Ksenia Avdulova, founder of the super popular Breakfast Criminals, teaches us a thing or two about living life to the fullest, taking chances, and doing what you love. From growing up in Russia, to practicing ballet in NYC for a student visa, to starting her own food movement, Ksenia is an energy that inspires.
I have a story. Are you ready for this?
For my first 5 years I lived in Australia and then my family moved to Moscow where I lived for 15 years. My whole time in Russia I didn't feel like I belonged there. I was always watching American movies, and I would think “I need to be there.” I wanted to go to a school with locker rooms, yellow school buses and proms … the stuff you see in the movies.
And red solo cups! I didn’t know that was a real thing until I moved here.
When you move here you see these things every day that you saw in the movies you watched. Still after eight years here I feel like I’m living on a movie set. Then one day you see Dustin Hoffman having brunch next to you and I’m like, "OK, I’m definitely in a movie."
So when I was growing up in Moscow I always had this urge to be somewhere else. My mom taught English and my dad works for an American company so we’ve always spoken English as a family.
When I was about to graduate school and go to college, I was looking at fashion schools in Great Britain but I was too young to be accepted because I was 15 when I graduated high school.
Wow, that's young.
My parents suggested I get a great college education in Russia, and then if I still wanted to go overseas we could talk about it. So I did four years of business journalism, and by the time I finished my parents and sister had all moved to America! I ended up moving to San Francisco to get my Masters in Fashion Business … I always thought fashion was what I wanted to do. I thought that it was this amazing glamorous thing.
The whole time through school and university I had also been obsessed with social media. I’ve had a blog going since I was 16. Back then it was Livejournal. Remember it?
In college I took a basic web design class. Building a website was one of my favorite things in all four years of school! I love turning a vision into reality … making it beautiful with design. Photography has always been important to me as well.
I saw an exhibition of Peter Lindbergh’s work when I was young and I knew I wanted to move people with my work the way he does. I bought this really expensive book of his work that I still have now, and started taking photography classes.
In grad school, I took a blogging course and it was a game changer for me. I saw that I could make my passion my career, all the things that I loved could come together.
After college I moved to New York and my goal was to get a job with Gilt Groupe.
Why Gilt Groupe?
I've always been a very frugal shopper. I never pay full price for anything so Gilt appealed to me. It's off price fashion but at the same time it's still beautifully styled, high tech and innovative. A big part of my Master’s thesis was inspired by their business model.
When I first arrived in New York I had three internship interviews lined up and I ended up getting all three. I look back now and think how different things could have led to different paths depending on which one I took. I ended up taking on two of them. One was being Zac Posen’s PR intern, but it was really just walking his dog. [Laughs] But to me, it was a dream come true because he was one of my favorite designers.
My second internship was at Visual Therapy, which is a luxury lifestyle consultancy. It’s like super high end personal styling where they work with very wealthy, influential people who live incredibly busy lifestyles. Visual Therapy’s stylists help these people define who are they on the inside and out, using clothing to help clients be the most powerful version of themselves. So instead of forcing trends on people it's more like, "Who are you?” "What makes you feel amazing?” "What empowers you?"
After a couple of months I felt that Visual Therapy was where I wanted to be so I told them my strength was social media. They weren’t very into social media at the time, and didn’t have an online presence. I told them if they hired me I would build all of this for them.
In a way it was like a shot in the dark, because even though I was on top of all luxury, fashion and digital marketing trends in theory, I didn’t have hands on experience building brands online. My drive, passion and hard work paid off, and they ended up hiring me. Nine months later, Gilt Groupe headhunted me.
It was. They hired me to be Social Media Manager for the largest segment of the business - women’s fashion, and sponsored my visa. I moved from my tiny room in Bed Stuy (across from projects) to an Upper East Side studio by Central Park. I was so excited and felt like my new life was beginning. That was until my lawyer called me and said that the paperwork took so long to get together that I had missed out on the visa. I was told I had 60 days to pack up and be out of the country.
There was so many tears and so much stress. I had to give up my apartment, sell everything, leave my ideal job and go back to living on a friend’s couch until my 60 days ran out. I was crying every day because I came so close to my dream.
I had my return ticket booked and was just kind of bouncing around and wrapping things up. One day I met a brilliant woman who told me about a local ballet school that accepted people on a rolling basis and if you have already had a student visa they could transfer it to their school and extend your visa.
