I was born in a small, agricultural town in GA. (sounds like the start of a novel, I know.) The town had one primary school, one middle school, one high school, and no colleges within 50 miles. My mom was raised by my great-grandmother who was extremely Old South and Old School, working class. My mom tells the story that my grandmother thought a young girl going to the library was sinful and warned her against it and other extracurricular activities – just school and home to help with chores.
Sinful to go to the library? When did that change?
My mom married my dad after he returned from Vietnam and they moved us (me and my brother) from that suffocating environment to the fantastical world of Miami, Florida. Beaches, a big wide, open world, people from all walks of life; we lived next door to the cousin of Russian Princess Anastasia Nikolaevna! On the other side of us was a church, which became my family’s church. I mean my entire family who’d relocated from Georgia over the years – many, many cousins! We lived in what once was the church rectory and were at church morning, noon and night on Sundays and Wednesday nights.
Okay, so after this very “church focused” upbringing, when did you start to think about other things?
I had a very loving neighbor, who showed me and told me about so many travels. Compared to my suffocating, old world reinforced by the “churchiness,” that was when my life started to change and my imagination began to soar. I wanted to see the world, learn everything, know everything, fly with the birds and often went “inside my own head” to create these worlds. Reading was my passion. It opened me up to all kinds of possibilities that were not a part of my normal reality. In addition, we moved several times throughout different parts of Miami, so I was introduced to diverse cultures – Cubans, Dominicans, Haitians, Jamaicans, Europeans, Brazilians, Panamanians were all among my closest friends. I began to see through their eyes that the world was HUGE … and ideas and beliefs were so varied.
So when did you start asking yourself “what do I want to do when I grow up”?
As a small child, I’m not sure if I had any particular dream. Like I said, I loved reading. I also began writing and entered many writing competitions and had a good showing in a few. I also liked to sing, so when I reached my teens I thought I’d be the next Beyoncé; well, back then I guess Donna Summer … or maybe I’d be a great writer (I loved the classics – Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Victor Hugo, etc., and even Reader’s Digest stories). My mom had different ideas … she was working on her Master’s Degree by then, and she felt strongly that education was the key to success in life. No career as a singer for her daughter, she said. She had a very effective programming process in place for my brother and me – she left books by Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill on our beds at night which we were required to read and discuss over dinner. She later started a home-based nutritional business that she expected me to help with – learn to interact with her clients and business partners, help design and deliver presentations, and more. Eventually my desire to sing (although I did sing in choir and talent competitions) or write my way to success fell by the wayside, but I’d developed some very useful skills that would support me tremendously over time.
So is this when you started thinking about being a businesswoman?
Well, I wouldn’t call this business, but I recall (around the age of 13) hearing something about literacy issues among kids in the neighborhood; kids weren’t reading! So, I started a tutoring/reading program at the library for neighborhood kids. My mom helped me send invites to local schools and drove me to and from the library every Saturday for weeks. The turnout was small but it was impactful to my life and I hope theirs as well. This experience was an early indicator of where my future interests would lay.
You sound like a jack of all trades. But what about any specific ideas about college or career?
At some point, I started thinking of becoming a doctor – a Psychiatrist to be precise. I’m not really sure why. I’ve heard that crazy people tend to gravitate to this profession, or at least those who have lots of issues to sort through. Dad’s post-traumatic stress disorder following his involvement in the war, my parents’ divorce, the angst I felt growing up, a deep-seated desire to better understand human behavior or a combination of all these things? Not sure. In any case, at 18, off I went to the University of Cincinnati to study pre-med. After 2 years of study in classes meant to weed-out the non serious and incapable, I realized I might be in one or both of those categories. Although I graduated with my Degree in Psychology, I had no desire to work in that field.
So what did you do?
Back in Florida, I began working for a US Congressman in his local office. It was a great experience where I learned a ton, but it convinced me I was NOT cut out for politics. Then I went to a biotech company that worked with the Salk vaccine and was a forerunner in AIDS research – what a mind-blowing experience that was. That reconnected me to science and started my mind dreaming of possibilities again. I applied to one of the only universities in the country offering a Master’s Degree in Advertising. My dream then was to get a job working as an Account Exec for an ad agency in Chicago. When I graduated, I was disappointed that high-paying jobs were scarce. At the time, I was working in the Office of Minority Student Affairs tutoring and teaching psych 101. The Dean of OMSA approached me about the possibility of getting a degree in HR – “what’s HR?” I replied. He told me about a recent WSJ article written about HR and how there was a shortage of qualified people to work in the field. As a result, I decided to earn a Master’s Degree in Labor and Industrial Relations (HR). I loved it, graduated and was offered more jobs than I ever imagined. There I was in a field that borrowed from both Psychology (study of Human Behavior) and Advertising (study of motivation, at its core). This was actually the moment I realized what my real interest was – people! A career in HR allowed me exposure to many sectors: Financial Services at Chase Bank in NY on Wall Street, and Providian Financial, Manufacturing with The Clorox Co, Biotech and Life Sciences (Applied Biosystems/Life Tech and Onyx Bio-pharmaceutical). Now, as an entrepreneur in the Luxury Goods arena, I’m able to put all of the knowledge, skills and abilities I’ve learned from academic and life training to work to grow my own business.
What do you know now that if you knew when you were 20 years old that you’d tell someone about their education and career track that might save them some time and some stress?
I think everyone has a different path based on their soul’s purpose, background, interests, etc. If they know their life’s desire early on and stick to it – great. If they change their minds later – fantastic. If they enter college and are cloudy about what they want to do and get the all-purpose liberal arts degree, that can work out too. One thing I will say is that although stats show college grads do earn more than those who don’t graduate, college may not be for everyone. Since becoming an entrepreneur I’ve met some amazing young people who have taken advanced seminars, extreme wealth bootcamps, and read and learned what’s necessary to start their own business without the foundation of college. These folks are amazingly successful, happy, fulfilled, and still had what’s often touted as the best part of the college experience – bonding with like minded people, or the socialization process. I’m finding that the key to a successful life is to learn in every way you can. Engage! Embrace new things and expand your mind as you grow and develop, follow your intuition. Read, travel, take a cooking class, volunteer with a community organization, attend networking events just because, whatever…create a consciousness of limitless possibilities. This ensures all kinds of options will be available to you at subsequent points in your life. College was a part of my learning journey, the journey was enhanced by other life experiences; such as traveling around the world, being introduced to skiing as a young girl growing up in the south with a limited world view, reading, joining girl scouts, the career choices I made, joining toastmaster’s, getting a coaching certification (paid for by my employer), co-authoring 2 books, writing my own sci-fi novel (in process), joining boards and various networking organizations, running track in HS, volunteering, and following my passion! No experience is ever wasted – it will be used later.
Terrace Ellis, thank you for speaking with us.
Be sure to view stunning jewelry, handbags, and accessories on Terrace’s GWT website.