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Small Business

Nonprofit Success Story: Every Woman Works

A former corporate trainer helps struggling women become self-sufficient.

Tillie O'Neal-Kyles, founder and CEO of Every Woman Works Matthew Mahon/Redux

Kiplinger's spoke with Tillie O'Neal-Kyles, 69, of Sandy Springs, Ga., about how she started her nonprofit company, Every Woman Works, which helps women recovering from abuse and homelessness. Here are excerpts from our interview:

You’re retired? I was. After 30 years with AT&T, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Then they hired me back on contract to teach leadership skills to engineers who were promoted to management. I worked for other companies, too. But the corporate world didn’t reward the principles that I taught. So I asked God, “You created me. What’s my purpose?” I was told that my life had prepared me for the challenge of helping women in recovery from substance abuse, domestic violence and homelessness.

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How do you relate to them? My family was poor. My folks picked cotton in Arkansas, and my father was a Baptist minister. I married young and had three children, and I ended up as a single parent, not by choice. In 2012, I lost a daughter to cancer, so I can identify with women who talk about loss.

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How did you begin? I was invited to consult with the Mary Hall Freedom House, the number-one recovery center in Atlanta. I realized, Hallelujah! Here are the women I am to serve. I worked there without pay to gain experience. In 2004, I coined the name Every Woman Works to reflect that you must have a job to become self-sufficient. My first clients came from Freedom House.

What’s the program? It’s like four to eight weeks of boot camp, but it’s run with love. We provide classes to develop skills in résumé writing, interviewing, dressing for success, health and wellness, and parenting. It’s also a ministry. We begin every day with an “hour of power” to help women see themselves differently.

Where did you get your funding? I took $10,000 [after taxes] from my 401(k), and my church offered use of a building for the training center. Now I receive a salary of $3,000 a month, and we rent a much nicer building. We have thousands of donors, plus corporate sponsors, including General Electric, Kimberly-Clark and LexisNexis. We contract with Fulton County to help women receiving temporary assistance and with the U.S. Department of Labor to help homeless vets.

You recently opened a boutique? We accumulated an extensive clothes closet from donations and gave the really high-end stuff to a thrift shop. But then I had an epiphany: We could sell those things ourselves to raise money, and students who wanted retail experience could work in the shop.

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What has been your greatest challenge? I hadn’t a clue about how to run a not-for-profit. I’d wake up at 3 a.m. and think, What have I gotten myself into? But I learned by trial and error. For example, I learned that you need board members who don’t just share your passion, but who have money or know people with money. Now I’m learning how to run a ministry like a business through Ministry Ventures.

So much for retirement? Yes! I’m working harder today than ever before, but I get instant gratification. The women come in with that dull look, the bowed head. Oh, to see the light go on! I feel that if I died today, I would go before my master, and He would say, “Well done.”

Have a success story you want to share? Write us at successstory@kiplinger.com.