From Burned Out to Big Business: How One Entrepreneur Lit Up Her Dreams

It was 105 degrees the day Arielle Ricci, then 24, trekked down a busy 8th Avenue in Nashville, Tenn. en route to the grocery store, towing her backpack. The day before, the radiator in her Jeep combusted, transforming its engine into an inferno. Smoke billowed from the hood as cars raced by her. She was broke, and felt emotionally broken, and was one more bad break away from abandoning her entrepreneurial dreams forever. She was about to set them all on fire—in the same devastating fashion her only possession had caught fire the day before.

Five years later, she would make the same journey down that road, but this time in her car, delivering boxes of her artisan candles to the posh JW Marriott Hotel. She’d pass off her business card and secure a deal for her products to be sold in the hotel’s luxury spa. ”That day, walking down the road with my car having just totaled and with no idea what I was going to do, I cut ties with being a victim,” says Ricci, 30. “I knew If I didn’t start living up to my potential, I’d never create the life I had always dreamed of—the life I have now.”

At the time of her rock bottom, Ricci was earning a modest salary as an administrative assistant for an entertainment company. She was no stranger to working a series of odd jobs—from retail sales to hostessing at various restaurants. Although she had studied fashion merchandising and business in college, she saw her creativity as a means of escape and personal fulfillment—nothing she dared to monetize. Those dreams, she was sure, were for the lucky few.

She often spent her weekends thumbing through racks of dresses and recycled fabrics at local thrift stores, and poring over aisles of beads and crystals at craft stores. She was energized by the process of conceptualizing modes of beauty and style, often designing her own jewelry and constructing her own wardrobe. She taught yoga on the side to supplement her income.

Arielle Ricci, CEO & Founder of Nellamoon

One day, in 2015, she stumbled upon an article about candle-making. She loved burning candles at home while lounging on the couch with her new husband and dogs, and often had one flickering nearby during sweaty yoga sessions. Having spent copious amounts of money buying them from stores and online retailers, she thought it would be fun to channel her creativity into making her own. She could direct her passion for wellness toward using only non-toxic ingredients, and grant herself the liberty to be as inventive as she wished with the scents. It was merely a happy distraction from the monotony of her daily life, though—no big deal.

All the while, Ricci secretly desired to own her own business. Something was tugging at her hair, inviting her to contribute to the world in a way that clocking in and out of a job Monday through Friday, building somebody else’s empire, just couldn’t provide. She’d come home from work at night and feel a gravitational pull toward the kitchen, where she’d formulate blends and pour out new candle varieties. The scents infused her with inspiration and wayfare.

She realized she could make combinations that whisked her away to places she most loved or dreamed of visiting—to the Italian countryside, to a sunset in Bali, to a cozy, crackling fire in a mountain bungalow. She blended coconut with vanilla, jasmine with sea salt, and patchouli with sugarcane. The possibilities were endless. Then, one day, an epiphany came in for a landing: this venture wasn’t just about the candles; it was about the emotion and mood the candles created. Every time she struck a match and allowed the flame to fill her space with whatever fragrance that most resonated with her desires, it served as an invocation for luminous living. She wondered if, perhaps, her candles could also fill the homes and spaces of others, inviting them to experience the same wonderful things.

A simple pleasure in her life morphed into a gentle nudge toward something more fulfilling, which then became a powerful urging that demanded action. In a tragic yet beautiful coincidence (or, perhaps, no coincidence at all) she and her husband had both lost their mothers to cancer—she at the age of 11 and her husband shortly after the couple married. Ricci says they often exchanged stories, revealing how similar in spirit their mothers were—how both women dedicated their entire lives to “helping others shine.” They possessed an organic way of illuminating the best parts of those they crossed paths with. “One day it just came to me. I would start a candle company as a tribute to them,” Ricci says. “It would be an opportunity to create something that could be used as a force for good in the world, and the candles would serve as a specific intention for every user to let their own light shine.”

As she experimented with a name that would align with the brand she was dreaming up, she turned to her past and shuffled through her most meaningful memories. “Nell” had been her childhood nickname, so that was an obvious consideration, but she also had fond recollections of her mother gazing up at the moon in a perpetual state of marvel. “She loved the moon every time she saw it, and it always makes me think of her. I feel like if she were still alive, we would have been building this business together from the start,” Ricci says. Alas, Nellamoon was born.

The candle-making process | Photo Courtesy of Nellamoon

Energized as she was, Ricci says the early days of grinding in obscurity weren’t easy. She was working out of her kitchen, awaiting bi-weekly loads of 50-pound boxes of wax to arrive, then hauling them up her front staircase. Like all start-ups, she was doing all of the strategizing, labor, and promotion herself, and there was no promise of remote profitability. Week after week, month after month, she’d reach out to an exhaustive list of bloggers, asking if she could mail them complimentary candles to try. But she was only ever met with radio silence. Daunting as it was, she continued devising scent combinations and pouring out the wax night after night, turning to female entrepreneurs who had accomplished the rare and unfathomable. “I looked to people like Sara Blakely, the owner of Spanx,” Ricci says. “I love how she bootstrapped her business from a side hustle into the empire it is today.”

