One day in April 1992, two months before I graduated from Hawthorne High School and one month after I turned eighteen on March 1, I stayed home from school, telling my mother I wasn't feeling well. To this very day, why I stayed home, I don't know. Was it fate? Or maybe someone "up there" really cared, and was directing me. I like to think it was the latter.
And then, my life changed. Thanks to a wrong number.
When I picked up the phone and heard the request for someone who didn’t live at our address, I told the man he had the wrong number, and that should have been the end of it. But, for whatever reason, we kept talking. The man’s name was Joseph, and before hanging up, he asked me if I would like to have lunch the following day. I agreed to meet him a short distance from where I lived.
This was a bold step for me to take, for many reasons. First of all, because I sensed that he was older than I, which gave me a little pause. Also, because it was a clear departure from my usual behavior. As the oldest of three, I was responsible for my two brothers, a responsibility that included cooking and cleaning. I had been doing it since the age of nine, and I was always dependable, so my mother trusted me.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t trust her.
My mother is a devout member of a strict religious order who did her duty and completely indoctrinated me. However, she failed in her duty to protect me, something that baffles me to this day. Was she not aware of the abuse that I was enduring? Or did she simply turn a blind eye to it, to protect the “security” she received from the various relationships she had with the men she allowed in her life? Whatever the answer was, it resulted in sexual abuse, starting when I was about eight or nine. It started with fondling and molestation and ended with rape.
High school, for me, was little more than an escape from the apartment; I wasn't learning very much. I was ultra-shy and didn't get much attention from my teachers. I was also in an overcrowded school, so the teachers didn't spend much time with each student. I was completely withdrawn — partly because I was continuously reminded that anyone who was not a member of my mother’s religious group was "worldly," and I could not associate with them. So, I had no friends to speak of, growing up through my school years.
All this came out during my conversations with Joseph, of which our lunch date was only the first of such meetings. Joseph listened to me, he understood what my life was like. He cared. After meeting several times within the month, I told him that I couldn't take it anymore and needed to escape. He agreed to provide me a safe place, and, the following evening, rescued me. My bedroom had a back door opening on a scrap of yard leading to the alley. I put some clothes in a small clothes basket, walked out the door, crossed the yard, stood in the alley, and waited as Joseph pulled up to where I stood. I got in his car without looking back...and I never returned.
Shortly after I ran away from home, Joseph introduced me to Sydney, the owner of a Mailbox, Etc. store where Joseph was a regular customer. I’ll never forget our first meeting.
He asked Sydney if she could use some help in the store, so she asked me my name. When I said, “Elaina Smith,” she laughed. “I’m a Smith, too,” she said. “If you’d like a job, you’re hired.”
That job changed my life, and fairly quickly. I went from not being able to look a customer in the eye out of fear, mostly choosing to work at putting the mail into the individual mailboxes, to interacting with customers confidently and even running the shop. This, from a girl whose only regular interaction with people had been going door to door, offering them religious periodicals and telling them about the "end of this system of things."
It is nearly impossible to underestimate the love I have for Sydney, her husband, Gordon, and their daughter, Elizabeth. Sydney became the mother I didn’t have, Gordon the father I never knew, and Liz, to this day, is my sister. They are my family. With them, I celebrated holidays and was encouraged to be independent. For the first time in my life, I experienced what it was like to be embraced into a family where the door was always open-a safe place where share and caring was the norm.
Soon enough, I exchanged that clothing basket and its contents for a full wardrobe of my choice. To further my freedom, Joseph gave me my first car, a Chrysler LeBaron — and that was only the beginning of my seeing the world. He was also a seasoned traveler who shared his love of travel with me; we went to every European country, South Africa, Dubai, China, Japan, Egypt, South America, Australia, New Zealand, England, and Scotland. Joseph further encouraged me to discover the world on my own – which I did. On my own, I traveled to the Galapagos, Russia, Japan (I'm a huge Sumo fan), Finland, Estonia, and Peru to experience Machu Picchu.
