November 11, 2021

How A Single Teenage Mom Became A Successful Entrepreneur With Sirena Moore-Thomas

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By: Gary Schoeniger

In this episode, Gary is joined by serial entrepreneur and public speaker Sirena Moore-Thomas. In the conversation, Sirena and Gary unpack her early life and how her experiences shaped her trajectory. As a single teenage mother of twins, raised in public housing, with no college degree, Sirena is the epitome of an unlikely entrepreneur. Her accomplishments—not the least of which is co-founding a million-dollar cleaning business with a few hundred dollars in her spare time—have garnered national media attention, including the New York Times, Black Enterprise Magazine, and NBC. She is also one of the featured entrepreneurs in the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program. She emphasizes the importance of showing up. Keep moving forward! Tune in to hear valuable insights to take those steps to be a successful entrepreneur.

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Read the transcript below.

How A Single Teenage Mom Became A Successful Entrepreneur With Sirena Moore-Thomas

In this episode, I’m speaking with Sirena Moore-Thomas. All I can say is wow. You are in for a real treat. As a single teenage mother of twins, raised in public housing with no college degree, Sirena is the epitome of an unlikely entrepreneur. Her accomplishments, not the least of which, is cofounding a $1 million cleaning business with a few hundred dollars in her spare time. She has garnered national media attention, including The New York Times, Black Enterprise Magazine and NBC. She is also one of the featured entrepreneurs in the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program.

In this episode, we not only discuss the tactics and strategies that enabled her and her father to create a very successful business but more importantly, we delve into the underlying beliefs that led to the behavior that ultimately enabled her to succeed. From the importance of positive role models, the power of vision, and positive self-talk to finding ways to get paid to learn, this episode speaks to the power of an entrepreneurial mindset and the influence it can have on our lives. Without any further ado, I hope you enjoy my conversation with Sirena Moore-Thomas.

Sirena, welcome to the show.

Gary, you are the man. Thank you for having me.

I’m dying to have this conversation. We met when we were interviewing entrepreneurs for the Ice House Program. You became one of the Ice House Entrepreneurs. We’ve got your story. I want to do an update for the show. Let’s dive right in. I want to start by asking you, where did you come from? What put you on an entrepreneurial journey?

There are a lot in this good story. Let me give you the quick one. First of all, I grew up in Staten Island, New York. I’m originally from New York. When I was about 9 or 10 years old, my family moved to Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, my father was always entrepreneurial. I remember him being a handyman. He has worked in construction almost all of his life. I started recalling some of the things that were businesses that I didn’t know were businesses. He had this thing more of a handyman.

I remember there would be a flyer or something about it but this was between doing construction jobs. He would do all kinds of other things. I remember him fixing cars. I grew up in a house where I saw my father working extremely hard, always at work. I have only seen him sleep a couple of times before us. He sleeps before us because he was up at 4:00 or 5:00 AM and he will sleep by about 7:00. I saw hard work and learned work ethic.

My mom was a stay-at-home mom for most of my childhood. I don’t remember her working too much. She took care of us, me, my brother, and my sister. My sister had a child at a very young age. I had a nephew when I was nine years old. We had a very close family. Me, my mom and dad witnessed what an awesome work ethic looks like. I’m realizing as an adult how much seeing that early has impacted me and the way that I work, how diligent, persistent and consistent I am. That comes from growing up, seeing what I saw.

Were these side hustles? Did he have a day job and was side-hustling?

They were side hustles because my dad didn’t grow up in an entrepreneurial family at all. Between the two of us, we probably couldn’t spell entrepreneur. He was an awesome provider and so he was providing. In the construction industry, there are days when you have jobs and then there are layoffs. There are these lags in between. He was finding ways to stay, first of all, paid and to keep providing for us.

I forgot the numbers but that’s a huge factor. If you grow up in a family where people are entrepreneurial, you are exponentially more likely to be doing your own thing in some capacity.

We lived in public housing. Let’s be clear. We grew up in, “Do what you can where you are with what you have.” We weren’t standing out in the building. Everybody was doing what you could. Someone was doing hair, selling dinners and Kool-Aid cups out of the window. That was happening all around and it was because we were in public housing. People were low-income and were making other dollars however they could. I don’t want the readers to think it was like, “We were this star family. Everybody had a side hustle back then.”

