If you’re lucky, you have friends in life who are ride or die.
The people who are truly happy for you when you soar... and the first ones to call when the chips are down.
That’s exactly how I would describe Harry and Laura Slatkin.
You may have heard of them. Harry, Founder and CEO of HomeWorx, is widely known as the “king of candles.”
And their daughter, Ali, is my beloved goddaughter.
The Slatkins revolutionized the candle business three decades ago when they created Slatkin & Co., a luxury home fragrance company they eventually sold to the Limited Brands (for untold millions) in 2005.
Let’s just say, if you’re burning a candle in your home right now, you have Harry and Laura to thank.
ALINA CHO: People love to burn candles around the holidays.
HARRY SLATKIN: I think Laura and I were very responsible for turning home fragrance into a year-round use product, because when we started 30 years ago, home fragrance, there were only two French imports, or you went all the way down to mass and there was nothing in between. What we did is we filled that void and we started making it something that you would use anytime in your home.
LAURA SLATKIN: As part of your lifestyle.
HARRY SLATKIN: But there's no doubt that come holiday time, people who are spending so much time at home, and more importantly, so much time entertaining at home, you do see [sales for] holiday scents go up.
LAURA SLATKIN: People stop me on the street, and they say, “The holiday time would not be holiday time without your holiday candle," because the quintessential aroma of the holiday season is in [my NEST New York Holiday] candle.
They love to create that mood, that ambiance in their home during the holiday season. It's special to them. Harry has these aromas in his [HomeWorx] collection as well.
HARRY SLATKIN: It puts you in a festive mood. It's faster to redecorate your home with a candle than it is to decorate your tree and put garland up.
ALINA CHO: Let's talk about COVID. Was it surprising how much people embraced home fragrance?
LAURA SLATKIN: This happened in 2008. When we had a very strong recession, people weren't going out to dinner. People were staying home, making meatballs and spaghetti, inviting a friend over and lighting a candle. That created a surge in home fragrance. During COVID, we experienced the same surge.
ALINA CHO: Right.
LAURA SLATKIN: In the beginning, when all the stores closed, we panicked and forecasted our business down 40%. But then quickly we realized, no, let's forecast it up because people are going to use home fragrance more. And you know, Alina, as Harry had mentioned before, when we first started the business in 1992, home fragrance wasn't part of everyone's lifestyle. Throughout the past three decades, it's been rising steadily, but COVID accelerated that growth.
HARRY SLATKIN: When COVID first happened, we all were in absolute shock. When a few weeks passed and that shock settled in, you started having retailers going back to business. I am on QVC, for example.
If you're spending time at home, what did we all do? We read some, but we really watched every series on TV. We watched every TV movie. We watched anything that was out there. People were flicking into home shopping more and more and realizing, you know what, I can buy that [candle] and that's going to be great for decorating my home.
ALINA CHO: Sure.
HARRY SLATKIN: Candles change your mood and calm you. There's science behind it.
ALINA CHO: I want to talk about your philanthropy, which is, I would argue, just as important, if not more important than the professional work that you do. Particularly with autism. You have a very personal story.
LAURA SLATKIN: [Our son] David [who is 22 now] was diagnosed at 17 months old.
He was diagnosed with autism. After a year of intensive therapy, we were told that it's very rare to encounter someone as severe as David. His cognitive abilities, his aggressive behaviors, his lack of speech, his inability to learn were really on the very, very low end of the spectrum.
HARRY SLATKIN: We had probably the number one educator in the country overseeing David's program at the time. She was in our apartment, David was 2 or 3 at the time, and she turned and said, "I just want to let you know that there's nothing you'll ever do that's really going to…”
LAURA SLATKIN: She said that David is a candidate for residential placement, which meant that he couldn't live at home.
HARRY SLATKIN: At that point, when you're starting out the voyage, you're so hopeful. So then, to have that happen, I remember I asked her to leave our home because it was just too painful to hear.
LAURA SLATKIN: Because you know, Alina, you can deal with the fact that you have a child with autism, but your dream is that they can still be part of your family. When you're told that that's not even possible, that's heartbreaking.
