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The Story of a CEO Who Grew Up on Food Stamps A businesswoman shares lessons from her hard climb -- from humble beginnings in North Dakota to running an Alabama marketing agency.

By Chelsea Berler Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Chelsea Berler CEO of Solamar

What do you think when you hear about a 30-year-old CEO (now running a marketing agency of 20 staffers) who grew up eating meals paid for by food stamps? You might find it intriguing. You might want to learn more about that road from poverty to success

Or you might just roll your eyes and think "another rags to riches fairytale."

But my path from a tiny North Dakota town of about 300 people to starting a company eight years ago (that I relocated to Birmingham, Ala. in 2009) has been full of incredible highs and gut-wrenching lows. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Each of my humbling low points led to a triumphant success down the road. What I've learned can easily be applied to your life, too.

Related: How McDonald's Made Me a Better Businessman

My childhood is full of memories of buying the simplest of nourishment with government funds. I can still recall that distinct feeling of embarrassment when my mother laid down the food stamps at the cash register. It's that swirl of emotion that says, "We don't have enough." And the truth is we didn't.

Now I'm not saying there was anything wrong with that time in my life because my mother worked extremely hard to provide for her family and she dealt with the residual baggage of my father's struggle with addiction and his death.

But this is where my motivation for more out of life was born. During those humble experiences when feelings of shame and guilt came into play, I became increasingly aware of my family's situation and even more determined that this would not be my life forever.

I didn't know how my life would change but I knew that someday it would. I understood then that I could use my creativity and common sense to take me higher than the life I knew.

The Story of a CEO Who Grew Up on Food Stamps

Image credit: Solamar

Seeking change.

OK, so maybe you were raised much the same way I was or you're living that very life right now. You may even feel a little hopeless. Sure you have great ideas and even the passion and know-how to fuel a great business.

But how do you get there?

My barebones upbringing and observations of my mother's innate strength have shaped my style of leadership and now the way I run my company.

From my first "career" job in sales to now while I serve as a CEO, I have carried those early experiences with me and they have influenced every move I make.

My first and only corporate job prior to my starting a business was at an international distribution company. I was hired to do customer service and quit college so I could earn a full-time paycheck (with benefits!).

About a year in is when I started to work my way up the corporate ladder.

My role evolved pretty quickly into having more of a sales component. I saw a need for someone to answer the phone and sell customers on the company's offerings instead of their having to wait for a call back from someone in sales.

That's exactly how I got to where I am today. I searched for opportunities even if they weren't readily available.

And I ended up as director of sales and business development, reporting to the vice president and CEO by the time I was 21 years old.

I just jumped right in and did what needed to happen to keep the customers happy. I didn't worry if I was qualified to do the job. I just did it. And in those moments, I felt like I was making a difference. I knew I needed to find a way for my life to become more focused on that feeling.

So I started my own business at age 22 and eventually quit my corporate job because I was able to make enough money on my own to pay my bills.

If you can't be thankful and thoughtful about where you've come from and what it took to get you where you are now, then you will never fully appreciate (or own) being there.

That is the first step to being truly successful. I realized that being humble, forgiving and optimistic would bring me so much more success than any monetary value could. And as I came to terms with family members who came before me, who I really was and what I wanted my life to look like going forward, I was equipped to step out on my own and really shine.

Related: Here's Why You Need to Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

Being different.

The Story of a CEO Who Grew Up on Food Stamps

Image credit: Solamar

While I didn't have much growing up in the way of material things, my siblings and I were encouraged to develop and indulge in our curiosity. My love for the playground of life started very early on and I've held onto it ever since.

As I became an entrepreneur, I began to witness real freedom and success from believing in myself, when others did not. I started my company, Solamar, knowing that my business model would be different and it would embrace my individuality.

I love interesting, creative and often quirky people like myself. So I built a company that lets me surround myself with those types of individuals. My intention was to start a small business as a way to pay the bills and do more purposeful work.

What it became was something much bigger. As soon as I started hiring a team, the world I once knew was gone forever and I never looked back. Working with freelancers and staffers alike, I am now able to help others live their dreams and reach new heights in business.

Related: 10 Mindsets That Will Radically Improve Your Business

Overcoming roadblocks.

The truth is my road to owning a successful business was full of setbacks, disappointments and ugly truths -- the sort that no one wants to talk about.

One of my greatest lessons came from being in a place of hopelessness and despair. I was in a situation where I didn't think there were real possibilities for my life. I felt stagnant and no matter what I did, I felt like my options were limited.

But I was wrong and I overcame that mindset.

Both my brothers died as a result of two separate car accidents while I was in high school. I didn't know what to do with the rest of my life. When others were filling out college applications, I was just lost, struggling to figure it out.

The corporate job helped me get set up in the right direction, although I still felt emptiness. Something was missing. A little of that feeling came back again. I struggled to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I wondered, Is this how it's going to be forever? Me in this corporate job, doing this very thing?

Trying to reprogram my thoughts has been one of my biggest challenges and has led to my greatest victories. When I realized that I had a say in my life and vowed to not let my past define my future for me, I started living and working differently.

I put 150 percent into everything I did. I worked hard to become something that so many people thought I could not be. I wanted to create something bigger than myself. And I did just that. That is my hope for you.

Believe in yourself, in your talent and what you want to do in life. Then make it happen. Period. Nothing can hold you back.

Here are my guiding thoughts for you:

1. Everyone has a past. Don't let yours define you.

2. Embrace your individuality and let it shine in all you do, including your business.

3. Be humble and appreciate every struggle that got you to this point.

4. Don't give into hopelessness. There is always a way to climb higher if you believe you can, even when no one else does.

Related: A Chinese-Food Delivery Man Ends Up Driving One of Hong Kong's Hottest Startups

Chelsea Berler

Entrepreneur, Author and CEO of Solamar

Chelsea Berler, author of The Curious One, is the CEO of Solamar a boutique marketing agency in Birmingham, Ala. She is a champion for people who are driven to bring their talent and greatness into the world on their own terms.


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