You were an aunt by age nine. I remember from the Ice House thing when you were a teenager, you were on top of your stuff. Were you a good student in school?

I was a good student up until ninth grade and then I hated school. I couldn’t stay in it. I did okay. It was a C and D, and sometimes a B. In my last year of high school, I did well as a student. I have evidence. I posted this on Facebook before. Early Sirena, kindergarten Sirena. I have a report card where my kindergarten teacher was writing to my parents about me and my conduct. She wrote something like, “Sirena is mastering this kindergarten work. Sirena talks way too much.”

I laughed about it as I was reading it. I read this a couple of years ago and I was like, “I’m going to tell her that I get paid to talk now.” I was always talking socially. In third grade, I was working for the newspaper and interviewing teachers. I was the little girl who knew everyone’s part at the school play in case someone forgot.

I have always been wise beyond my years. I have always carried on conversations with adults and that has been over time. As I grew up a teenager, I was the first out of my friends to have a bank account, get my job and working papers. I was driving by fourteen. My dad let me because I knew how to. I have always been very ambitious and driven as early as I can remember.

The teacher is telling your mom you talk too much. I don’t know where to go with that. I will leave it there. Public education is trying to knock down the tall poppy and mow the grass so everyone is the same. You are not allowed to stand out and be who you are. You’ve got to fit in. In your hustle, you’ve got your temporary work permit and driver’s license. You are making stuff happen, not necessarily loving school but you are doing what you’ve got to do. What happened that derailed your trajectory? Maybe that’s not the right way to think about it but most people would think about it that way.

It was an attempt at derailment, if not a derailment. I’ve got into a situation. I can’t call it a relationship because this person was ten years older than me. I’ve got into this relationship. In my last year of high school, I found out I was pregnant. Not only was I pregnant but I was also pregnant with twins. I have two babies at seventeen years old. While all my friends were planning to go to college, I was planning for single parenthood. By eighteen years old, I was living on my own completely in a one-bedroom apartment at Korman Suites on Roosevelt Boulevard & Devereaux with both the babies. I knew that things had to change.

I had always been entrepreneurial. I was the type of person that was always looking for an opportunity to do more. I would learn a new skill. I’m recalling a lot of this. I remember when I first learned how to do PowerPoint and I was all excited like, “This is great. I can do presentations.” Immediately, I was like, “I can do presentations for other people who need to do presentations. How much would I charge them if I did their presentation since I know how to do them and maybe they don’t?” I was always thinking like that. I did ask them to see the catalog company where you can buy the stuff and mark it up. I’m talking about wholesale. It was an infomercial back in the day. I was doing that. I knew that there was more to life than what I was experiencing.

You find yourself in an adverse situation. You are a single mom with twins, 18 years old in a 1-bedroom apartment, no college. Statistically, you are toast but the hope circuit is open. You said something to me like, “There’s something else out there.” I remember your father saying something in our first interview. Very similar to that Sirena, he said, “I knew there was another life out there. I couldn’t see it.”

That’s an important part of the puzzle because there’s a striving to get somewhere. There’s a deeply held belief that my circumstances aren’t going to define me. That’s so interesting to me where people of equal, greater talent or intellect might interpret the circumstances in such a way that would undo them. This is a little mindset moment. It comes down to the way we are interpreting if they are subjective interpretations.

There are so many different things that I can point to. What I will say is this. One thing you do know about me and my family is we are unapologetic believers. I’m unapologetically a woman of faith. I have grown up in faith and understanding that God has a purpose and plan for every day of my life. I live for a bigger reason. I’m alive and I’m here for the reason that I do not fully understand but I’m totally with it.

We walk by faith and not by sight. It’s a principle and scripture. It’s how we live, “The just shall live by faith. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” I know this. This is how I grew up. On one hand, that’s always working because that’s how I have lived and grown up since a baby. I knew that there was no circumstance that God couldn’t handle. If anything, I’m begging on him, not me. He is going to protect me.

That’s one part that’s working. As a race and people, we are one of the most resilient people on Earth. We are not going to get into all of the details but we are resilient people by nature because we have always had to be. That’s another thing working in my favor. There are people with the same worries and circumstances and don’t make it.