Had you even studied ballet?
Not really. But I ended up doing it for a year.
How many days a week did you go to ballet school?
Five days a week.
Did you become amazing at ballet?
I definitely got better, but I was too old to be a professional ballerina. At the school they also taught Capoeira and Samba, so I took classes in those styles as well. I started getting really into the Capoeira community.
During this time there was no way for me to also work as I was on a student visa, but thankfully, my parents understood how much work had gone into getting me to New York and they said, “We will support you if you really think there is a chance that you can make this work.”
That is an incredible support system to have.
I know. I'm very blessed.
So what does a person who doesn't have job, goes to ballet school and is being supported by her parents do next? Goes to Hawaii. [Laughs] I spent the last of my money on a trip with a friend. It seems so illogical, but it felt a bit like a calling. Something was saying "Just do it. Just do it."
Did the idea just come out of the blue?
I had a friend visiting from Russia for the Christmas holidays and she wanted to go somewhere warm. I found a really good deal on flights, so Hawaii happened, and it was life changing.
In what way?
I had my first acai bowl during that trip. It was so amazing to me, the way it made me feel … nourished, energized, and pure. I felt like I was connecting back to the earth through the berry.
When I came back to New York I tried to replicate that, but it was harder than I thought. I couldn’t find the same thing here so I started making my own acai bowls.
I started Breakfast Criminals and posted photos of my breakfast bowls. Within two months I had 5,000 followers and then a year later had 10,000. People started to reach out to me, and I had this feeling like there was nothing that I couldn’t do.
I started making lists of brands that I wanted to work with and projects I wanted to work on. That’s the amazing thing about social media, you can really dream up anything and make it happen. I started blogging for Lululemon, I travelled to Wanderlust with Free People …
I was at this point where I felt like I could manifest all these things, but what was my bigger purpose? What could I really do with this? That’s the point I’m at now. Have you read Paulo Coelho's “The Alchemist”?
I haven’t …
It's one of the books that inspired me the most. I went to my first yoga retreat in 2010 and that’s where I read this book. While I was there I was being exposed for the first time to these different healing modalities. It was like a spiritual wake up call for me.
There is a line in the book; “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” To me that means if you really follow your heart, you will find your destiny.
I found my heart literally a month later at a discount store. It was a red bowl in the shape of a heart. To me it was a sign. I was single, I didn’t know what was going to happen with my life. I didn’t have a job and was still relying on my parents. One thing I could really focus on was starting my day with love, nourishing myself from the inside out, treating myself with kindness, taking things slowly and trusting that whatever is meant to come my way, will.
The heart bowl became a symbol for me, and people saw that through social media and started asking where they could get one. It was always on my Instagram, and I had a beautiful window in my old apartment in Nolita where I would photograph my breakfast in the heart bowl and post it every morning.
I started reading another book called “The Four Hour Work Week” by Tim Ferriss. My dad recommended it to me, he always gives me the most brilliant book recommendations. One of the big things I took out of that book was that if you have an idea, go and make it happen. If I wanted to produce a heart bowl, I could. I started reaching out to factories about producing one. I found a factory, but they had a 2000 item minimum. I went forward with the custom design order and ended up selling out of them on Amazon.
What fulfills me the most is when people post their breakfasts on Instagram in their heart bowls and say how much it means to them to start their day with some kindness.
That's all that matters.
Will you make more heart bowls?
I want to, but this time I want them to be legit fair trade or something along those lines. It’s something I’m very passionate about. I started a fair trade movement called Fair Tuesday which is an alternative to Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It’s such an easy way to make a difference. You don’t always have to donate your time or your money. You can just switch the way you buy something. Instead of buying your usual coffee, you can buy fair trade coffee. There are so many small choices you can make that will make a huge difference in the world. It’s not that hard.
Where did the name Breakfast Criminals come from?
It just came to me… sort of given to me, I would say! I’ve always loved breakfast so much, it’s the reason I would get out of bed a lot of days when I was younger.
Me too! I would always ask what was for breakfast before I went to sleep when I was little.
Delicious food will always get me out of bed.
And now Breakfast Criminals is this huge thing!
