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Live Like Ellen

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26th Jun 2020

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For many, this has been a year of anxiety and loss. The devastating public health wave of the coronavirus broke over our lives in the spring, and in the summer, the two-punch economic impact has been drawn into sharp relief against the social injustices that make life even harder for swaths of our society.

The media is filled with alarm and fear, and social media is awash in angry Karens - a meme for discord and generational malaise - an entitled derogative that feeds our anxiety. We talk about the before times, and see a long road ahead to some new reality that we can only hope will be better than where we are, or even where we were.

Against this patina of current events, we have lost an antidote of a person who embodied what we really need: kindness, passion for life, fairness, beauty and so much else. Ellen Hagans, a dear friend and colleague, passed away Wednesday June 17th at her home in Louisville, KY, in the loving care of her family. She was diagnosed in 2016 with Glioblastoma Multiforme, an incurable brain cancer.

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We met Ellen a short time after her diagnosis, when she arrived in the South of France to join a group of friends for a summertime break. We spent a week together before she even mentioned her diagnosis, but we had all learned of it during the week, and we secretly marvelled at her joie de vivre and kind and caring attitude toward others.

At the time her doctors said her time could be six months or maybe longer, to which Ellen responded by living her life as a peaceful adventure, destined to experience for the sake of it, and to touch new people with her radiance along the way.

Luckily, we were in that group of new people, and over the ensuing months Ellen would move between her work as an early executive at Groupon to moments with friends in Chicago and other places. She was always impeccably kind - never a harsh word or an ounce of frustration. It was as if she had decided she had no room for such grievances, and they magically never appeared in her countenance as a result.

She never mentioned her time in treatment, or the months relearning many skills following radiation or chemotherapy. When she re-emerged she always looked beautiful, taking the time to express that every moment mattered, and every day mattered, and therefore details matter.

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In February 2018, she attended Hub Culture in Venice for our recurring Carnivale fundraiser, vibrant and strong. Those attending did not know her fight behind the scenes because when she met you it was all about YOU, what are you doing, how are you doing, and what are you working on. She could also drop a few moves on the dance floor.

From gondola to alleyway, she had a genuine interest and a sparkle in her eye, and she would sit with you to imagine and conceive a new idea without hesitation.

Later, in Miami, she explored the art world with us during a series of lunches and dinners at the Miami Clubhouse, making sure every guest was welcome and lingering in polite conversations long after others had lost the will to listen. She was curious, observant and learning.

“Hey boo, I wonder if...” she would say, before asking a question or offering an insight. Everyone was her boo.

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By now she had been through several treatments and each time had worked to relearn everything several times. With each milestone she grew kinder, more gentle, and more aware. She began to learn about meditation and studied this with us, her eyes open wide afterward with a huge smile on her face, followed by a gentle hug and a knowing nod.

She offered herself as a volunteer - helping Hub efforts and projects wherever she could. As summer 2019 rolled around Ellen and I were talking about our Innovation Campus, taking place in Capri during July. “I’m coming, don’t you worry” she said, and we got to spend two weeks together at the Campus, talking about existential risk in A.I over melon prosciutto, doing yoga on the grass as the sun dipped below blue waves.

She had a great sense of style - one night in Capri she modelled E P O K, (the beautiful design label of a friend), proudly in the narrow streets of Capri, and then actually purchased the dress -a simple but important signal of her support. How many times do we say we will support our friends then just let it slide? She cared about those little things and she made them count.

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Ellen was the inspiration for lots of ridiculous moments. Who else would say “YES!" to 24 hours in Ibiza on an hour’s notice, just because why not. If you gave her an option she was there, ready with a smile to experience whatever it was. That particular day we dropped the logic for magic and giggled like school kids the entire Easyjet flight from London, just to meet two friends she knew were there. She made the effort.

By January, Ellen and I talked about volunteering at the Hub in Davos, Switzerland. Our new project, the TechLodge, needed her to convey the genuine warmth of our community that Ellen embodied. For a week in the Alps she was there with us, always smiling, and left loved by those of our team who had not met her in other places.

After Davos, I took Ellen to my secret spot - Vals Therme. It is a spa tucked into the mountains at Vals, far away from everything. It is modern and beautiful, but somehow wonderful and friendly at the same time - a place that feels like it could be from the future, the good future we dream about. We gazed at the mountains, breathed in the brisk air, and went for a swim - soaking up every moment we could in that earthly heaven. The next morning we were up early, drove down the winding mountain road, and sent Ellen off from Zurich airport on a motorised transport. VIP access, waving with a smile as she blew a kiss into the air.

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When friends pass away young, it is easy to sanctify them. To talk about how great they were and all the good they did, even if they didn’t do that much. But Ellen really was that good. She was unfailingly kind to others, and she really lived her life in an inspiring way. I think the diagnosis made it all very clear to her: every day she could wake up and live the life she dreamed to live, because she knew that it had an expiration, therefore every day was a gift and who could be upset about a gift?

Ellen consciously chose to be kind to others, always. To inspire her friends and support them with encouragement, even her pocketbook. She took nothing for granted, and she compromised nothing. No one would ever have known Ellen’s struggles or battles, because when she was out in the world she was fully out in the world: living like Ellen.

Society spends so much time amplifying divisions and differences - when we should be trying to emulate the Ellens. Ellen spent her precious time focused on positive vibes, enjoying her friends and living life, laughing constantly. She believed in so much, she cared so much, and she made every effort - from her immaculate fingertips to her love of animals to her work to build Groupon.

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Ellen leaves us as one of the finest people I have ever known. She is dearly loved by Hub Culture. She is the first member of our inner team we have lost, which as a friend, I have found particularly sad. Everything has a cycle. We all have the same destination. But how we live today, the efforts we make, the friendships we create, the love we show - these are what matter. These are true to Hub Culture's guiding principles as a community. Ellen lived that. I wish we could all try to live like Ellen.

Ellen's family has set a donation plan for a Forever Fund for cats and dogs to support her love of animals - a great way to extend her legacy of kindness, and to put a little of her love into the hands of others. 

by Stan Stalnaker