Hi. I’m Carolyn Johnson, and I live in Phoenix, Arizona. This is my story.
The Phoenix was a mythological bird that sprang to life anew from the ashes of its former self. The story of the phoenix or its counterparts is found all over the world, and has become a universal symbol of rebirth and renewal. I find irony in the fact that the turning point of my life took place in a city of this name. This is the story of my life and struggles, my fall and recovery. In one aspect or another it is the story of many women, and I believe relating it to you preserves the legacy and benefit of a life that has been worth living, and continues to be so now more than ever.
We are all shaped by early childhood experiences. The abuse of alcohol was a common thread among the adults of my childhood. My father was an alcoholic. Both of my maternal grandfathers were alcoholics and died before I was born. Several members of both of my parents families were alcoholics and, at the least, heavy drinkers. In my teens and early twenties I was a heavy drinker, and this was facilitated by the fact that I had a high tolerance for alcohol and rarely had a hangover. At the age of about 19 my mother warned me that my continued heavy drinking would lead me to a life much like my fathers.
When I was nineteen I married an alcoholic. Like so many alcoholic men, my husband was violent and physically abusive. By the old age of 21 I was separated, and often hiding for the safety of myself and baby girl. Many times I parked seven or eight blocks away from the office where I worked, and I vividly remember the terror of expecting my estranged husband to pop out of one of the side streets or alleys at any time to accost me.
I grew up in a very strict, traditional, and patriarchal religion. The double standard prevailed. When I asked my Dad for permission to go to college, I was told No, that’s for men. Somehow the message came through that a girl was not meant, and should not attempt to do what males did. When I was little and we went to visit family, Dad would stand in the doorways of one of my boy cousins’ bedrooms and make comments to me like “This is what your room was supposed to look like,” meaning the baseball bats, footballs, caps, and other guy stuff. To the degree that my Dad loved me, it was in the only way he knew; critical, unsupportive, denigrating. According to Dad, I was never smart enough or attractive enough, and the word “stupid” was not uncommon in our household. There was an almost obsessive concern with female sexuality, and if a daughter was more than five minutes late home from a date, the only possible reason could be she was pulling on her clothes. My father thought the only reason a woman would want a job and go to work was in order to find a sex partner.
Guilt was a prominent part of our religious upbringing. I remember loving Jesus and feeling sorry for Him because mean men crucified him. I also grew up believing God was always mad at me because I couldn’t be perfect and stop sinning, or being bad. On Saturdays all the kids would go to church for confession at the same time and we would wait in line for our turn. I wanted to tell all my sins at Confession as fast as I could because the longer I was in the confessional the more sure the other kids were that I had committed lots of sins since last Saturday. Then I wanted to get my penance said as quickly as possible so I didn’t have to kneel for a long time at the altar . . . another sure sign of the heavy sinner. I got really good at saying those prayers in triple time.
I always hoped that if I were to die before my next confession with sin on my soul, there would be someone there to administer last rites so I wouldn’t go to hell. Never one to be unprepared, I taught my girlfriend across the street (even though she was not of my religion) how to administer last rites in the event she was nearby when I lay dying. As I got older I peppered the priest with questions like: “If I have to be prayed from Purgatory to Heaven, will I go based on being next in line, or will I go based on my own friends and family praying for me?” I was afraid that if I had to depend on friends and family, they might forget and not say enough prayers to get me there. “How will they know how long to pray and when I get there?” The priests would shake their heads and tell me these were questions I did not need to concern myself with . . . just have faith. Another big question to me was: “How come if I murder someone I will go to hell because it is a mortal sin and my neighbor won’t because they aren’t the same religion?” The response was because I knew it was a mortal sin and they didn’t. I obviously sometimes wished I hadn’t been privileged to be “in the know”…as it could one day be detrimental to my final destiny. My great need to understand how to be good doubtlessly frustrated the priests.