Were you telling yourself that at age eighteen like, “We are a resilient race?” Was that in your mind then?

No, I’m not telling myself that. I grew up around it. If we go back to my early upbringing, public housing, 141 Park Hill Avenue, living in the projects, everybody is working, moving, hustling, doing and going. People are dying but families are still moving on. I’m seeing it. I’m a part of it. I’m not consciously saying that I need to be this way but I have seen more happen with less. While it looks like I’m at a disadvantage to some, I didn’t know somebody worse than me and I have seen them succeed. The level of awareness and possibilities are still endless. Even at eighteen, I can’t quit here.

There’s an idea in the psychological literature. It’s the difference between passive hope and active hope. I like the definition of hope from this researcher, Shane Lopez. He said, “Hope is the belief that the future will be better than the present, coupled with the belief that I have the power to make it so.” A more passive hope would be, “The future is going to be better but some other entity, deity or something is going to make it happen for me.” That’s a more passive form of hope.

You are witnessing this resilience and seeing this vibrancy. People are struggling to get on with it, not the least of which was your mother and father. Take us there, Sirena. You are eighteen years old and a single mom. You know there’s something else out there. You are going to go looking for it. What are you doing?

Right before I moved down and was totally on my own, I was able to work with my father on the construction site. That’s where the story started. The year before I moved out, I was still seventeen. I graduated high school. A month after, I started the job on the construction site with my dad. That job probably ran for 3, 4 or 5 months.

What were you doing on the construction site?

On the construction site, I was working in the office and trailer. What I would do is take the larger drawings, make copies of them to make mock-up drawings, highlight the same areas and give them to the guys in the field so that they could have their drawings. I would collect hours. I was doing administrative stuff and I knew administrative work.

What was your dad doing?

My dad was a labor foreman on the job site. He was working with the guys in the field. I was working in the office and that’s how we worked. That’s where we found out about that six-figure contract that another company was awarded. My father was like, “This is ridiculous. They are getting paid six figures to do what I’m already doing.” He is the owner. He is going to give his best. It’s going to be a win-win. “If Ted Moore gets done, it’s done right.” There was nothing for this other company to do. It clicked like, “I can do this.”

We’ve got to get back to that too because I remember your father saying that. That’s an important part of this story. Let’s call it that brand attitude. I remember in the interview he said something about, “Even if I’m going to be a broom sweeper, I’m going to be the best broom sweeper there is.” You are manufacturing luck. That’s on attitude.

I heard Robbie Khan talk about this. He said there are four kinds of luck. There’s luck like you are walking down the street and you find a $20 bill. It’s totally random. The next kind of luck is hustle luck. You are out there shaking the trees and stuff happens. Every once in a while, something good happens. That’s hustle luck. You get expertise and start to see things other people can’t because you start to know what’s going on in the space. The fourth kind of luck he talked about was reputation. By this time, you are manufacturing luck. It’s no longer luck. It’s coming to you.

For us, there’s a biblical principle always behind it. It’s not like this, “God is going to do it all. I’m just going to assume here.” There’s a specific verse that says and it’s in Colossians 3:23. It’s one of my favorites. “Whatever you do, work at it with all of your heart as unto the Lord, not to man.” It’s saying, “Give it everything you’ve got because you are working for a bigger purpose.” I’m not halfway doing anything. I have one mode. It’s called go hard because, 1) That’s what I believe and, 2) It’s what I have seen.

Let’s go back to the mindset. An interpretation of your circumstance is what it boils down to. The way we interpret our circumstances has an enormous impact on our lives but we don’t realize that we are interpreting it. There’s a filter. We are looking at our life and the world around us and perceiving it in a certain way that causes us to behave in a certain way. Most people don’t realize they are perceiving it. They think the world is the way it is and my perception is the reality. That’s the mindset part of it.

We are on the site. He sees this opportunity and his mind is like, “We can do this. Why not? Who said that we can’t?” He brings this opportunity to me and says, “Sirena, if you figure out how to start the business part, you might do the administrative part of it. I will do the service. We will have our own business.” We had no actual business and feasibility plan. We can barely spell entrepreneur between the two of us. We know that there’s a problem that we can potentially solve and we are going to try it. What’s the worst that can happen?

