Interview with Sharon Gill, accomplished lawyer, entrepreneur and philanthropist.
Coming to America at the young age of 21 with barely $50 to her name, Jamaican-born Sharon Gill, went on to become a co-founder of a law firm and philanthropist. She founded The Gill Law Firm with her husband after years of success and pacesetting in the banking industry. Her charity, the Oasis Foundation has its goal as empowering those who are less fortunate particularly women. She is also the founder of Sharon Gill International, where she coaches and mentors young and aspiring entrepreneurs. In this interview she tells us her story, that of resilience, courage and faith, and gives us a journey into how she became the woman that she is today.
Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
I’m Sharon Gill, and I’m the founder of the charity, Oasis Compassion Agency, which I started in 2003 with the sole purpose of empowering those who are less fortunate. My idea is to help them take that next step in life. It’s actually empowering them and by that I mean that it’s not a handout. I have a food program which I allow people to partake of for about 6 months to a year depending on their circumstances. But while they are participating, they have to be enrolled in either a job placement program or some other type of classes because I want them to invest in their own success. I do not like the current welfare system, I believe that it doesn’t empower, and so I wanted a system whereby in exchange for me or my agency granting you food and clothing, you’re going to grant me your time so that I can teach you computer skills, interview skills and financial training, and I could help you get a job. I’m also the COO of the Gill Law Firm, a corporate commercial litigation law firm which we started back in 1997. My husband is an attorney, I run the business, and we’ve been doing that for almost 20 years. I have also done what my real passion is, which is working with women, through my company called Sharon Gill International, and that’s pretty much helping entrepreneurs and women in particular to live the life that they want in a much more faith-centered way. I call myself a faith-based coach because everything that I do is guided by my own personal faith in God and Jesus. I like to coach people to do things that are honoring to God, and that have integrity. When it comes to women, I like to coach them on how to balance your work or career with your family, how to define what your priorities are, how to give back, how to have better relationships, how to be a better boss, how to take care of yourself. Those are just 3 areas that I primarily spend my day running and working on.
You empower people, you teach them as a coach. Can you tell us about the people who come to you for help? Who is your audience?
There are 3 different audiences. For my non-profit, those are people who are living below the federal poverty guidelines. That’s the benchmark that we use. So for you to qualify for the free services that we offer through the non-profit, you have to be living at, or below the federal poverty guidelines and it doesn’t matter Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, anyone who is having a hard time. These are people who are working in lower wage jobs so they have a gap between making their payments and buying food. Those are the people who need a little bit of help with food, for example, some clothing for their kids, some free training for their skillset, maybe they need to improve their computing skills if they need to get better jobs, and we also offer counseling if they need it. On my Sharon Gill International site, I’m usually talking to women who are entrepreneurs for the most part, who are trying to start a business or a non-profit. And so they need advice as to how to get started. Some have already started, but they don’t know how to grow their business, so they need some business and marketing skills, and some online skills. If a person says they don’t have faith in God, I’m still going to serve them – I don’t discriminate – but I do make known that I view that my personal success is from having that strong faith in God, and I bring that to the marketplace, to the workplace, to the law firm, to everything I do, because for me it’s inseparable from my business.
Your organization, Sharon Gill International, I would like to know where you work or where your sphere of influence is. And what are the differences in the issues that American and non-American people come to you with, for you to help them resolve?
Well, on the Sharon Gill International site, about 75% are African-American women who may have an idea, say, they want to open a restaurant or a non-profit, or they have a great idea but they don’t know how to take the next step. Sometimes they have started, but they don’t know how to grow, they don’t understand that online space either and as you know, every business now must have an online component. So they need help on setting up their Facebook, for example, on how to do their content, these basic business skills. Some people don’t know how to start their corporations, they have no idea, and they can get in trouble by not doing things the right way, and so I make sure that they have these things done. Some people lack confidence. I found that some people have ideas but they have these negative scripts – especially in the African-American community – that’s telling them they’re not good enough, they’re not smart enough, and so I actually did a full-week online course called Confidence 101, with 12 videos to teach and train people how to reframe their thinking, how to look at life different, how to increase your confidence. Practical things, from speaking different to dressing different, to acting differently, and going about things with confidence. I have a Facebook page with about 15,000 fans and I poll them sometimes, “What are you struggling with?” And the top things I’ve heard were, of course, confidence, financials, relationships. I try to base my programs and solutions on peoples’ needs and these are the types of things that I hear from women that they’re struggling with. That’s what I coach on primarily, helping them to live a more purposeful and fulfilled life. A lot of people feel empty, unhappy, and I try to get them to get through it and give them some suggestions and steps, and walk alongside them to accomplish those goals.
Reading your story on your website and in the articles I found on you, I can see that you went a long way to become the nationwide famous coach that you are today, helping many people everyday. Can you tell us some of the main points in your life which shaped you into the woman that you are now?
