01/21/2015 09:33 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2015

I Know I Can! Sharon's Story

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Many of my friends are experiencing the January blahs. It's cold. Their programs are not filling up. Me too. And so, I look for inspiration in the interviews that I did with 50 women who changed their lives. When I think about persistence, I think about Sharon. If you're feeling like giving up, I hope Sharon inspires you to keep going.

My life as a young girl -- my family never talked about education. It just wasn't in the horizon for whatever reason. And they were very controlling, very restrictive. I wanted out. I needed to do something. So, unfortunately for me, I didn't see other options and I married at a very young age and had four wonderful children from that marriage. And the man that I was married to died at 42 in an accident. I was widowed. I was left with no way to support myself. I had no income. I had to find a way. I wound up going on welfare for six months because that gave me time to figure out a plan and find a job. And I did that.

I never sought to ask anybody for help. It was just never was something on my mind, on the radar. And nobody offered help. So I figured, well, welfare is there so I will go do that. And then I got a waitressing job. My sister had a very successful business. And I begged to work for her. She had a private employment agency. I worked my way up and even created new positions. I started as a counselor and then went into management and then into regional management. One day I realized that this was her dream not mine. And she was very controlling. And I was super unhappy and crying.

I'd go into my office and cry and say, I can't do this. I cannot do this. And I quit. I quit with no other job. No idea of what I was going to do. I knew I didn't have an education. And I was terrified of having to work in an office for an hourly wage and seeing no future. But I quit anyway. And I sat on the couch for a long time just pondering what I was going to do. I finally figured that I had only three things that were in my focus. I wanted to answer to myself. I wanted to make money larger than an hourly wage. And I wanted to like what I did. And that was like a burning vision in my head. Freedom. Money. And pleasure.

Q. And that was the criteria. And with no clear plan as to where you were going to find it -- you forged ahead.

Right. Zero. That was all... But that stayed in my mind. I went and got a book called, What Color is Your Parachute? Oh, my God. That was the most exasperating thing I ever did because it said, OK. These are the questions. What did you really like most doing in your life? And it asked other questions. And it said, disregard age or money. OK. So, what I liked doing was getting the boys in the neighborhood, as a little girl, together and remodel this big chicken coop we had, build a stage. And get the kids in the neighborhood together and put on a show and sell tickets to the neighborhood and serve refreshments. And remodel my mother's attic.

It was all about getting other people to do work that I wanted done. It was all about construction. I got so mad, I started to cry. Threw the book down and said it was useless. What am I going to do with that? So I figured, OK. The closest thing I can finally figure out was to be in outside sales. So after a while I called every single creditor I had and told them my situation and asked if I could have the bills put to a later date. And they were so cooperative. I couldn't believe it -- how I managed with the help of my creditors. And welfare.

So I finally I went and set an appointment for a sales job. And on the way to it, I wasn't sure which building it was and I stopped a guy on the street, coming out of a building, and asked if he knew where it was. And he said, "Yes. Where are you going?" And I said, "I'm going to be late for an interview." He said, "Oh, really? What kind of interview?" I said, sales. He said, "Well, I have a sales position. If you would be interested, maybe we can meet for coffee after work and we can talk about it." I said, I'd love to do that. So I did. I met him for coffee. He hired me. He was sewing strip doors. If anybody knows what that is -- it's the plastic strips that hang down in front of coolers and freezers or in warehouses, etc. So he hired me. And I took the job.

I started calling on customers. I would get up early in the morning and worked 'til late at night. And everybody was nice and they said, "Oh, that's such a great idea. But not yet. Maybe in about 3 months. Could you come back in about 3 months?" I said, "Sure." And kept my list. I would come back in 3 months. And my first sale was to a liquor store -- to his cooler. And the guy... I sold it for $80. It's the cost of the door. He put his arm around me and said, "I'm so glad I could help you." And I thought, oh, my God. At this rate, I'm going to be dead in the water in no time.

But it was an eye-opener. So I wound up selling a few things. And then I started looking at what he was doing, and I thought, wait a minute. He's making money -- I'm not. I could call this manufacturer. I sell these things. I could open my own business. I could do it myself. So I did.

