|Meet Elaine Gordon
Her rags-to-riches story goes to show that achieving the American dream takes a little dreaming, but mostly a lot of doing...
Elaine Gordon grew up on welfare, started working at nine years old, and became a single mom at age 19. When a health crisis left her without a way to provide for her baby, she started the business that would become Elaine's American Maid (www.elainesamericanmaid.com) which today cleans about 140 homes per week and provides work to about 80 mostly low-income women.
Through her entrepreneurship, Evans traded welfare for a million-dollar home in Redmond, Washington. Daughter Shavawn, 32, is a nanny and clothing stylist for Madonna; son Paul, 24, is an accomplished filmmaker and author; and son Jonathan, 20, in his second year of Bible studies at The Master's College, recently arranged and recorded a rap CD with positive lyrics.
Not only did Evans launch herself and her children out of poverty, but she has also taken on about a gazillion other things...
Despite Poverty, She Saw Opportunity
"I grew up living in New York City on welfare. I had a mom who wasn't able to work because she was ill. I spent most of my young life taking care of her, and she died when I was 18 of heart disease. I feel like I grew up at age nine. I started ironing shirts for a nickel apiece. I was poor, but never felt poor in spirit. I looked around and saw the gold in the rocks, the opportunities. I knew the way to get to Park Avenue or the Plaza was through hard work.
"I cleaned houses, babysat, ironed shirts, worked in an office at 14 years old, anything that I could do to make money and teach myself the principles of being successful. My mother was the most encouraging person in the world. She said, 'Elaine, you can do whatever you want to do. I believe in you.' That's how I think I made it, through her words and her love."
'I Am Not Going to Be a Welfare Mom. I Am Not.'
"I didn't really like New York after my mother died, so I went to Florida at age 19. and found myself pregnant with my daughter Shavawn. I said to myself, 'I am not going to be a second-generation welfare mom. I am not. ' So I started cleaning houses, but I was so young and naïve, I ended up with a collapsed lung and in the hospital (from breathing in fumes of a cleaning chemical). I had to support my 18-month-old baby and serve my customers, so I called all my friends who I knew were single moms, and asked them to clean my customers' homes."
Job Becomes Business
"Inside six months, I had 95 people working for me, servicing 156 houses a week. I was behind a desk interviewing people constantly. I advertised in the paper. On the East Coast, everyone uses housecleaners. I got 50 calls a day. I had several answering services who didn't want to take care of me because my phones rang too much."
Making Something from Nothing
"I didn't have a penny. I started my business on a shoestring. I threw an ad in the paper, put one foot in front of the other, and the business developed from there. That's why I enjoy working with low-income women, because you hardly need anything to start your own housecleaning business.
"My mission is helping low-income women across America to open their own housecleaning services to support themselves. I want to help all women who just want to survive. Then I want to launch them in their second businesses... what they really want to do, what they want to be when they grow up. They know how to make things work and how to survive with nothing. Give them a few tools and they are going to be the most phenomenal entrepreneurs you have ever seen."
Helping Low-Income Women to Help Themselves
"What I'd really like to do is launch nationwide, not so much to license or franchise, but to go into cities and have seminars and teach women how to open their own housecleaning businesses. I would charge a small fee, but would want the women to find sponsorships to attend the seminar, maybe from the government or churches."
Free Home Cleanings for Cancer Patients
"I have one of the top law firms in Seattle submitting paperwork to the IRS right now to get non-profit status for Maid for Life, a foundation that gives away free housecleaning to women with cancer, men who have just lost their wives to cancer, or parents whose children are dying of cancer.
"People are always wondering, 'What can I do for someone who has cancer?' Help them clean their house. A clean home signifies order in a chaotic life.
"I have been donating housecleaning services to women with cancer and to men whose wives have died of cancer for two years now. I have been underwriting the cost myself. I would say that over the last two years hundreds and hundreds of people have called me."
Next Project: Branding Herself
"That's why I work 15 hours a day to keep my doors open. I have a lot of expenses.
And that's why I want to make some major steps besides going nationwide. I want to go on TV and do talk shows around the country and brand myself as a cleaning expert... the next Domestic Diva, or as my friend nicknamed me, 'The Queen of Clean.' "
Do You Have Housecleaning 'Issues'?
"It's not so much about what gets out what spot on the rug. I want to talk to women frankly about their issues behind the doors and how they relate to housecleaning. I find that the more women complain about housecleaning, the more they have other issues. Sometimes women would call me up screaming and yelling about just a little dust behind the toilet, and I would wonder, 'Why are you losing it over this?' It's because the American woman today has way too much on her plate."
How to Be Happy with Your Housecleaner
"Communication is key. If you're not able to communicate what you want, you're not going to get what you want. Where there are a lot of problems, it's usually because clients are not able to communicate with the housecleaner about what gets them excited, whether it's clean floors or the kitchen or the bathroom."
Clean Up and Workout
"I also want to be a guest cleaner on shows like Martha, The View, etc. I'm developing a 30-minute workout that teaches you how to clean up the house before company comes or in between your maid service, and get an aerobic workout at the same time. I'm working with an exercise physiologist and a sports medicine doctor. We are going to put together a video in the next month."
Her Dream House
"Financially, I'm extremely successful. I bought a house all by myself that's worth almost $1 million, in area of Seattle that is like the street of dreams. When I bought the house, my neighbors looked at me like 'What is a single mother doing in this neighborhood?' They did not get me at all.
"I want to be able to use my house as a platform. When low-income women come in, I tell them, 'This is America. This is my story. This is possible for you.' I'm humbled to live here. But I don't sit back comfortable like I could not lose it. I have to continue to work hard."
Greatest Success -- Cinderella Stories
"Taking a woman who has no self-esteem, is completely downtrodden and distraught, and looking at her and telling her how amazingly beautiful and talented she is, and how I'm going to work to bring that out. The most amazing Cinderella stories happen.
"When women come into my office, their shoulders are drooped. Perhaps they came out of domestic violence. In two months time, these women bounce in and out of my office. All because I believed in them and gave them the tools to unlock the secrets inside themselves. That's been my greatest joy. That's why I get out of bed every morning."
Greatest Challenge -- The Occasional Screaming Customer
"Getting up every day and continuing on with the job I've done for 30 years. There are some days when customers have very naughty behavior. There's no reason for a woman to hyperventilate, to scream and swear and yell at me over housecleaning problems that are fixable. We need to be more allowing for grace and mercy."
Words of Advice
"In the great words of Winston Chuchill, 'Never, never, never give up.' Keep on keeping on. It will happen as long as you don't quit. You might take a breather, but no quitting."
'If You Have the Idea or the Inclination... Just Go Do It'
"I freelance as a photojournalist and went to Ground Zero with my son Paul three weeks after 9/11, which helped to cultivate his career as a filmmaker. I made all the arrangements, not knowing how we were going to get access to Ground Zero. Meanwhile, Paul was finishing a film project with the Redmond police department, and he told the police commander he was filming, ' We're leaving for New York tomorrow.' The police commander said, 'My best friend is the head of public relations for the city of New York police department. Your media passes will be ready.' The press pass just fell out of the sky.
"The piece we filmed became an historical document -- the Library of Congress deemed it an historical document. It was nominated for an Emmy. When we returned from Ground Zero, we were all over the local Seattle TV news. If you have the idea, the inclination or the fire inside of you to go do something, just go do it."
Quote of the Week
"People used to accuse me of not knowing any better, and that's how I get things done.
I live so much in a different realm. I believe there's nothing you can't accomplish unless you don't believe you can do it, or you don't have the talent for it."