It was the early 1960s and society had her pegged as another sad statistic: a poor African-American teenager from the inner city, a high school dropout, and, at the age of 16, an unwed mother. But Gladys Edmunds didn't believe in statistics. "I was shocked the day I heard someone say 'Inner-city teen-age mothers have become an epidemic.' I didn't know that, I was busy managing myself. I wasn't trying to live what others had decided for me," she told the Boomer Career Web site. Determined to provide for her child, Edmunds started up a travel business from a card table in her tiny Pittsburgh apartment. Thirty years later the card table has given way to a multi-million dollar business. Looking back on her life, Edmunds realized that anyone could achieve what she had. "Everyone is an entrepreneur," she told Boomer Career. "Your life is your enterprise and your assets and net profit are your well-being; everyone has something to manage and grow." So Edmunds wrote a book on entrepreneurship, founded a motivational speaking firm, and began penning a column for USAToday. Soon the press was clamoring for interviews. Everyone wanted to know how a teenaged mother from the wrong side of the tracks made her way up the corporate ladder of success. Edmunds graciously complied, but modestly rejected the accolades. "Am I successful? Success means something different for everyone. If longevity equates success, then maybe. But the way I see it, everyday above ground is a success," she told the E-Magnify Web site. "You just do what you have to do, and that's what I've done all my life."
Founded First Business at Age 12
Born Gladys Baynes in the early 1950s, Edmunds was the first of nine children of Peter and Jeanne Baynes. While her mother raised the children, pinching pennies and saving spare change to be able to afford the down payment on a suburban home, her father often worked two jobs as a laborer to provide for the family. Peter Baynes was used to the task. He had left school as a teenager to help raise his 12 brothers and sisters after his father died. His mother had dropped out of school when she got pregnant. Edmunds recalled to Boomer Career that her parents often reminded her of the sacrifices they had made and hoped that she would become the first in the family to go to college. However the young Edmunds had other things to think about—mainly money.
"I equated working and making money, from way back," Edmunds told USAToday. After a brief stint selling candy at a neighbor's store when she was barely six, Edmunds took to fantasizing about having her own store. Soon her fantasies shifted to a pair of Buster Brown shoes. She had seen them in television commercials and had to have them. Begging her mother did no good, as the family was struggling as it was without worrying about over-priced black and white lace-up oxfords. So Edmunds did what came natural to her—she started a business. Just 12 years old at the time, Edmunds disguised her voice and cold-called several office buildings to sell them her cleaning services. She told USAToday that within hours, "I had tons of [jobs]." She cajoled family and friends into helping her out and shared the profits with them. When school started two weeks later, Edmunds showed up for the first day of class with a brand new pair of Buster Browns on her feet.
Edmunds future looked bright until, at the age of 15, she wound up pregnant. "My father said I had ruined my life," she recalled to Boomer Career. Though her parents insisted that she marry her boyfriend, Edmunds refused. Despite the social stigma attached to being an unwed teenaged mother, Edmunds wanted to take on the challenge of motherhood by herself. Doing that would require money and Edmunds wasted no time getting to work. "I never thought in terms of labels, whether I could or could not do something," she told E-Magnify. "I just did it, and I didn't have any great vision. I just needed to make some money [for me and my baby]—legally." She sold fire extinguishers and Bibles door-to-door. She made home-cooked meals for taxi drivers. She ironed clothes. After her daughter, Sharon, was born, Edmunds moved into her own apartment and began to think of other ways to make money. A bus trip to a horse track in West Virginia provided the answer.
Launched Travel Business from Card Table
Edmunds paid five dollars for the bus ticket, then looked around and counted 40 seats on the bus. When she learned that she could rent the entire bus herself for $49, she recalled to USAToday, "My antenna went way up." Within days she set up shop on a card table in her living room. Again disguising her voice to seem older, she chartered the bus then hit the phones to sell the seats. She sold out in two days. The following week, she chartered two buses. She quickly proved herself an expert at customer service, arranging special charters and different destinations for clients. The business began to grow and Edmunds hired other single mothers on commission.
Two years after chartering her first bus, Edmunds moved into new territory. "Some women approached me and said that instead of taking a bus, they wanted to fly to New York," Edmunds told Good Housekeeping. "I came from a working-class family and had never been on a plane before. What did I know about airlines? But I made it happen, and business really exploded after that." Over the next several years Edmunds began to take on several corporate clients and decided it was time to get a real office. With a $70,000 bank loan Edmunds moved into a commercial space. She then almost lost the business.
The economy was souring and vacation sales were down. Edmunds watched helplessly as her loan interest rates soared and capital dwindled. By cutting staff and briefly taking on a partner, Edmunds just barely survived the recession. In 1985 she re-launched the business as Edmunds Travel Consultants. (She had married retired Pittsburgh Union League CEO Arthur Edmunds in 1982.) Her brush with financial ruin provided her with what she has called one of the most important lessons of her career—not letting fear take control. "There are things that occur in the overall scheme of things that are totally and completely out of your control," she told USAToday.
At a Glance …
Born in 1951(?) in Pittsburgh, PA; married, Arthur Edmunds; children: Sharon Jackson.