All these little side hustles were the prep. It was the training for when the opportunity came, you guys were ready. It’s also interesting the no-business plan thing. We could talk about that. That’s very common and people don’t get that. He realizes there’s a contract for six figures to clean a building once it’s done. Your dad realizes you have the administrative chops. He knows his way around a construction site how to clean a building and do that well. Did you guys try to bid on that actual contract or did you realize like, “There’s a broader opportunity here in general?”

That contract ended. I don’t know how long the job lasted but I know that I was only there for four months. Now, it’s over. We have this idea. We have seen it done. We know what people are getting paid to do this type of work. That’s all the information we have at that point. Other things happen and transpire. I ended up moving out and I’m living on my own.

My dad is moving on to other construction sites and doing some other things. We had some family stuff going on and I am at a place where I need to work. The business idea is still an idea but I need a job, money and to take care of these two babies. What I did know is that I do want a business. I want to do this or something very close to it.

Was that the moment you decided that or had you always thought of that? Was that the spark?

I always knew that I was going to be and wanted to be in business. I knew that I had what it took. That’s what I did know. Remember, I’m the same girl that was selling candy. I could sell anything. I knew that part but at that point, I also knew that I didn’t know enough to know how to run anything. The most I had done was busting candy from Sam’s Club, marking it up and making a profit. I knew that part but I didn’t know anything else. I knew that I needed employment opportunities that could offer me a boatload of transferable skills like, “If I work in an office at a high level and I see what they are doing, I can probably use those same skills to do this for myself.” That was my mind.

It’s crazy to think of it this way but you figured out, “I’m going to get somebody to pay me to go to college. I’m going to get paid to learn.”

That’s what I was doing. I even recorded this. I don’t even know if you know this. I did this motivational CD. I was maybe 21. One of the principles was like, “See the bigger picture.” The other one was, “Your job is a paid internship.” I talked about the fact that’s like, “When you look at it as if you are getting paid to learn, it’s easy to go to work.” You could wake up like, “I want to be there. Sign me up for the conference call and long meeting. I want to know what the decision-makers are doing and how they are doing it. I want to hear it and I’m going to learn that way.” That’s what I did.

There’s a mindset concept here. It’s your interpretation. I remember you said something in the Ice House interview. You said something like, “People say they don’t want to work at McDonald’s like a dead-end job. I don’t want to do this.” You interpreted it differently. You said like, “I’m learning how to multitask, count money, talk to customers and organize things. There’s all this learning that’s happening.”

To fast forward, what I ended up doing was applying for a bunch of jobs I didn’t qualify for and then I’ve eventually got one. I started working at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. I learned how the whole administrative part of being a financial sales assistant worked. That’s a whole other story.

You’ve got a job as an assistant at Morgan Stanley. Was that intimidating? You are a single mom and eighteen years old. You are faking it until you make it. What’s going on?

One of the visions as a kid that I saw was myself getting dressed up and going into an office. I don’t know what she was doing but as a kid, I was playing secretary. I knew that I wanted to be dressed up and be in an office. What happened was I ended up applying for this job and it was at a temp agency. The temp agency sent me there with explicit instructions to answer the phones for the assistant while they look to hire the person that they are going to hire. That’s what I did. I sat there. I was supposed to answer the phones.

A day happened where the assistant that I was assisting showed up late after lunch. I was answering the phones, answering questions, giving stock quotes, telling them what information we were going to send, all kinds of things. Kristen was her name. She was standing at my cubicle, listening to my conversation. She was like, “Sirena, how do you know how to do all of that?” I was like, “Did you think I was sitting here answering phones? I had been listening to you for a whole month.”

She was like, “You told them everything correctly. You know exactly what to send. You know how to give the stock quotes and read.” At that time, everything was antiquated. It was the early 2000s. People were still calling in. You weren’t walking around with an iPhone with it. You were calling in, “What is MSFT?” “I’m looking it up for you.” She was like, “Apply for the job, Sirena. You know how to do it.” I fumbled my way through that interview. I didn’t get the job from the top producer but I’ve got a job in the office working for five newbie stock brokers.

You stumbled your way through the interview. Talk to me about that. What is that all about?