HARRY SLATKIN: I think that Laura and I, as entrepreneurs, always try and say to ourselves, "Okay, well, that's not working. What are we going to do now and fix it?"
LAURA SLATKIN: If I look back to 2003 when we started this effort and we started our foundation, we traveled the road with David, thinking about his needs and what was available in our community. When he was little and there weren't any great schools in Manhattan, state-of-the-art schools, we opened charter schools in Harlem and the Bronx. We weren't really doing this for David, because we don't have to worry about how we get David the best services available. We were worried about that single mom living in Harlem or the Bronx.
HARRY SLATKIN: And not just financial resources. To even know where to turn.
ALINA CHO: I want to talk about NEXT for AUTISM. When David reached a certain age, you asked yourselves, “What is next for autism, what is next for David, what is next for people like David?”
LAURA SLATKIN: There are 5.4 million adults with autism. There's very, very little out there in adult services.
ALINA CHO: So…
LAURA SLATKIN: After seven years, literally, of really analyzing the landscape for adults with autism, we determined the Direct Support Professionals [the trained professionals] who serve adults with autism are the linchpin and the answer to making a significant change in the lives of adults with autism.
ALINA CHO: Because?
LAURA SLATKIN: We’ve developed a training program for them. This training program really teaches the DSP how important consistency is in the life of an adult with autism. If you're constantly asking David to go get a plate out of the cabinet, put it on the table, and that's how he is going to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner, [and] if he doesn't get it himself, he's not going to have it, he learns to get that plate, put it on the table.
HARRY SLATKIN: We go food shopping. He also does his laundry. He helps to mow the lawn.
LAURA SLATKIN: He has learned more in this past year than he has learned in the 22 years he's been on this planet.
ALINA CHO: Wow.
LAURA SLATKIN: The change has been remarkable. I used to go to bed every night feeling guilty if I thought about my son. Now, when I go to sleep at night and I think about David, there's joy in my heart.
ALINA CHO: You are legendary hosts. I think particularly around the holidays, people want to know, how do you create a beautiful table? What's the key to a great menu?
LAURA SLATKIN: We could spend an hour on that topic.
HARRY SLATKIN: No matter what, once the dinner starts, the hosts should be relaxed. They drop the roast beef on the carpet, order pizza. Never fret about anything because you know what? Your guests then will have a disastrous evening, as will you. That's probably my number one thing is relax no matter what you do.
ALINA CHO: Good point.
HARRY SLATKIN: Getting ready for it, make the effort. What do you have around the home that you can use to decorate the table? Make each place setting different if you don't have place settings that match. If you want to do it more like us where it's more formal, there are books.
LAURA SLATKIN: Number two is, we never like to serve anything that someone might have had in a restaurant. You'll never get a piece of salmon or a filet mignon at our house, ever. It's always something unusual that you've never tasted before, you've never experienced before, something really over the top.
ALINA CHO: Well, this is the thing. I don't know how else to say it. Your food is yummy.
HARRY SLATKIN: Even if you're reduplicating a cake recipe you found, we have to figure out, how does it look homemade? Even if it's served in an elegant atmosphere, it's about yummy, home style. Some people curl up with Tolstoy. We curl up with a cookbook to reread it and see if we missed a recipe or if we can improve it.
LAURA SLATKIN: And people shouldn't be afraid of doing their own flower arrangements. What I've learned is that the most beautiful arrangement of flowers is one that looks like you went into your garden, collected some flowers, and put them in a vase or a bowl. Go to the flower market and find that one flower that's absolutely, stunningly gorgeous. That's what you're going to build your table around.
HARRY SLATKIN: But I want to say one thing. While I'm thrilled if you're coming for dinner, and I'm thrilled everyone enjoys it, I get great pleasure out of my own dinners.
LAURA SLATKIN: I think we enjoy it more than anyone else.
HARRY SLATKIN: I think we do.
LAURA SLATKIN: Except for you, Alina.
ALINA CHO: Except for me.