From Homeless to Executive: Turning Failure into Fortune
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This post is part of a series of branded posts sponsored by Verizon. The focus of the series — part of a paid partnership between Verizon and CircleAround — is on women small business owners, and how they are navigating the complexities and challenges of contemporary business, from the pandemic to the economy.
The oldest of six children, Florida native Lena Graham-Morris has always been a confident, self-assured go-getter. In the early 2000s, she was a star on the ascent, carving out a career as a high-performing television and beauty consultant, working for PBS in Orlando for six years. Even after she got laid off, Graham-Morris reinvented herself, went to hair and beauty school, and hatched a plan to start her own TV studio.
But her fortunes turned quickly, and by 2007, she found herself at rock bottom, with no place to live. She was homeless (sleeping in her studio), was in a rocky relationship, and had no idea how she was going to pull herself out of her depression.
“It was horrible,” Graham-Morris tells CircleAround. “I got sick for six months, ended up in the hospital for 45 days, [had] three surgeries, and as I was going into my last surgery, they canceled my TV show.”
But this isn’t a sob story — it’s one of determination, imagination, and reinvention. And those three qualities, according to Graham-Morris, happen to be the bedrocks of entrepreneurial success. She says that hitting rock bottom was actually the best preparation for navigating the many challenges she has faced since — both in business and in life.
Also helpful in preparing for business success, she says, is coming from a family of entrepreneurs. She recalls playing at her grandmother’s office, helping with payroll tasks, not realizing then that she was being perfectly set up to get into business for herself someday. “That's what I grew up with,” recalls Graham-Morris. “It was so easy for me … I just grew up, just saw that. There were so many things I picked up just from being in the office every day with them and to see how they ran it.”
It was horrible. I got sick for six months, ended up in the hospital for 45 days, had three surgeries, and as I was going into my last surgery, they canceled my TV show.
One of those family members includes her favorite uncle, Jonathan Graham, with whom she now works at their Tampa-based family business, Horus Construction, where she is a vice president in the company. And even though she’s looked up to her uncle her entire life, Graham-Morris’ current career path wasn’t obvious — especially to her. She notes that her relatives assumed her two younger brothers, James and Justin, would go into the family construction business. But when her uncle called her up eight years ago saying they "should talk," she jumped at the chance to pivot and work alongside him. She says it has been a “wild, wild journey,” especially the last two years, since he named her his successor.
“When I step back and look, I'm, like, ‘Wow!’” says Graham-Morris. “This was my hero. Uncle hero, entrepreneur, and business-owner hero, and now we’re business partners.”
Reflecting on how to succeed in business, Graham-Morris notes that leading Horus Construction — which her uncle established with her father more than 30 years ago — through the pandemic has been challenging.
Layoffs, lost contracts, and shaken morale have put a huge strain on operations. But Graham-Morris notes this is not the first time that the business has faced hard times. She says that knowing how to pivot is central to staying in business through crises. Part of this strategy during the pandemic is figuring out how to go after new business at a time when face-to-face meetings have all but halted.
“To get those larger contracts, you really still have to have that contact [with partners],” says Graham-Morris. “People do business with people they know, they like, and they respect. COVID is really making it difficult for everyone.”
Graham-Morris says that she is holding regular meetings with business partners and management colleagues to figure out how to get on top of maintaining networking and business-generation proximity, even as physical distance remains in place, including sending out holiday gifts early.
“If we can't meet for lunch, we brainstormed on getting lunch delivered and having a video lunch,” says Graham-Morris. “Then we thought about having a mixer, actually having a DJ and doing a social distance mixer on video.”
Doing the Pandemic Pivot
Beyond these networking and personnel strategies, Graham-Morris said the company has also taken the opportunity to innovate by spinning off a new business venture in response to COVID-19 health protocols. “I was raised by entrepreneurs, and so you know, entrepreneurs always pivot,” she says. “It's always about the pivot.”
Sticking to the business they know during the pandemic, Graham-Morris and her uncle launched AMJR Services, a safety cleanup and sanitization consultancy to assist public buildings like schools and medical centers stay COVID-19 compliant. Graham-Morris notes that the new consultancy is filling an important need in Florida, which has been a coronavirus hot spot for months. She points out that it was a pivot that made sense to make up for lost construction contracts, especially as “we already have a relationship with a lot of the public sector. And we were already familiar with FEMA.”
At the human level, Graham-Morris points to the importance of meeting this pandemic moment to ensure staff feel heard and supported. She has an especially keen sense of responsibility for those who work for the company, because she’s known many of them since she was a kid.
“Our business is smaller and everyone is like family,” she says. “We know everyone. People are impacted with their families, their parents have been impacted, and so it's important for us to be a support.”
She adds: “Everything that I've gone through just makes me empathetic to individuals. … Every day I just try to make good decisions and have good people around me.”
An intrinsic people-person, Graham-Morris’ outlook is embedded in another business that she launched in 2018 to harness all the entrepreneurial spirit upon which she’s always relied to succeed. I Am Entreprenista is a business-coaching consultancy, which Graham-Morris describes as a natural evolution of her desire to see others achieve and to share her own entrepreneurial journey.
She says that, after her rock-bottom moment — when she was homeless and hopeless — she vowed along the way to share her hard times, so that others know that there is hope in failure. She applies this generosity of spirit especially with Black women — whom she says too often hit roadblocks in their careers due to gender and racial prejudice, and who are ready to take “control of your own destiny.”
“I have a sweet spot for women and Black women [because] I've been there, where no one believes in you,” Graham-Morris reflects. “Being a woman and a woman of color, I would hit the stress ceiling … that's my theory of why African American women are leading in becoming entrepreneurs.”
The absolute test of one’s character is the ability to lose as gracefully as you win.
Although it hasn’t always been easy, Graham-Morris says the best advice she can give is to quit fearing failure. She says that, if at her lowest point she had realized that failure is a natural part of the ebb and flow of life, she would have bounced back faster.
“I feel like if I had known that I wasn't the only person who ever went through that, then I wouldn't have been so disappointed and so disgraced that I made a mistake,” she says.
Graham-Morris has even coined a phrase that she shares with all her clients: “The absolute test of one’s character is the ability to lose as gracefully as you win.”