All I was doing was reading the body language. I knew nothing about the stock market. I’m not even good at Math but I knew what I did know. I highlight what I do know and then figure out the rest. Here’s how the conversation would go. The man would be excited, “We are looking to build a team because we want to take our clients to this place.” I could feel the excitement. I would say, “That is a great plan there. That would be amazing.”

He would say things like, “You don’t want to do this.” I said, “That’s right. You do not want to do that.” I was following the inflections of his voice. I was mirroring him and trying to figure out what was what as we went. What crazy at that time, is a nineteen-year-old going to put themselves in that position? Me, because my thought is, “What’s the worst that can happen?” I’m like, “I’m not going to get the job. That’s all that can happen. I’m either going to get it or not going to get it.”

What ended up happening was I wasn’t right for him because I didn’t have enough experience and he was the top producer. They put me somewhere else with lower-level brokers and I did the same job. I made excellent money. I didn’t have a degree. I took my Series 7 test. I thought I wanted to be a stockbroker. Things started evolving. I’m gathering these skills because I still have the idea of a business here but I need to understand how bigger businesses work from the inside. I know how my office would look, how I would keep track of these things, and how to have these phone conversations. That’s what I did.

You are young, a nineteen-year-old single mom with twins, living in a one-bedroom apartment. You put yourself in the middle of a high-functioning professional organization, which should be intimidating for a lot of folks. You see it as a learning opportunity, which is amazing. If I remember from our original interview, one of the things you said was, “You are a girl from the projects and you’ve got a glimpse inside of how wealthy people manage money.”

That was maybe an unexpected benefit. You’ve got a front-row seat. I’m trying to connect some dots here. Here you are in this apartment, not sure what is coming next. You’ve got twins, a high school diploma, and a driver’s license but there’s something else out there. “I’ve got to go find it.” Here you are, a couple of years later, in the middle of a financial firm where you get to see a more affluent aspect of life.

It’s confirming what I know, which there’s something more out there. It’s affirming that thought.

What’s the story you are telling yourself at this point?

At that point, there was a lot of learning that I didn’t realize I was learning until afterward in retrospect. During it, there were tears. All of us would cry. The babies and I were crying. I didn’t know what they wanted. I would look out the window and say, “How does the story change? How can I change the story?” At that point, it was to take the kids to the daycare, go to work, pick the kids up, go to the supermarket, come home and go to church. It was a constant cycle of the same and I’m like, “What has to happen for this to change?”

At this point, I have to take care of the kids. I’m learning but I’m still like, “I need this job because I need to provide.” I’m still there in my mind. Meanwhile, on the other side, my father was going through his own process. We were not communicating too much during that time but he was going through his process. He is working out the business idea and how it can happen. I’m carrying it but trying to survive. He is trying to implement some stuff.

Eventually, what happens is he starts to make some progress and gets to a place where he’s like, “Sirena, I need your help with this stuff.” He got to a place, and then I started helping out. As I’m helping, I’m still working but how the story changed was looking like there might be an offering up here. “I can get off of this road if I do more of this and consistently keep this going. I need to do more of the business with my dad’s stuff. We need to do that more.” Over time, it worked. I would be in the bathroom at the job, taking phone calls for Elohim.

What’s Elohim?

Elohim Cleaning Contractors Inc. ends up being the company we formed. We ended up forming this cleaning contracting company.

I remember your dad said all these potentially daunting hurdles along the way when you were starting like understanding what permits you need to get and then insurance. You need a $3 million liability policy or something like that. He said initially like, “We are dead in the water.” He then realized like, “Keep looking. That only costs a few hundred dollars a month.” You’ve got to keep walking up to the hurdle, looking one at a time and knocking them down. You are working hard. It’s your day job in financial services. Elohim Cleaning is starting. You’ve got a side hustle but you’ve got no time in your life for a side hustle. How are you managing that?

I don’t have time but I have a passion, drive, and reason to do this for some time, understanding that seasons are subject to change. This is not sustainable but if I keep on with what I believe is the way out, I will have more time to do what I want to do. I’m doing what I have to do but there’s what I want to do. I want to not be limited by the position that someone gave me at a corporation.

