It’s very organic, very ‘let’s see,’ ‘let’s look through our offers here.’” Explaining that the need to make her “mark” in her early twenties, “almost ruined me.”
“I thought I needed to hurry up and get my business cards printed and get my proper title… in moments of reflection, I tap my younger self on the shoulder and say ‘easy there, it’s all going to come together, it’s all going to be fine. Have fun right now.' ” When asked if she could have come to this realization earlier, she’s frank: “Well, I didn’t.”
“It’s easy for me to say,” says Salata, “so I’m saying it, because I’ve already made all those mistakes and now I’m in my mid-50s and an entrepreneur for the first time in my life and loving it and seeing things through a different set of lenses. I wasn’t like that when I was younger. At all.”
She encourages young women to, “Really find out what you like to do. What you’re really looking for is happiness. All of the accolades, accomplishments, and achievements are really going to end up feeling very, very thin if you haven’t made happiness job one.”
She says there is “no question,” that she's missed out on a bit of her own story, but also has a no regrets policy. “I wouldn’t do it differently, but it’s instructive,” she shares. “I get to do it differently today. Because that’s what I have: now.” She also admits that she was never able to achieve the illustrious work/life balance, but it’s a concept that won’t be her part of her life strategy. Instead she’s focused on a fully integrated life.
“People say you can’t have it all,” says Hala. “I think that is complete rubbish. I think you can have it all and you should have it all. I believe that I can have great romantic love and great business success and great friends and family around me all the time, and the body I want and the life I want.”
“I totally agree,” nods Sheri, though that “all” never included biological children for the new entrepreneur. For a while she considered adopting a baby from China, but it never came to be. She’s happy as a “dog mom.”
Both women are reframing with Story, filled with excitement at this entrepreneurial moment in time.
“Nancy is a gamer, a let’s go, jump off the cliff, Thelma and Louise drive the car right into the canyon,” says Salata. “I like that. I like that all of that is being awakened in me.”
“I’m living this one golden joyride opportunity,” she continues. “Sure, there’s a lot going on, but I feel so alive and I'm becoming so much better at what I do.” Nancy agrees. “You can tell your own really inspired story about what it means to be a fully actualized mother, who is madly in love with and devoted to her children, and also be a force to be reckoned with professionally. You can be the kind of woman who walks into the room and leads the discussion and listens intently, adds value, is super creative and aware of her surroundings, and a shape-shifter. You can be that.”
Cheers to that.