Welfare mom creates million dollar biz: how she did it

Trisha WaldronTrisha WaldronTrisha Waldron was 28 years old when she realized that the life she had drifted into was a dead end. She had gone from being a daughter to a wife to having her first baby at 22. Now single and barely surviving on food stamps in the Black Hills of South Dakota, she had no college degree, no work experience to speak of, and no clear idea of what to do with the rest of her life. She had mortgage on a tiny two-bedroom house, and she had her two lovely little girls, ages four and six, but that was about it.

You can create your own life

One afternoon, volunteering at her daughters' school, she heard a teacher tell the kids, "You can create your own life." That sentence changed everything. As she puts it, "I knew I had to take responsibility for my own life. I had been running it according to others and things hadn't worked out very well."

She applied for a student loan and went back to school. For one year, she and her girls lived on welfare, food stamps, and odd jobs, but the second year, an opportunity presented itself and she grabbed it. An artist friend offered her a job assembling jewelry for a mail order catalogue in her spare time. She knew it wouldn't be easy: she'd be in school all day, taking care of the kids in the evening, and then have to work late into the night at her kitchen table, but she'd be working for herself and be able to get off welfare.

Having a job and being in school built up Trisha's confidence and she eventually proposed to the owner of the catalogue that she design his entire line of jewelry. She says, "As an entrepreneur you are always going to be confronted by things you don't know, but you can't let it stop you." She went to the library and dove into teaching herself the basics of jewelry design as well as exploring Native American motifs from which she would draw inspiration. She recalls that she didn't get a lot of sleep in those days.

[ Donate: You can help struggling women get back into the workforce by giving to Empowered Women International. The award-winning non-profit channels the creative talents of low-income women into small businesses to create jobs. ]

Growing the business

Her business moved from the kitchen table to the garage where she installed a wood stove to keep it warm against the bitter South Dakota weather. Still, she had to work in gloves and a heavy coat during the winter. After two years, she decided she was ready for an even greater challenge and, in 1985, incorporated her own company.

From the beginning, Trisha was as excited by the cultures that informed her jewelry designs as she was by the final product. She learned the world was a whole lot bigger than Rapid City, South Dakota. She forged relationships with bead and stone vendors from Africa, India, and China.

Looking back, she says those relationships and the ones she developed with her staff made all the difference for the long-term success of her business. She explains, "At first, I had a super aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach. I might have gained something for myself but I wasn't very nice to those around me. Eventually, I learned that you draw power as a woman in business by being compassionate and inclusive. This way, you can make long and loyal relationships."

Her first million

After five years in business, her company had reached a million dollars in sales. But, as Trisha remembers, "Getting there was incredibly challenging, I learned by trial and error, I cried a lot. But I lived simply and didn't need much to survive. I was in a small town and hired my girlfriends to help me. My neighbors pitched in with the kids. My big break came in 1987 when the catalogue of the Smithsonian Institution started featuring my work."

Helping others help themselves

After winning the Smithsonian as a client, Trisha was able to move out of the garage into a proper jewelry studio. Other catalogues, such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, started picking up the line. When things got busy, she would hire as many as 40 other women, mostly single moms, to fabricate her designs out of their homes--just as she had when she first started.

In 2006, after over 20 years in business, Trisha sold her company to an employee and retired to California with her second husband.

Trisha's advice for people who want to start their own businesses:

  • Your responsibility is to be clear about your vision. Then you can ask others to help.
  • There is a lot of assistance out there for entrepreneurs if you look for it: I learned bookkeeping from a volunteer group of retired accountants.
  • Surround yourself with people who support you. A lot of people said I was crazy to start my own business as a single mom. But I had a few people who believed in me.
  • Be okay with the knowledge that you won't know how to do everything right away and trust that you can learn.
  • Create a "mastermind group" - 2 or 3 people who are willing to have you bounce ideas off them every few weeks. I kept my group going for 10 years.
  • Realize it will be hard, and accept that.
Photo courtesy of Genie Ohashi

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