Magazine

The Hard Way


Deborah Stallings' journey from hardscrabble youth to successful entrepreneur

As children, my younger brother and I were living in public housing—better known as the projects—in Chicago with my paternal grandmother. My father was not around. My mom was in a coma for about two years. My grandmother died when I was seven, and around that time, my mother had come out of the coma. She had no place to go. So she ended up going back to Mississippi to live with her parents.

After my grandmother died, my father sent us to Mississippi to live with my maternal grandparents and my disabled mother. It was a town called Liberty. Had two traffic lights in the whole town. And my grandparents were farmers. My brother and I helped on the farm. We used lanterns, because the house had no electricity. My grandfather was very strict, very religious. Around that time they were integrating the schools. We were the first African American children to go to the town's all-white elementary school. Life there was more than we could bear.

When I was 12 years old my brother and I ran away. We thought there was a family in Liberty that might help us. In the middle of the night we left and followed a pipeline through the woods to where these folks lived. We asked for their help. We knew it was possible they'd just drive us back to my grandfather's house. But they agreed to help us. We called my dad's sister. She wired money and they put us on the train the next day. When we got to Chicago, we wrote a letter to my grandfather and grandmother and mom and we told them where we were.

We went to live with my father and stepmother. But unfortunately, living in Chicago wasn't much better. My father was living in a pretty rough part of town. He was an aspiring musician and wanted to create the next Jackson Five. I was singing at age 14 in nightclubs with my brother, some cousins, a few other friends, and my dad.

My father was murdered just before I turned 17. I was told he was in a bar and someone shot him. After that I went to live with my aunt, my father's oldest sister. But I was separated from my brother—he went to live with another aunt. When I was 19, I got pregnant. We talked about getting married, but he wasn't the right guy.

I got my own apartment and worked in administrative positions. Finally, I landed a position as an executive assistant to the vice-president of nursing at a hospital in Chicago. I worked for her for a few years, followed her to Maryland when she relocated, and eventually went to another hospital as a nurse recruiter. I ended up becoming a generalist in HR.

I had worked two or three jobs all of my daughter's life. I missed a lot of her growing up because I was working so much. By the time she was a senior in high school, I said I would work one job so I could go to all her basketball games and be there to get her ready for college. And I remembered my grandfather saying that the way to get ahead in life was to start your own business. So in 1999 I started HR Anew. By 2006, I had six full-time employees coming to the house every day. So we moved into commercial space.

I look at my life and I'm really grateful for where I am. I don't have the profile or background of a person who should be in this place. I really want to be an example for others in underserved and underemployed communities, minorities, and women, to show them you can start where you are and grow. You need the commitment and the belief in yourself.

Return to the BWSmallBiz December 2009/January 2010 Table of Contents


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