As a child I was taught to never enter a room of adults unless invited in, never to ask a question, and never to speak unless spoken to. The results were quite predictable. I became introverted. I avoided my father because he often had a mean tongue. In high school we moved to an old house that was back in the hills of our small town, so that neighbors didn’t know when my dad went to work and when he didn’t, because of the job he had. There was a dry river bed that we had to drive across from the road to get into our property. When it rained hard the riverbed would overflow and sometimes it would be impossible to cross. When it appeared that was going to happen I would call a girlfriend and have her come get me before it got too high so I would not have to go home for a night or two. Sometimes I would wade to the far side just before flood stage so that I had an ironclad excuse for not being able to come home. I went to work at the age of 14 in a five & dime store and Dad stopped buying most of my clothes because now I had money of my own.
Because my parents never argued in front of anyone I had no idea there were problems between them. I doubt that either of my sisters suspected it either. When I was out one evening my mother made her first attempt to take her life. Later I was to learn that she couldn’t deal with the guilt of leaving my dad, because he was not a well man (years of alcohol and its consequences) and she did not want to hurt anyone . . . children, the families, or friends. She just felt that if she “went away” it would be easier for my dad to go on along with the rest of us. Mother had always let me do things my dad wouldn’t let me do…stay out an extra hour, go out to a game when my dad said no, and she would suffer his wrath for me. Growing up mom was my role model and my hero because I got to do things I would not otherwise had been able to do…go on a date, go to the high school football game, etc. The day after I graduated from high school, she left my father and only took my younger sister with her. I thought she had abandoned me. Only later would I understand that she left to save herself and felt I was old enough to make it without her . . . but she could no longer make it where she was. She moved to a little place on the beach and there found tranquility and peace. However, eventually she allowed my dad to join her and she was to eventually make two more attempts to end her life. The third time she stopped herself realizing that she wanted to live, and she left my father for good. The pattern had been set for my mother, however, and she subsequently got involved with more abusive men.
It was to be many years before I understood that women in these situations would put up with emotional and physical pain, embarrassment, humiliation and degradation because it was their paradigm; it was all they knew. The misery they knew somehow seemed safer than the unknown. My own dad would ask me why I kept doing things to make my husband mad. Not all abuse is of the physical kind. Verbal abuse is shown by contemptuous, coarse, and insulting language. Most abuse is an effort by a person with low self-esteem to feel better about himself or herself by putting another person down. Women with low self-esteem are a lightening rod that attracts it. Then we try to become what will make this other person happy and whole. The mental health profession often refers to this as co-dependent behavior.
Little did I know that I was a normal, healthy girl in an extremely critical and punitive home environment. How could I, and other young women from similar backgrounds, possibly have known that some girls grew up in supportive families where their self-esteem was frequently nourished with reminders of how beautiful and talented they were? Because of this early environment, these girls grew up as self-assured, confident women with a different view of the world that was possible to them. These women frequently partnered successfully with emotionally healthy, nurturing men; men who encouraged the self-development of their wives. For the rest of us, the choice was to get bitter or get better. I decided to get better.
I wanted to do Big things. I wanted to make a difference, first in my life, and then for others.
So here I was, barely twenty years old, married to an alcoholic. But this alcoholic was not only a verbally abusive one . . . he was also a physically violent one. Within a year I had a beautiful baby girl and was to find myself fleeing from him for our safety and started the struggles of being a single mom. I got my first job as a dental assistant by agreeing to work for free if the dentist would teach me the trade. Three weeks later he found a job for me.
Because of my marital experience I wanted to make sure that I would be able to care for myself and my daughter and not have to depend on someone else. Therefore, for over a year, I worked two full-time jobs to make ends meet. During that time I did not have one full day off during the week. This eventually led to a great opportunity; when an orthodontic manufacturer began recruiting women to sell in the field, I was hired, along with 20 other gals across the country. This led to an even better position with another dental manufacturer and I became the first woman dental manufacturers’ representative in the United States. Instead of working directly with the dentists, I worked through the manufacturers’ dental sales people. That was when I began to develop my vision of possibilities beyond the life of secretarial and knew I would never again work in an office.
