by Janna M Hall
When you think of your traditional “success story,” you might envision a college dropout who put his genius to use, and turned a small start-up into a billion-dollar technology company that transformed phones and computers as we know them today. Or perhaps you think of a man who went from being a homeless comedian who lived out of his car to a TV host, author, and radio personality with the flashiest suit collection known to man. Or maybe you think of a playwright who moved to Atlanta, spent his all to produce a play that flopped, but persevered until he conquered movie theaters across the country, earning the top spot on the Forbes’ Highest Paid Man in Entertainment list. Steve Jobs, Steve Harvey, and Tyler Perry’s “rags to riches” stories have empowered high-school dropouts, starving artists, and the poor as they pray for a bright future. If we work hard enough, we’re told, we, too, can achieve success. We can achieve that success.
Such aspirations are quite dangerous to the young mind. We think a story of triumph isn’t a true “success story” unless we’re on billboards and making more money than we can count. Truth is, though, that success stories come in all forms, from all types of people who’ve beat the odds and turned their life around. And true success is in the eye of the beholder. It’s about setting small goals and possessing a sense of pride when you accomplish them, and then setting even loftier goals and making them a reality. The stories we have to inspire us daily shouldn’t just come from celebrities we’ll likely never meet, nor figures of the past. Those heroes are right in our communities, touching lives on a local level every day.
Tonya Thompson is one of those local heroes. A once convicted felon, she’s taken control of her narrative and ensures her legacy is one that’s she’s built and written for herself, not one that resembles the unfortunate reality of many African Americans who have committed crimes and paid their debt to society. Now, as the Founder and CEO of Quality Cleaning Service, Thompson recalls her journey and is proud of the direction her life has taken despite some missteps along the way.
As a single parent, Thompson always maintained employment and a wage that allowed her to provide for her family. But as her children continued to grow and she remained the sole provider in the household, money became tight. “I never had enough money,” she recalls. “I’ll admit that I started making some bad decisions. I turned to a life of crime in order to give my children the life that I felt they should have.” Although she had good intentions, pursuing that life created a mark on her criminal record that was hard to erase. Fortunately for her, she never had to serve hardcore jail time—the extent of her time was served in the form of a six-month work-release sentence, so she was able to maintain some semblance of a normal life.
After paying her debt to society, Tonya struggled to land jobs she knew she was qualified for. She was a competitive force in the workplace, and was well equipped for well-paying office jobs. Unfortunately, the felony on her record created a hard-stop with employers. Employment in a position she was well-qualified for growing increasingly tough, Thompson knew it was time for some major changes in her life. Her children—and grandchildren—deserved to see a woman who had made mistakes and overcame them, and that’s exactly what Tonya set out to do with her life.
“The first changes started with my health,” Thompson says. “I told myself ‘you need to lose weight.’ I set specific goals for myself and monitored my progress every step of the way. I’d set a goal to lose 10 pounds this month, to exercise three times a week, and then I incorporated other goals. I told myself I wanted to get certain jobs. Very soon, my biggest goal was to get my rights restored.”
While dedicated to getting her rights restored, Thompson worked for a cleaning company. She worked tirelessly, Monday through Friday, earning countless amounts of money for the company while bringing home a tiny fraction of the profits. Though a means to an end, Tonya knew there were problems with the way it was set up. Very soon, the owners of the businesses she cleaned questioned why she didn’t take her talents and open her own cleaning company. They’d ask, “Why don’t you open your own business?” and she’d respond with fear and doubt. Truth is, she always had the ability to run her own business, but the intricacies about how to start and what to do intimidated her. But one day, she faced her fears, went back to her goal-setting ritual, and decided that this would be her next big accomplishment.
“I sat and wrote my goals,” Thompson remembers. “I said ‘by this time, I want to have my own business.’ And I stuck to that. I created a name, got the name registered, and got my business license. Once I had my license, I started going to different places of business and promoting my services.”
And that’s how Quality Cleaning Service has grown to be the successful business it is today—the power of word of mouth is truly immeasurable.
Today, Tonya’s business services commercial clients exclusively, particularly daycare centers in Richmond, VA, such as the nationally accredited Primrose Schools, and continues to grow thanks to the owners of those schools singing her praises to other business owners.
“So many great things have happened within the past two and a half years. I’ve grown so much as a person. My credit score is up, I’m able to purchase things (including the car I just purchased today!). I’ve lost 83 pounds, I’m working out, eating right, and living right. There just became a point in my life where I knew I couldn’t live the way I used to live.”
With her children grown and out of the house, and three grandchildren looking up to her, she knew she had to think longterm and not in the moment. She focuses on building a solid future, independent of social services and getting what she could out of the government. She wanted to have something to fall back on, a legacy to leave, and values she can pass along to her children and grandchildren.
Her legacy grows stronger every day. Through her cleaning business, she’s impacting the lives of other black women who are also convicted felons. “It’s harder for women to come out of the system with felonies to find jobs versus men,” Tonya explains. “In the prison system, there are all types of programs and training for men, but there’s very little training for women. Just because you’ve been in trouble doesn’t mean you’re destined to work fast food for the rest of your life.”
Thompson takes the time to teach them the business, and shows them what it takes to be an entrepreneur. She also works closely with the younger generation, linking boys from ages 13-16 with Black entrepreneurs who share their interests. Her goal is to show them what’s possible despite any odds.
Tonya is now the spokeswoman for Ways to Work, an organization that helps single mothers move toward financial stability, increased self-sufficiency and advanced career opportunities by providing them with reliable transportation. In 2012, Ways to Work gave Thompson an $8,000 loan to purchase her first vehicle. She was able to get out and research information vital to advancing her own business and establishing solid credit. She’s a living example of how such programs can help Virginia women reach goals and become their own success story.
Thompson hopes her legacy inspires generations of women who have taken unfortunate turns in life. “No matter what your past may have looked like, you can still make it. Because I only lived in the moment, I never thought these things would happen for me. I never planned for the future. But set goals, dream big and go for your dreams.”