There’s more to me than sitting behind this desk. I’m grateful for the opportunity but I’m dying inside. I want to be outdoors, take off in the middle of the day and go to the zoo with my kids. I know that that’s possible because I’m writing checks to people that are doing that. These worlds are coming together and I do what I have to do.

Gary, I don’t know if you have watched this but I do. I’m going to train on it, Undercover Billionaire season one. In season one, this billionaire gets a bunch of dollars, no cell phone and context. He is supposed to create a million-dollar business in 90 days. He shares all this stuff. Season one is phenomenal. There are so many Ice House principles.

One of the first things he says is, “I cannot focus on the business when my basic needs are not met. If I’m out here with this $100 in this truck and I don’t know where my meal is coming from or where I’m going to sleep, I can’t focus on what business I’m about to build. I’ve got to take care of that first.” That’s what we have done. All of the Ice House Entrepreneurs, yourself included, we all did that part first. What do I need to survive?

Anxiety hijacks your brain in a way that your higher-order thinking can’t happen. You are in survival mode.

That’s what happened. We’ve got our first job. It was a small contractor, removing some shingles off of a roof. We saw him working. My father walked up to him because he was used to walking up to construction sites and saying, “Do you need laborers?” That was a normal thing for him because he was a laborer in a union. He would walk onto a site and say, “If you guys need help, here’s my union card,” however that went.

He did that for a private company and he was like, “We can remove these shingles and it will cost X amount of dollars an hour.” His numbers came from what he knew he was getting paid before. He is doing the quick-hustle math. I don’t even know if he knew where we were going to dispose of this stuff. We had a truck and an opportunity so we went for it.

What’s interesting to me about that is people don’t see that crummy, little first job. You told me it was $400 or something to remove shingles. How dirty, nasty and a not lucrative first job can lead to something bigger. I had a guy in the show, Patrick Hughes. He won the United States Minority Small Business Owner of the Year. Patrick Hughes is up in Seattle. He bought a $2,500 carpet cleaner and $800 used pickup truck. He started a company.

His first client was cleaning carpeting in a UPS Store for $35. They locked him in the store overnight to clean the carpet. He couldn’t figure out how to work the carpet cleaning machine. It’s a $35 job. He’s got, 150 employees. He has cleaning contracts in twelve states. I remember you told me about how you set up the office for Elohim Cleaning. Can you talk to us a little bit about that? That’s a classic part of the Sirena story.

My dad was the original Sanford and Son dude. He was driving around with a beat-up pickup truck. One of the doors was a different color than the entire truck. He would ride around and find things on the side of the road, in front of people’s houses or wherever and it became the office. It was a table and then somebody threw out a hutch from a desk. He put the hutch on top of this brown table. We had a keyboard stand and a plank of wood going across.

We had the famous all-in-one printers, all three of them. Each one did one function. One would fax, one would copy and one would print. We use them as we need them to. We were using a friend’s fax machine. My dad had a friend who had an office at home. The fax number on our cards and stuff was his fax because we didn’t even know how to receive a fax. It was the AOL dial-up days. You couldn’t be on the phone, computer or internet at the same time. You had to plug it in and unplug it to make a call. It was nuts but we were committed to it.

Remember, my father is going to be the best broom sweeper you could imagine. He’s got that mindset. I’m coming up right behind him a lot like him. “I’m going to be the best business owner that you could imagine. I’m going to be the best secretary administrative assistant. I’m going to own it and make sure it’s done right.” That was my mindset. As we started, we were like, “Do what you can where you are with what you have.” We saw the bigger picture always. We still didn’t know what the business could become but as we kept walking, baby steps are steps nonetheless.

I wrote a piece for Forbes. It’s interesting to me that you and your dad had this idea for a construction cleaning company. Are you thinking like, “I’m going to go to an SBDC or go somewhere, get a loan, write a business plan and try to get money to do it?” Did that thought ever enter your mind?

No. It was because my father was a cash dude. Credit wasn’t a thing that was even talked about in my house. I don’t even remember anybody having a credit card.

Was borrowing money not a part of his mentality?