At that time men were being paid $32 – 36,000, plus expenses, per year and I was being paid $5,800, plus expenses, to do the same job. My boss’s response when I would ask was always the same…. “You are being paid top secretarial wages.” Even though I was doing the same job as the men, I was paid on a secretary’s pay scale because that’s how men thought of us.
My first challenge in sales was to get the doctors to move their focus from me, as the product, to the real business product. Doctors would take time with us women sales reps out of curiosity, but it was more of a challenge to get them to take us as seriously as they did the male reps. It became a game with me to see how quickly I could get their attention on my product and I became a ground breaker for other women entering the field as manufacturers’ reps.
Because of my previous dental experience, I knew how the equipment worked and could even demonstrate our products alongside the doctor with his patients. I was more familiar with their professional dental jargon than my male counterparts with the same job description. Even so, my boss could not give me parity pay with what male counterparts were paid in the same industry. Instead he would make it up to me in small ways. . . like new tires for my car, enough money to pay off some of my credit cards, a company gasoline card for my trips out of down.
I did not complain; I was thrilled with the training I received, the adventure of business travel, and a whole new world of opportunity. This boss was my first experience with a male mentor who taught me to survive and thrive in a man’s world. I took part-time jobs when they fit my schedule in the evenings to supplement my financial needs.
Looking back, I know that this new learning experience would not have been possible had I not gotten my first job as a dental assistant by offering to work for free in exchange for education. Without knowing it at a conscious level, I already had a grasp of the value of deferred gratification. I was willing to wait for my compensation if opportunity presented itself. Where would I be today if I had adopted the prevailing employee attitude of “Am I going to get paid for that extra ten minutes?” Would I still be in the secretarial pool, waiting for my next 2% raise? Instead of the freedom I currently enjoy, someone might be giving me a write-up because I was ten minutes late for one more boring bureaucratic meeting!
When mom left dad, after 21 years of marriage, she got the first real job of her life with the Yellow Pages in Long Beach. I was so proud of her and excited and I loved the gals she worked with…they dressed professionally, worked hard, made good money, and had fun together! They worked by phone, as they were not allowed to do “outside”sales, a privilege only afforded the men. Several years later, they started allowing women some of those positions with the understanding that if they couldn’t “cut it on the outside” they were out of a job and could not go back to selling by phone…no matter how good they had been at it. Mom risked it and was very successful at it.
I loved what the Yellow Pages women did and was to find myself employed, years later, by Yellow Pages in Arizona. At Yellow Pages, as elsewhere, men predominated in higher levels of management. I remember when, in the early 70’s the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission intervened and the company quickly promoted the exact number of females they needed to be in compliance. Years later, when the first woman was brought in as a Vice President all the women cheered. But it wasn’t long before women began criticizing her for spending so much time and effort at work. “What kind of a life is this for her kids, for her husband?” was what you heard. I remember thinking that sometimes we women are our own worst enemies! We want equality in work, but without the time and effort necessary to do the job!!! Unfortunately, many women make the assumption, and comments to others, that if you have an executive position that requires time and travel (as it does a man) that you don’t love, or provide your family needs as much as the stay- at- home mom, or mom that works a 9 to 5 job.
This thought was reinforced on another occasion, not too long ago when a group of all-female business partners met at a restaurant in a city where I was working. The hostess led us to our meeting room downstairs, and she remarked that she had never experienced an all-female business meeting at her restaurant before and she thought that was great. A few minutes later the hostess brought in our male waiter and introduced him to us and several of the ladies responded by loud Woohoos and catcalls, and I couldn’t help thinking “And we wonder why men don’t take us seriously in the business world??”
