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This story appears in the March 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

When 32-year-old Harold Leffall Jr. was about seven, he'd set up "a little desk with notepads" and play business in his mother's small Oakland, California, abode. Family and friends thought it endearing but certainly had no idea young Harold would actually grow up to head a staffing business with sales exceeding the million-dollar mark--especially since no one in the family had ever gone to college and welfare was the primary source of income. "A lot of people say they didn't know they were poor when they were growing up," says Leffall, owner of Leffall Employment Agency in Oakland. "But I knew I was on welfare, and I didn't like it. I decided very early on that when I got older, [being poor] wouldn't be part of my life." With the idea that individuals living above the poverty line possessed a higher level of education, Leffall enrolled himself in California State University at Hayward, despite the fact he had to simultaneously work as a shoe salesman to put food on the table. Academic life initially caught the wide-eyed freshman off guard. Luckily, Leffall, whose father "really wasn't around" growing up, gained valuable mentors through the federally funded Upward Bound program, designed to provide motivational support to first-generation college students from low-income families. "I was fortunate because that exposed me to individuals from similar backgrounds who not only successfully went on to college, but also completed it." And complete it he did. It took five years, but Leffall, a business administration major on first declaration, finally graduated with a degree in political science. "Like most college students, I was overly optimistic," recalls Leffall, who once aspired to be a city manager. "I thought `As soon as I get a degree, I'll have job offers coming from everywhere.' But it took a whole year to find a job."

The Quest For Independence

Ditching his shoehorn, Leffall spent the following six years working in community-service positions. For the first five, he created youth and family programs in urban communities for the Oakland Housing Authority. And for the next year, he aided a nonprofit organization in getting the community more involved with the educational upbringing of children. Unfortunately, the good vibes created by the goodwill work became increasingly strained by bureaucratic frustration. Whether it was being passed over for many a promotion by his first employer or nearly being laid off when the proposed five-year community education project came to a halt after less than a year, it became starkly apparent to Leffall that it was time to get started working for his own cause.

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