Then, one day, a strange opportunity found her when all gates were locking her out—literally. It was a shivering, snowy day in Nashville. As always, she had blasted out emails and Instagram messages to a slew of bloggers, asking if they’d try her candles as potential Christmas gifts. Again, no one responded—until one did. The blogger asked, “Can you drop some off today? I’m putting together a holiday gift guide, so it may work for that. But I’d need them ASAP.” In a frenzy, Ricci gathered a package for her, piled into her car and drove over to the blogger’s residence.

As she approached the condominium building, Ricci noticed there was no way to be granted access without a gate key fob. She fidgeted in her car, watching helplessly as its steel frame opened and closed quickly, again and again. She knew the rear of her car would be smashed if she tried to trail behind another. Her only option was to make a dash for it.

She pulled over to the side and parked, grabbed the two massive boxes loaded with candle jars, and waited patiently until someone came along and opened it. She then raced through as fast as she could—her butt grazing the gate as it slammed shut. As fate would have it, the blogger fell in love with Ricci’s candles and agreed to feature them. But, in an even more interesting twist, and unbeknownst to Ricci, the blogger was close friends with Kristin Cavallari, who was immediately introduced to the product.

Ricci’s refusal to be locked out not only led to being included in the blogger’s holiday gift guide, but also to the candles being purchased by Cavallari herself. The quality of her products so impressed the television star and style maven, Ricci was then contacted for an opportunity to collaborate with Cavallari and have the candles sold at the star’s new Nashville flagship store, Uncommon James. “I wish I had a picture from that day,” Ricci says. “If anyone saw me with my snow hat and gloves, running through that gate with those huge packages, I am sure they got a big laugh out of it. Anyway, it led to a life-changing opportunity that I am eternally grateful for,” Ricci says.

Now, two years later, Nellamoon has secured several collaborative deals with various celebrities and high-profile influencers, and her candles are sold in a variety of trendy boutiques, salons and hotels—including Face, Maxi B and the JW Marriott. Her business has upgraded from stacks of boxes and puddles of wax cluttering her kitchen, to all production being held in a studio nestled in a busy industrial area of Nashville. Nellamoon employs up to 10 people, depending upon the time of year. Having remained true to her original intention of using only the purest ingredients, Ricci says the wax is made of an all-natural soy base, and is free of dyes, phthalates and other carcinogens, and she has a special process for maximizing fragrance viability.

Behind the scenes | Photo Courtesy of Nellamoon

When asked what her company’s success can be attributed to, particularly in a digital era of glamorized entrepreneurship that is wildly congested with competition, Ricci thinks her formula can be reduced to a simple trifecta: a devotion to creativity and quality, a consistent and focused work ethic, and, most of all, swarms of positive energy. She claims to infuse her spirit into her handiwork—intentionally pouring out well wishes into each jar, hoping to scatter good will across homes and businesses, thereby connecting with people she’ll likely never meet.

She believes that, over time, this has only served to amplify the growth and reception of her brand. “I believe that energy is everything, and that is what Nellamoon is all about,” Ricci says. “We want to inspire and spread love through our products. Each time a customer lights their candle, we hope that it serves as a symbol for them to let their light shine, be their most authentic self and live out their dreams.”

Ricci admits that she has a plethora of tools in her lady entrepreneurship arsenal, however—from books to quotes to lectures found on YouTube. “In the early days, while I was working in my kitchen, I’d put on audiobooks that inspired me spiritually and as an entrepreneur, and I’d just let them play for hours,” says Ricci. She turned to the words of Maya Angelou, the tenacity of Steve Jobs and the wisdom of Napoleon Hill.

But it’s not just about the accolades, the high-profile connections, or the profits, she swears.

“At Nellamoon, our mission is to serve the greater good through artisan candles that embody the bright light we all have inside of us,” says Ricci. “This is more than a business to me. This is my way of contributing to what I believe in the most, which is that we are all put on this earth to connect with, love and support each other.”

But, for Ricci, no longer having to lug 50-pound boxes up her stairs and into her kitchen day after day, without a glimmer of reward in sight, isn’t so bad either. Because it doesn’t look like Nellamoon’s flame will be burning out anytime soon.

Lacey Johnson

Madam Wonder: Founding Editor

Lacey Johnson is an award-winning editor, essayist and journalist who earned her degree from Belmont University in 2011. She has worked with a broad range of celebrities and entrepreneurs — including the likes of Betsey Johnson, Deepak Chopra, Shark Tank's Daymond John and Olympic Gold Medalist Shawn Johnson. She is editor-in-chief for The Connect magazine, and her work can be read in a variety of print and digital media sources including Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day, Mirabella, PopSugar, and others. With a deep intrigue for human beings, and fiery passion for smacking her readers in the face with the truth, she writes and reports boldly about topics that challenge the status quo — in the realms of love and relationships, popular culture, travel, spirituality, women’s issues and the nuances of a fulfilling life. She is also deep in the process of co-authoring her first book, which is a gutsy exploration of the illusions of fame, power and success, told through narratives involving some of the people the world most idolizes.

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