Big Business, Small Business, and Monkey Business
The corporate world has its flaws; the workplace was changing rapidly from the Industrial Age to the Information Age and eventually I left it in disappointment. But for years it also provided an exciting place for me to escape and enjoy business education and personal growth. Very different from the dysfunctional family life I had grown up in, it whetted my appetite for greater personal development. I had a good mind, I was eager and ambitious, and I wanted to do something important with my life. Beginning with my job as dental manufacturer’s rep, and on through a 20-year career with the Yellow Pages, I learned much about the world, about other people, and most of all, about myself. I am grateful for all the lessons. None of it was wasted on me. I learned about big business; I learned about small business, and I learned about monkey business.
Virtually all of my corporate life has been spent in some form of sales, marketing, advertising, and public relations. Some of the marketing was in direct sales, and in time some of it was in business capital and charity fundraising. I became a powerhouse in public relations for my clients, and people came to me for advice on where to give, what to give, and to whom. I was part of the “Turn Yellow into Gold” campaign for the Yellow Pages and was able to carry the lessons learned into my personal business ventures thereafter. As a member, and eventually President, of the Phoenix Ad Club representing the National Ad Club, I was responsible for the Board, brought in speakers at major events, participated in the annual national ad campaigns and ad placements, chose the media, and identified trends in the industry. For 25+ years I sat on many boards, councils, and advisory committees throughout the valley.
After twenty years, I left Big Business. AT&T had broken up a few years before; the Baby Bells had fallen apart. The deal had always been, give your life to the company and be looked after for the rest of our working lives. The covenant had been broken; everyone knew it was all about the numbers; we were on our own and the party was over. It wasn’t fun any more. There was lots of anger and disillusionment. I quit and walked away.
I joined forces with a small businessman who was pioneering the niche of Cause-Related Marketing. I formed my own company, Just ‘cause, under the umbrella of the parent business. Just ‘cause created coloring books with messages for children, and pages were sponsored by business organizations, with a percentage of the profits going to the Children’s Hospitals around the country. The coloring books were distributed through sporting games at the Phoenix Suns arena, the Cardinal Stadium and to schools—the kids and teachers loved them! They would use them as learning tools and essay projects.
The main part of our business created an exciting coalition of printers, each with a different print product, across the United States. These companies sent work to each other in order to offer full services to their customers and they donated, for no additional cost to their customer, a percentage of their profits to the Children’s Hospital in their town; Cause-Related marketing at it’s finest! One large printer was so excited about what we were doing that they offered to help fund the program to make it bigger and better and to benefit more children. Sadly, the founder of this worthy undertaking had a different Cause in mind, because he disappeared with a big chunk of the funds of the entire operation, which subsequently folded.
I then was on my own and became a marketing consultant to companies with 25 or fewer employees. I also enjoyed writing business and marketing plans for start-up companies and preparing them to seek capital funding for their enterprises. Many wanted me to work for sweat equity, the promise of a “piece of the action” when money started coming in. I learned quickly that being paid in percentage of ownership equity did not pay the mortgage, and that if my clients either could not, or would not, pay, there was little I could do to collect. I learned why so many small businesses fail, and why mine could too: running out of cash.
In 1997, through contacts in the industry I learned about a rare opportunity in my own backyard. Two brothers that owned a large recreational rental business wanted to create a motorcycle rally in the Phoenix area, not unlike those in the rest of the country. Even though my partner and I knew nothing about motorcycle rallies, we knew how to develop and produce events, so I promptly called the Marketing Director at the company and asked for an opportunity to make a presentation. He told me they were down to the last two finalists for the job, but did agree to give my partner and I fifteen minutes the next morning to make a presentation!! Our first charge was to come up with a name for our business and Cause & Effect, LLC was born!
My partner and I worked throughout the night, going home long enough to get clothes for the next day. She was incredibly creative and as she put together a flip chart outlining 11 different events to take place in nine days for bikers around the world in Phoenix, I proceeded to put together a contract that we could present. As they were making a decision that week, I decided that a proposal would be a waste of time; an actual contract was in order. I wanted it to include giving, so we created a charity name and logo with the idea that a different charity in the Valley would benefit from each event. We crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s, and the next day, five minutes into Kelly’s presentation on the events, their names, and what they would look like, the Marketing Director stopped the meeting, left the room, and came back ten minutes later with the owners.