And so with that, I started calling on people. But it was the same thing: come back, come back. So I was down on State Street in Chicago where all the purveyors are. I walked in the door, like the fourth time back to this person, and he said, No, come back -- just so nice. I turned around and I started to walk out and I thought, they are spending money somewhere. So I turned around -- I thought for a moment -- and just turned around and said, Is there anything I can help you with? And he said, "Well, you see our storefront windows -- those old wood ones? Do you do those really nice aluminum ones?" I looked at those windows and I looked at him. I looked at those windows. And I turned around and said, "Yes. We do that. Yes, we certainly do." And I went back to my office and I started calling window companies.

Well, I found out that's not who does them. They told me I had to call glazers. I called glazers, until somebody told me they did McDonald stores. I said, "Good. Would you like to give me a quote?" And they did. I had no idea what the markup was. I had no idea what an invoice was. I had never seen any of those. I didn't know what percentage people mark things up. So I just put one on. I sold the job. Well, three weeks later when I went to collect the money for the job that I did, the man, super nice man, he said, "Well, come in here for your money." And he counts out singles and fives and tens -- $3,000 worth -- and put them in paper bags. I put them under my coat and walked to the car.

So I came home and I was screaming. I threw that cash all over my bed. Put it in a shoebox where it stayed for the longest time. I went through it like I was on rations. And I thought if you can do it once, you can do it again. So I went back down and I kept asking everybody if they wanted windows. And then, when they'd say, No. I'd say, "Is there anything else?" That led me to somebody asking me -- this is the turning point -- it led me to somebody saying, do I do walk-in coolers and freezers. Well, my answer is, yes. So I went back and I got on the phone and I called refrigeration manufacturers and the guy was talking to me at 5:00 at night. And finally after a while, I was picking his brain -- he got really mad. I never had that happen the whole time I was in a male business, a totally male business, that anybody ever got mad at me. But he said, "I've been in this business 40 years. Just how did you get in this? I have never talked to a woman before." And he got his nose out of joint.

And so, one thing led to the other and I wound up finding contractors to do the walk-in. And I did that. And every day I would go back out and back out and back out. I started with really small places like hotdog stands. But trust me, they don't spend money. So I said, OK. Now what do I have to do? So I thought, well, industry has these things. And one day I hadn't sold anything. Nobody was interested. I was coming down the Kennedy. And I thought, my God, it's 4:00 and the door's still open. So I pulled off and thought I would try to find -- this is my first time I ever did this -- an industrial park and see if there was anything with food. You know, someplace might have a cooler or freezer. I walked in and here I found a bakery. And I walked in the door and the two owners are sitting right in this lobby area. It was like an open office area. And we started talking. And my question was, "Is there anything I can help you with?" So, they said, Well, do you do coolers, or whatever? Freezers? Oh, well, by this time, Oh, yes, I do that. And so they brought me back. I'd never seen the inside of a plant before. And they showed me a remodeling they were doing to this freezer. And the long and short of that story was, I never sold them that. I didn't do that job. I did impact doors, which were in plants. And they paid me $16,000 for those two doors. They wrote it before I put the order in. I've never had that happen before or since. Well, this opened a floodgate to me of possibilities.

I knew that I wasn't afraid to talk to people. And there had to be answers. There had to be people who knew what I didn't know. Phyllis is a funny one. Phyllis has been my friend forever. And at one point, I called her. I said, Phyllis, I'm making money. I'm doing these things, but you know what? I don't know anything. She said, Oh, Sharon, yes you do. She said, George Goldman told me it isn't what you know. It's how you get other people, who do know things, to do things. And she said, So, yes, you do know. And so that was like freedom because I started to feel really horrible. Like, well, I'm not an engineer and I'm not this. And I don't know that. I don't have this education. But one thing led to the other and I got a job... I walked into another plant, and I had this door problem and I needed a different kind of contractor, a cold storage contractor.

I called this guy -- this is an important part -- I called this guy, Rich Schellenberg. He had a company called Unified Building Systems. And I asked him if he could fix this horizontal slide --they're used in food plants or they're cooler doors that are big industrial doors -- if he could repair it. And he said, well, that he could. And I said, Well, you would be working for me, not for the company. And you would have to come in under my name. Well, I don't do that. I won't do that. No, I can't do that. Now, one thing led to the other, and he finally did it. Well, I wound up on another job where he was also on it, but he was doing a big freezer there. I saw him and I thought, Oh, my gosh. So I called him. I asked him if he would do my work, and again, No, no, no. I don't do that. Well, today, we are building a $10 million plant. He is still working with me.

From Public Assistance to a multi-million dollar business, freedom to travel around the world and a wonderful life. Now that's persistence.

When I think I can't, I think of Sharon and get right back out there.