Career: Edmunds Travel Consultants, Pittsburgh, PA, owner, 1963–; Gladys Edmunds Programs, Pittsburgh, PA, owner, 2000–.
Selected memberships: Pennsylvania Public Television, commissioner; Port Authority Transit of Allegheny County, board member; I Have a Dream Foundation, founding member; White House Conference on Small Business, Pennsylvania delegate; White House Conference on Travel and Tourism, Pennsylvania delegate.
Selected awards: Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Outstanding Businesswoman, 1988; Pennsylvania Department of Commerce, One of the Top 25 Women-owned Businesses, 1992; Avon, Women of Enterprise Award, 1993; Carlow University, Woman of Spirit Award, 1994; State of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Honor Roll of Distinguished Women.
Addresses: Office— PO Box 144, Monroeville, PA, 15146.
Over the next decade Edmunds's business grew until, in 1999, she had revenues of $6 million a year and a staff of eight. Along the way she became one of the most-respected business leaders in the state of Pennsylvania. The governor twice named her to White House delegations on travel and small business. She won awards with titles like "Woman of Spirit," "Honor Roll of Distinguished Women," and "Outstanding Businesswoman." In 1993 she won the prestigious "Woman of Enterprise" award from the Avon Corporation. She also made herself very visible in Pittsburgh charitable and civic circles. She became an active member of the local Rotary Club. She joined the boards of a hospital and the Port Authority. She donated time and money to several charities. Impressed with her business savvy, a public television executive nominated Edmunds to be a commissioner of the Pennsylvania Public Television Network. He told USAToday, "She gets right to the heart of issues."
Developed Holistic Business Philosophy
Edmunds has long demonstrated a practical modesty when describing her rags-to-riches story. "Society said I couldn't succeed because I was a young black female with a baby and no high school diploma," she told Good Housekeeping. "Those were handicaps, but I refused to let them cripple me. I didn't care what other people thought. I had a baby to feed—and I couldn't do that earning $1.25 an hour bagging groceries." As far as Edmunds was concerned every bit of her success is nothing more than a result of a mother's love for her child. "My whole life evolved because I wanted to be a darn good mother," she told USAToday. She succeeded—not only with her daughter, but also in business and life. As she reflected on this over the years, Edmunds began to develop a philosophy based on holism in work, family, and home.
"What I had to learn to do in my life is understand that one hat blends into another instead of being fragmented," she told Boomer Career. "I couldn't compartmentalize. The whole reason for me being in business was because I was a mother. I talk whole-ism. It starts with that in order to bring balance to your world and success to your business." She has augmented that balance by practicing yoga and meditation but, above all, by listening to herself. "People today accept being dictated to; they turn on the television to find out who they are and what they should think," she told Boomer Career. "The same thing you need to be an effective business person, is what you need to do to simply be an effective person, and that is manage yourself. Do an inventory, see what you have and what you need, and then create a system for yourself. And don't listen to anyone's voice but your own."
Edmunds compiled her philosophy in the book There's No Business Like Your Own Business: Six Practical and Holistic Steps to Entrepreneurial Success, published by Viking/Penguin in 2000. It met popular success and put Edmunds in the national spotlight. She appeared on Oprah!, Good Morning America, and CNN. She was profiled in Money Magazine, Entrepreneur, Ebony, and Good Housekeeping. USAToday hired her to write a weekly column, "Entrepreneurial Tightrope," which appeared every Wednesday. She also launched Gladys Edmunds Programs and began a very successful second career as a public speaker, appearing at conferences, conventions, civic, and corporate events. With sponsor Mellon Bank she developed a series of Holistic Business Conferences that taught business owners that financial success and personal health and well-being are integral components of one whole. "When we apply holistic thinking to how we do business, a magic happens, everything works well, and everyone wins because you rise above the thinking that everything is about the 'bottom line,'" she told the New Pittsburgh Courier. "This new elevated thinking transcends race, age, and gender."
Edmunds told E-Magnify that she hoped to write more books in the coming decades. There was little doubt she would accomplish that goal. "If you have big dreams, then do them, and get on with the real important things in life. Don't listen to labels and external expectations, just listen to yourself."
There's No Business Like Your Own Business: Six Practical and Holistic Steps to Entrepreneurial Success, Viking Penguin, 2000.
Good Housekeeping, September 1, 2002.
New Pittsburgh Courier, June 20, 2001.
USAToday, May 24, 2000.
"Buster Browns Stoke the Entrepreneurial Fire in Gladys Edmunds," E-Magnify, www.e-magnify.com/gladys_edmunds.asp (September 28, 2004).
"From Zero to Millions: She Did It and Says You Can, Too," Boomer Career, www.boomercareer.com/public/169.cfm?sd=41 (September 28, 2004).
Gladys Edmunds, www.gladysedmunds.com (September 28, 2004).
"Success for Women a Matter of Balance, Author Says," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, www.post-gazette.com/yourbiz/20010618edmunds0618bnp2.asp (September 28, 2004).
"Travel Career Began with Her Journey on a Bus," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, www.post-gazette.com/blackhistorymonth/19980205kids.asp (September 28, 2004).