After the event presentation, I handed each of them a formal contract. When they questioned this tactic, I told them that it was my understanding they would be making a decision that day; they were already familiar with the other two companies vying for the contract, so there was no need for further delay and a contract seemed in order. We were hired, with a $2,000,000 budget.
With only seven months planning time, the first year we attracted 100,000 bikers to Phoenix; the second year we attracted 250,000 bikers for nine days and eleven events from all over the world. The charities that sponsored each event got 10% of the revenue from the event. By the third year charities were competing for sponsorship privileges.
By the end of the second year of Bike Week, I gave my life to Jesus Christ and my life began to change. While I met amazing people through the event, I knew that I needed to change direction. I wanted to do something Big now, but with a different focus. I decided to create a significant Christian event, and I dubbed it Light in The Desert. My family, friends, and others joined me and we planned this event for an entire year. We rented the Peoria Sports Complex, and on April 24, 2000 the crowds came.
But not enough of them.
I spent everything I had in my 401K, any savings I had, and I even charged my three little credit cards to the max. I was sure I would break even. And by 7 p.m. that evening my spirits were dashed and bookkeeping revealed that my expenses exceeded our revenues by no less than $110,000. I had only expected to break even in our first year, but a $110,000 loss? Probably not a lot of money to some business minds, but to me, an individual, working this event out of my home? Devastating!
The year was 2000, and somehow 55 years of my life had flown by. I had been married and divorced twice; my children were grown and married. My Mom had suffered a disabling stroke way back in 1974, and for 28 years I had been her primary caretaker until she moved into a nursing home in 2002. I went to see her several times each week. I had wanted to provide good things for my children; I wanted to do as much as I could for my incapacitated mother, who had helped me have, what I believe was a good childhood. My mom had always been my best friend. I had wanted to do so much for others too, and that was why I kept coming back to charities. I wanted to do Big things, meaningful things. I wanted to make a difference. Was that so bad? And now I had failed. I owed $110,000 I didn’t have.
When you try to do Big things, you risk Big failures. Or as Donald Trump would say, you can’t have an edge unless you’re willing to live on one. Trust me when I tell you however that I wasn’t feeling like Donald Trump at the time.
The phoenix in Phoenix
After conferring with friends and advisors, within a few months I decided I was going to repay the entire debt outstanding, and I developed a 12-year repayment plan. I liquidated everything, including my home and furniture, moved into a 10 x 12 room in a friends little two-bedroom condo and I set about making tiny minimum monthly payments to my creditors. I was both embarrassed and ashamed at the circumstances I found myself in, and I just hunkered down for the eternity it was going to take me to dig myself out.
Just a few months after my apocalyptic financial meltdown, I had occasion to socialize with a cousin I had grown up close to, Bob Schmidt, at a family Thanksgiving reunion in his home. As anyone knows who has been down and out, nothing grates more on a soul in misery than to be confronted with the outrageous good fortune of another. The comparison between their circumstances and your own is very difficult to bear. Bob had the quiet assurance and material trappings of wealth; one didn’t have to look very hard to notice! Perhaps because he was family or more likely because Bob was Bob, I was more curious than miffed. There was no arrogance in Bob; just a genuine warmth and openness. I wanted to know what he knew, because Lord knew, I needed to do something different than what I had been doing.
It was to be another three years, 2003, before Bob introduced me to the XanGo opportunity in network marketing, and after three years of chipping away every month at my debt load, I needed no further encouragement. Bob had become the brother, mentor, and advisor I had never had. His wife Barbara was an incredible person and I admired what they represented and the way they lived and shared with others. I just asked Bob to wind me up and tell me what to do. I was going to follow his instructions implicitly, and within a year I moved out of my 10 x 12 room into my own apartment, and by 2005 I had retired my debt, seven years ahead of schedule. That same year I purchased the $1.3 million home in which I still reside. In Phoenix I was reborn. . . both in my Christian walk and in my ability to create time and financial freedom for myself.