Right. He said, “If we can’t pay for it, we can’t afford to have it.” That was his thing. Buy what you can afford. That wasn’t at the forefront of our minds at all. We were going to use what we had. We knew that we weren’t going to try to live far beyond our means. Every dollar went back into the business. We did the exercise of basic needs and it was like, “Sirena, how much do you need? How much do I need?” Eventually, when my brother came on, “How much does he need? What does it take for us to be able to dedicate a little bit more time to the business?”

When you started the business, did you have a bunch of cash saved up? Did you quit your job and lose the business or were you side-hustling?

I was side-hustling. We paid our first employee with my father’s unemployment check. He was unemployed while we were trying to build the business. When we’ve got a job, it was my cousin. We paid him but it was with my dad’s unemployment money. I stayed at my job as long as I could. Eventually, I left the investment firm. I had severance pay, and then I was able to file for unemployment. It was a sweet story. The person I was working for knew that I wanted to be out and that there was more for me. They didn’t want to see me go but I know he knew.

I offered to stay and train the person that would replace me and all that. He said, “That was so mature of you. You are such an awesome young lady. Since you are going to do that, stay and train your replacement, I will lay you off. That way, you can collect unemployment.” What I was able to do was collect severance pay. Once my severance ran out, I was able to collect unemployment and renew unemployment. I enrolled in two business courses at the community college. I was getting student financial aid. That sustained me for some time while we were growing the business.

You have a little bit of runway you created for yourself. You are running scared. These little $400 roof jobs aren’t going to sustain you, your dad and your brother. What’s going on there?

We knew from our earlier experience on that one construction site that construction site cleaning wasn’t a thing. We didn’t know what it was called. I did show up at the Women’s Business Center. After a while, I was AOL browsing everything about a business like, “What is a C corp? What is this and that?” I ran across business plans, finance and all kinds of things. The Women’s Business Center was one of the places I ran across and did a Feasibility Plan Class with them.

I remember even then, we had 2 or 3 jobs at this point and they were getting larger. We weren’t at the final cleaning yet. That labor was my dad. My cousin had a union book. Eventually, my brother got into the union. We were providing union labor on an as-needed basis. We lived in Union City, Philadelphia. Our differentiator was that you didn’t have to call the union hall and get a guy off the wall.

We would send you people that we know will provide outstanding service. That was because we knew them. As my father’s network grew of people he knew with the book, we would put them onto jobs. It’s a high-level type of service. We didn’t know. We just knew that final cleaning was a thing and we were doing steps toward that thing.

Talk to me about the contracts you were getting. The first deal you had was $400, a residential roofing contractor. How did these deals start to get bigger? Was there one deal where you said, “This is going to work?” Was there a moment when you knew this was going to go?

Yes. It was $400, and then we went up to a couple of thousand dollars. The whole year, it was between $6,000 and $8,000. We jumped up within another year to $13,000. We were climbing. All of a sudden, we were at $389,000. It was almost $400,000 and then it’s like, “This is a thing.” What happened was we were doing a couple of things. I was working on certifications.

The set-aside, minority-owned, women-owned, I was working on that stuff. I was doing a lot more networking in and out, keeping our name before the people, “Our name and our story.” That’s how we’ve got to you because I was keeping our name and our story out in front of people so that they would be seeking us out.

I didn’t go to school. I don’t know what marketing even is but I’m doing it because we are getting media attention. The newspaper wants to interview us. Another company sees that and it’s boosting our credibility. Other people are calling. The calls started coming in. My father and brother were out on the job sites handing out cards. “This is what we do and what we can provide to you.” That’s what we did. Every single day, we showed up. Every single moment, we were meant to be there. We kept showing up and the calls kept coming in.

We then joined chambers and all these different associations to broaden our network. By the time we looked up, we were at about $1 million in sales maybe six years later. We had no idea that was a big deal. We had no statistics on the rate at which businesses fail. We knew nothing. Our blissful ignorance was a huge blessing because we were not comparing ourselves to anyone. We had nothing to compare ourselves to. We weren’t modeled after anyone. We were just doing what we knew to do.

That’s not insignificant, Sirena. We get ourselves all wrapped around the axle by comparing ourselves to other people. This is well-documented. We are perfectly happy with our 500 Series BMW until we come up to the street light next to the 7 Series guy. All of a sudden, we are not happy anymore. Warren Buffett said something about that like, “There’s an inner scorecard and an outer scorecard. You are better off if you can deal with an inner scorecard.” You are paying attention to how we are progressing like, “I’m trying to be a better version of myself rather than trying to compete with someone else.” Here’s the thing. You didn’t have a bunch of money saved up when you started this either.

