A Chicago Travel Guide by a Local Legend
5 Lessons You Can Learn From Billy Dec
Billy Dec is truly a self-made man. Born and raised in Chicago, he is the founder and CEO and Rockit Ranch Productions, one of the city’s hottest entertainment and dining ventures. In addition to his empire of restaurants and nightclubs, Dec is an Emmy award-winning TV personality and an actor who has appeared on some of primetime’s biggest hits. He’s easy to spot in a crowd, too--thanks to all those signature hats he famously sports.
Here are five key lessons you can learn from the life and career of this Windy City Local Legend
Dec believes it’s never too early to learn the value of a strong work ethic. In fact, the future mogul joined the workforce when he was only a sixth-grader. “Growing up in Chicago, everyone in my family worked,” Dec says. “As a kid, I actually worked in a coat check room in a Chinese restaurant. I worked my way all the way up: to a server, then a manager, to eventually one day owning a restaurant.”
In high school, Dec watched his parents go through bankruptcy and noticed that “the only guys with confidence in their eyes” were the attorneys who oversaw the proceedings. Driven by that memory, he graduated with a law degree from the Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1999 and passed the bar exam on his first try.
After deciding that practicing law wasn’t for him, Dec turned his focus entirely on the operations of his nightclubs, the first of which he opened at age 22. Fearing that his lack of business experience was holding him back, he enrolled in a three-year management program at Harvard Business School. He still keeps in touch with former classmates, saying, “I call them whenever I’m confused about business issues. It’s like a support group!”
If Dec looks familiar to you, it might be because of his multiple TV cameos over the years on everything from “Friends” (David Schwimmer is a longtime pal) to “Entourage.” In 2011, he began regularly co-hosting local shows like “Windy City Live,” which soon led to appearances on “The Today Show” and “Good Morning America.” Dec eventually found himself bitten by the acting bug. Although he’s landed roles on “Empire,” “Criminal Minds” and “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” Dec faced a problem: “I would always have to leave the city to go film on the coasts, and I felt that there was so much amazing talent here in Chicago, especially in the theater, acting and production communities.” So Dec founded Elston Films, named for one his favorite Chicago streets. Now with a full slate of projects lined up, he explains that his aim for the company is to “create my own stories and projects...and to work alongside the incredibly talented Chicago acting and production communities.”
Dec opened his Asian fusion restaurant, Sunda, six years ago in Chicago’s well-heeled River North neighborhood. “I think what’s cool about Sunda is that there’s this great mix of locals, celebrities and tourists,” he says. He’s not kidding about the celebrities. A-listers like Barbra Streisand, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry have all graced the hotspot. However, his favorite celebrity visit involved the Secret Service.
“I was having dinner with Steven Tyler from Aerosmith downstairs...but also entertaining First Lady Michelle Obama and her family upstairs, along with 50 Secret Service agents,” he reminisces. “I had to run up and down to be in two places at the same time. They were texting each other, wanting to see each other, but Steven Tyler couldn’t go upstairs because of the Secret Service, and Michelle Obama couldn’t come downstairs because she would just freak out the entire restaurant.” All in a night’s work for Billy Dec.
Dec is extremely proud of his family heritage, explaining, “My mom was from the Philippines, and I grew up in an Asian American household, which kept me very close to the community.” So close, in fact, that the White House took notice of his dedication. President Obama appointed Dec to the Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He was also appointed to the White House Bullying Prevention Task Force, which he’s served on for the last two years. He takes both honors very seriously. “This is my time to not only continue doing what I know how to do best –which is to entertain, be hospitable and provide the best dining experiences to people – but also to give back in any way I can.”
Hear Billy Dec describe his journey to becoming one of Chicago’s top entrepreneurs on the Local Legends podcast, available on iTunes and Google Play.