Well I wouldn't say huge, but it's a thing. [Laughs]
Maybe a significant thing is a better way of putting it …
I’m realizing more and more that food can be a means to create so many amazing things. It’s like an artist with paint, it’s not the paint that is creating the emotion and meaning, it’s the artist using the paint to create that.
I feel like what I am doing is not really about food in that way. Yes, in many ways it does inspire people to try new things and to make healthier choices, but it’s about connecting, love, and being present.
I’m at an exciting point where I can dedicate more time to Breakfast Criminals. I just read another book called “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”. It’s another book recommended by my dad.
Your dad sounds great.
He is. He’s the kind of person who read Tony Robbins twenty years ago. He was into that stuff way before me and now I’m just catching up. When he suggests a book that has changed his life I know it ain’t no joke! [Laughs]
I’m working through the exercises in this book and it’s made my home feel so different. There is one in particular where you close your eyes and ask yourself what you want your home to feel like when you walk in the door. It’s easy to put it off until “you get more space”, “you can afford a bigger apartment” … but there are so many small changes you can make now that can affect how your apartment feels.
That's a really good exercise, and a good way of thinking about life in general. It’s so easy to think like that about everything … “when I get a new job” “when I get a visa” “when I get a better camera” …
Yes, I can really relate to the visa thing. It can make you feel very limited in what you can do. I have a green card now which is amazing. Things changed though when I changed my mindset. I went on a pilgrimage to India with a small group of people. It was very basic lodgings, and we had no technology. I was working full time at this point, and it didn’t make sense for me to go and leave my work but then I had a dream that I was standing on a mountain in India, it was a powerful feeling that I needed to go.
Without all the distractions it really made me think about what it was that I wanted. What made me feel alive. I started to focus on feelings rather than things. For example, you might say; “I want to have a boyfriend”. But what you should be asking is what do you want to feel that you aren’t feeling now. We forget to go all the way, dig down and be like, "What is it that I want?" This came from an exercise in a book called “Fire Starter Sessions” by Danielle LaPorte.
I’ve got some reading to do!
It’s an amazing exercise. So I was thinking; “What would it feel like if I got a green card?” I would travel with friends, I would work freelance, I could blog more, I could feel free. When I was writing these things down it came to me … I can do these things now; I can feel this way now without a green card. I’m the one stopping myself from feeling this way. It can be very easy put yourself in a box.
When I got back from India I had a missed call from my lawyer and she said, "You got your Green Card."
That was a year ago and I just got the actual green card a couple of months ago. But nothing has changed in the way I feel because I made these changes before the green card came through. I’m still doing exactly the same things, there was no reason why I had to wait.
So what’s next?
My big vision is to create a way to help people transform the world through social media, to use it in the most authentic and powerful way possible. The thing that really fulfills me is connecting with people and showing them their own power and beauty.
I was a lonely, serious child growing up. Some people would take it for sadness. I was just very introverted, and I often felt out of place, as I mentioned earlier. When I moved to New York is was very hard to make friends.
I found the same thing.
You often feel like an outsider. There is a stigma about being Russian a lot of the time as well. People have their labels for every nationality and I was dealing with all of it. It took me about two years to find my tribe.
I met a lot of amazing people through my yoga studio here. I also met so many close friends through Instagram. Once I figured out what I should be doing and started putting it out there on social media, people started to connect with me.
I now finally have a tribe of women. We do these Goddess events and we do our retreats together. We all do different things but we have a common vision of what we can do for each other and what we can do for the world.
How do you feel about New York now you’ve found your tribe?
I love New York so much. I've really connected to its energy. I do need an escape sometimes though. I’m going to California in a couple of weeks, in June I’m traveling to Israel on a Wellness Leadership Program and then I’m also planning a trip to Russia and Georgia. It’s important to have these trips on the horizon for me.
I feel like you’ve given me so much to think about … what's the best piece of advice you could give?
Follow your heart and do more of the things you love. Do that and then trust that the universe will take care of you.
What does New York mean to you?
New York is the city where dreams come true. If you find the right flow, if you find the right stream, then it will take you where you need to be as long as you are open to it. Whoever you want to be, whatever you want to do, there's a chance for you to do this here.
Visit Breakfast Criminals to get inspired.
Check out Ksenia's new site Digital Girl Boss.