How was I able to come back so far, so fast? For starters, shame, embarrassment, and desperation are powerful motivators. You either get bitter or you get better. Some allow their circumstances to define them; I chose to define myself and rise above my circumstances. I had a great mentor and teacher in my cousin Bob. So when the door to opportunity opened for me in 2003, I wasn’t caught napping, nor was I indecisive. I ran through the door and never looked back.
I was a good candidate for network marketing, and XanGo in particular, because Bob Schmidt told me that if in addition to my work ethic, professionalism and integrity I could be coachable and consistent, my outcome in this endeavor would be different than anything I had ever done before. When I made a commitment, I kept it, whatever the cost. I was accustomed to employing myself, and I was no stranger to self-discipline. I clearly had shown a willingness to defer gratification—for years, while I paid down my debt from one bad day in business. I had always yearned to do something Big and meaningful, but for the previous three or four years, Big for me was Survival, putting one foot in front of the other. I had been humbled by the great equalizer of Adversity, and I was ready to learn.
What I Have Learned
• As trite as it sounds, a good mind is a terrible thing to waste. Over the years I have been happiest when challenged to learn and master something new, a new problem to solve. I need the intellectual stimulation of achievement.
• Fear has to be overcome. My faith has been my salvation. As Lennon Ledbetter said once “Fear knocked; Faith answered; No one was there.” Or as Roosevelt said in his first Inaugural Address, the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We cannot allow ourselves to be shell shocked or traumatized into inaction by life’s misfortunes. We have to focus, learn, and above all, move! Action is an antidote to fear.
• It is better to live alone than it is to live with someone who abuses you. Everyone deserves to be with someone that loves and respects you for who you are. Friends should never be treated better than you.
• Good role models and mentors are priceless and are more important than money in the short term. Taking time to learn from them is the fastest way to build wealth in the long run. Slow down to hurry up.
• Money isn’t everything, but it ranks right up there with air. Lack of money is the root of illness, divorce, poverty, and living in daily fear.
• All organizational behavior leads eventually to dumbing down the organization. The first rule of traditional management is to never hire someone who is smarter than you, who might outshine you. When applied to network marketing, we recruit and sponsor down, each level going ever lower, until we are making presentations in the soup lines. This is a mistake to be avoided at all costs. Surround yourself with those that are smarter than you…that is the key to success! This requires a high level of self-confidence and self-esteem.
• I struggle daily with being disappointed in others. I have a no-nonsense bootcamp mentality that not everyone can relate to. I set very high expectations for myself, but if I encourage others to set their expectations too high, I can inadvertently set them up for disappointment in themselves, and possibly resentment of me. In corporate America I was occasionally admonished that my “politics sucked”. My reports were always ready, my projects complete, the policies adhered to, because, after all, wasn’t that what I was paid for? I never thought anything of it. Often, I found myself out of sorts with my peers.
• Never try to be something, or someone, you’re not. Let the world accept you as you are; if you disguise who you really are, you have no chance of meeting the very people to whom you could relate, and they have no way of finding you! Find your voice and speak your mind. It is possible to say what you mean, and mean what you say, without being mean when you say it!
Because of my upbringing and life’s experiences, I have a special place in my heart for the issues unique to women. I know now that no matter where you came from, or what has passed before in your life, none of it matters. What matters is what you choose to do now. Whatever cards life has dealt you before today, this is a new hand. You can get bitter, or you can get better.
Are you less than thrilled with where you are, or where you have been? Do you have some catching up to do, some fences to mend, some mistakes to fix? Are you underemployed and underachieving? Are you willing to learn some new things? Do you understand that what got you to where you are, may not get you to where you have the potential to go? Wherever you live on this planet, you too can rise from the ashes, like the phoenix, and experience your own personal renaissance!
Dare to dream. Create a plan. Find a mentor.
Then Do It.