I came to this country from Jamaica when I was 21 years old with $56 in my name because that was the maximum amount allowed back in the 80s to leave the country with. I had an aunt here and some cousins and I came to stay with them. I was fresh and I had good ideas, but I soon realized that when I tried to apply for a job, I kept hearing this refrain that you need to have American experience. My only training at that time was as a teller in my country. I had worked in banking and also as a travel agent in my country but they weren’t transferrable skills for America. So for a couple of years I worked as a nanny in New York. And for one year I had not a great family. They weren’t very kind so I found myself having to start over from the scratch. And I learned a lot through that. My second family was a kinder family that exposed me to a lot of stuff. I went with them on their vacations, they were very kind to me, and I began to imagine what life should really be like for me in this country. I remember during that time, sometimes I really had some low spots when I lived with the family for 6 days a week so I really had no personal life. And it’s in those times that I determined that I wanted something better for me. I saw how these people lived as well and in my mind I thought, “Why wouldn’t I have this?” There was a time when I had my entire paycheck stolen in New York City, and I didn’t realize that my purse had been stolen. I got to the subway station, and I had to beg someone for a token to get home. All those things just made me realize that lacking, not having stuff, is really not a good place to be in. And so I got a break and someone hired me as a travel agent. I worked with this small travel agent in New York City for about 6-8 months. Then I got my big break with American Express. Because I already had all the knowledge from my country, I did well on the job. I was promoted, was made pacesetter, which is the top 5 percent of performers in my first year. I met my husband 2 years after I came to this country so together we began to dream big, to think big and plan big. But we always had the desire that at some point we would give back. We moved from New York to DC for law school, then we moved from DC to Florida to begin life, having kids and so forth. Soon after, we started a law firm, and we just kept being blessed. About 4 years into the law firm, I woke up one day and said, “You know what, we’re making good money, but there is more to life than making money.” I fasted for 3 days and asked God to show me what is his purpose for my life. During that time, what was revealed to me was the non-profit, working with people who were less fortunate, exposing them to education, to better opportunities. So I retired from the law firm and went into that non-profit full time for about 7 years. I raised up leaders and so I was able to go back to my law firm and work with my husband again. 2 years ago I launched Sharon Gill International. My philosophy is that no matter how tough things get, no matter how low you may find yourself, you can always pick up tips. I don’t allow those things to make me bitter, I learn. I always ask God to show me the lesson when I’m going through a tough place because there’s always something to learn. Just as I learned to pick up tips when I was working as a nanny, all along in my life, I pick up tips from any hardships that I’m going through. I also believe that my faith carried me through a lot of those tough times and continues to carry me through a lot of tough times.
This brings me to something I’m quite passionate about. I’ve talked to many people from our Black community and many of them seem to live under the pressure of racial issues or discrimination. They think that if they want to do something, the system won’t allow them. What can you say to them to make them focus on their decision to work and do something, to develop their business ideas, for example, and be strong so that they avoid these fears?
I’ve heard this all my life. I went back to school as an adult to get my degree, and that question was asked of me by a professor to actually address to the class, about discrimination. This is my personal experience with discrimination and this could be because I came from the Islands. Where I grew up, the discrimination there was not like here. There might have been more of a class system because we came off the British system – so there was lower class, middle class, upper class – but everyone was kind of one person, our national motto is: Out of many, one person. So I wasn’t exposed to the color and racism stuff. When I came here like a child, in a sense, I didn’t expect the racism, so I acted as if everyone was just the same. And I actually had this confidence because I didn’t know any better. Along the way, I became exposed to racism because people talked about it and they tried to influence my thinking like there were other races. But I chose to be confident in myself. I’m not saying that people won’t dislike you for your color, or whatever, I won’t be naive to say it doesn’t exist. It exists! However, for me, I have been given so many opportunities because my approach has been one of such confidence that I act confident in every situation I find myself in. I don’t fear, I don’t prejudge it, I don’t think I’m less than or better, I think I’m equal, so I approach everything I do with that mindset. When I’m doing my law job and I walk into a board room with corporate clients, they are 95% white. What they want from me is results. That’s what I have to deliver, and that’s what I’ve seen along the way. Results. The donor base of my non-profit is 98% white. Unfortunately, a lot of Black people don’t give. So my donors are not discriminating. Here’s what they’re looking at. How many people did you feed, how many jobs did you get for your people, how many people did you encourage and get back on their feet? They’re looking for the same thing. Results. And if I can deliver it, they don’t care whether I’m Black or blue. A lot of people hear about my charity and they expect me to be white because usually Black people are not going to be giving away all this time and effort and energy. But I carry myself with confidence. That is the biggest thing that I’ve seen with a lot of Black sisters. The lack of confidence. They have to develop that confidence so that they’re not second guessing themselves and prejudging their situation. That’s what I think. And do your things with excellence. I like to bring excellence to everything I do. For both my charity and my law firm, one of the core values we have is excellence without excuses. So if you’re going to put yourself out there, be excellent and you’re going to be judged by that.
Do you know of the trend #LetsBuyBlack or #BlackforBlack?
No, but I would imagine that what that means is that Blacks should shop with Blacks.
We should. But it goes back to this again. I’m not going to buy from you because you are Black if you’re giving me a crappy product. And I shouldn’t be expected to do that either. My husband wrote a book years ago called My Grandma Told Me and it was renamed to: The Business of Supplier Diversity. He listed some principles in the book that I love. It was a book written about the minority business person and how they should do business with corporate America. Some of the principles that he laid out in that book is you have to come with quality. You don’t expect people to buy from you if you don’t have the quality. No, because I won’t buy from you if you don’t have quality, I expect and demand quality. As a Black business owner, you should be putting out quality out there. So buying Black I support, however, at the same time, as Blacks we need to put forth quality, excellence without excuses.
What do you think are some positive changes that should be made in the Black community?
Well, one of it is that there needs to be more positive role models in the Black community, more leadership. I still see a vacuum there. When do Blacks get publicity? We get publicity when there’s a police shooting, and the Black Lives Matter movement goes out there protesting, or we get publicity when something goes bad. It’s so unfair. What I would love to see is more positivity. I’d love to see more stories of Blacks doing great things, because we are really smart, talented people. We have another skillset in our communities, and I would love to see more stories, and more people leading that charge. More positive Black role models stepping up and doing that, and reaching back into their communities and helping people up, and showcasing the good side of our race.