If you’re thinking that Joseph appeared to care a lot for me, and I for him...you’re right. And we made it official on September 18, 2004, when we married on the island of Nantucket. Sydney, Liz, and my oldest friend Tomika flew from California to celebrate our wedding. Sydney had beautiful chartreuse Cymbidiums flown in, and she decorated our home. We were married there in our living room as a harpist played serene, beautiful music, and that made the beginning of our life together perfect.
For years, we spent the winter on the island of Nantucket; there are fewer tourists then. And it was then, by a quirk of fate, we drove out to the dump —and further changed my life.
Now, the dump on Nantucket is like no other. One of its features is a very large, open room where islanders drop off everything: clothes, books, bikes, and electronics. It was that day, at that dump, that I found a discarded computer. I took it home and plugged it in; not surprisingly, It didn't work. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I took it apart, tinkered with it, put it back together, and it turned on!
I was so excited, realizing that working with computers was something that I enjoyed and seemed to be good at – could maybe even have as a job. So, I began reading all about computers. I took local IT courses and studied anything I could get my hands on. I started with one client in Los Angeles. My company, Computer Problem Solvers, grew, thanks to Sydney allowing me to put my business cards on her counter. Many of my clients became my good friends. They let others know I was honest, reliable, and good at explaining the answers to their questions — and resolving their computer issues — in ways that made sense to them.
It was during this time that I became very introspective about the “bigger picture” of my life. Being raised as a member of a strict religious order had a mostly negative impact on my life, and I began a journey seeking a "spiritual truth." I studied other philosophies and visited other churches, but it wasn't until I found myself in a Jewish synagogue that I experienced a sense of spiritual peace. I studied the Torah and the history of the Jewish people and formed solid, loyal friendships that continue to this very day. On September 18, 2007, I converted to Conservative Judaism, and it became my permanent spiritual “home.”
But even as my spiritual life had settled, my work life became restless. I was successful, but after years of running my company, I became disenchanted and took time off. At loose ends, not sure which direction to go next, I even considered working for UPS - but Joseph discouraged me from doing that. Instead, he insisted better things were ahead for me...and he was right.
And all because of a crazy question that occurred to me one day. The question? "How do I become a bank?"
I’m not sure where that thought came from, but it was the first thing in my head one morning when I woke up. And it intrigued me. I didn't know whom to ask about it, and so I started Googling all forms of that question. I eventually came across the world of business credit and how it is used just like personal credit. And that gave me a takeoff point.
How could I offer the same types of products — and Net 30 tradelines of business credit — and emulate the other big companies that were out there? That became the catalyst for my next business, a company that would offer Net 30 tradelines to companies of all kinds.
To submit data to credit bureaus such as Dun & Bradstreet, Equifax Small Business, Experian, and Creditsafe, I had to comply with all kinds of rules and regulations and go through a vetting process that was beyond intense. It took several attempts, but eventually, I received approval.
Soon, I had another company, Strategic Network Solutions, through which I was able to report my accounts receivable. My next challenge was how I would let other businesses around the country know that I was in business and that our company offered Net 30 accounts.
Without the budget to establish a marketing presence, instead, I started small once more: with one client. But that first client was all the validation and encouragement that I needed. I made the effort to treat my clients the way I would want to be treated, and by "word of mouth," my company began to grow. Today, Strategic Network Solutions has more than 85,000 clients from Puerto Rico to Hawaii and every state in between.
About three years after forming Strategic Network Solutions, I started a third company, Summa Office Supplies, which also offers Net 30 terms and submitting my clients' data to two different, powerful credit bureaus. I learned a lot during the years that Strategic Network Solutions became successful. I poured everything I knew from Strategic into Summa Office Supplies. Today Summa is, in some ways, even more, successful than Strategic.
Yes, I’ve come a long way. But I never forget where I started: an alley in South Los Angeles, with nothing but a few clothes in a basket, no money, and almost no friends. It has been quite a journey to who I am today: a successful owner of two businesses, a homeowner, and a woman who’s taken charge of her own health as well, having lost 95 pounds along the way! Now, I have much more than “Two Pennies to Rub Together” — but most of all, I have fulfillment...and love. I owe a debt of gratitude to those who inspired and encouraged me when I needed them most, and so, I try as often as possible to “pay it forward.”
Copyright © 2021 Elaina Kelly Smith - All Rights Reserved.
eks at elainakellysmith.com