With the office equipment, your father fished out of the garbage. It was a few things people have thrown away. Your first job was $400. In the first year, you did $7,000 or $8,000. In the next year, you did $13,000 or $14,000. A lot of people wouldn’t stick with that. They would say like, “This isn’t going anywhere because it’s not happening fast enough.” I can’t help but think. A part of the situation here is the lack of alternative options. There’s no, “This is too hard. I think I will go get a Law degree.”

This has to work. It’s so funny you say that because my best friend and I were talking about this. She is transitioning out of being a full-time employee to doing her own business. She was like, “Sirena, I don’t think you realize sometimes you are wired differently.” I’m like, “What’s so hard? What I need you to do is listen to me and do what I said.” She was like, “You’ve got to understand even when you are saying, ‘Make this phone call,’ I’m having palpitations, all the things that could happen and you are like, ‘They are going to say yes or no.’ You grew up with like, ‘This has to work.'” There was no option to quit. Quitting was not even on the table. It had to work.

Let’s talk about that because there’s something. I have listened to your story in Ice House hundreds of times. I’m all about the mindset. There’s a thing that happens to us in our brains when we contemplate an action, whatever that action is. Technically speaking, anxiety is broad in general and fear is specific and imminent like a threat.

When you think about a future action like make this call, let’s say. If it evokes anxiety, our brains shut it down with no further thought. Psychologists call this an affect heuristic. Affect is an emotional response. If we have a negative emotional response, our brains won’t let us get to the next step of thinking, “What’s the worst that’s going to happen? The guy is going to tell me no. He is going to hang up on me. I’m not going to die, get hurt or lose money.”

Our brains never even get to the point of making that calculation. You have somehow mastered that and it’s happening in your subconscious mind instantly. You are making that calculation and going up. You are assessing the risk-reward saying, “There’s only upside here. There’s no downside.” That’s probably the Sirena mindset magic right there.

I’m still learning between my husband and best friend. I have these conversations with my husband and he is like, “I don’t think you realize how dynamic your brain works. First of all, what you think is like, ‘That’s easy and simple. Here it is.’ You are computing at a level that the rest of us are like, ‘Give me a week. Let me get back to you.’ With you, it’s like, ‘Throw it.’ You have already taken it in, processed it, decided and done it. We are all like, ‘Wait. Hold on.'”

I’m still learning that about myself. It’s not that I’m fearless or not afraid because I have fear and palpitations. Some conversations are totally intimidating to me. Some situations are intimidating. They feel and look intimidating but then there’s this other part of me that’s like, “Go for it. What is the worst? I’m not going to die if I do this. You are going to say no. Maybe I will feel embarrassed but what else?”

That’s how I did even with the jobs, applying for the jobs that I didn’t qualify for as a teenager. I applied to Vice President of Sales and the Executive Director of Human Resources. I didn’t even know what human resources were but I figured, “They have their rules but they are not talking about me. If I can do the job, I feel like I should get the job. All you can say is yes or no.”

I’m a student of Social Psychology. What that means is that there are situational factors that influence our behavior that we are not necessarily aware of. People would look at Sirena and say, “You have this personality that makes you this way. I can’t do that because I don’t have those personality traits.” What people miss is that part of what makes you able to do what you do is your belief that, “There’s something else out there for me.”

There’s a biblical phrase, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” You’ve got a vision in your mind. When I look at Sirena, I see a human organism trying to self-actualize. This is what Maslow taught us like, “What a man can be, he must be.” There’s something inside of you telling you there’s more out there. My point is that it’s the compelling goal that makes you willing to make those frightening phone calls.

I’m glad you bring this up because I hear people say things like that all the time. “What’s your personality? I’m an introvert. I don’t do that. That’s not part of what I do.” As I have grown and matured some, I’m coming into my own here, I looked at it in a more defined way. I’m saying things to myself like, “People are waiting for me to show up. Somebody needs what I was created to produce.” That’s on repeat up here.

Even when I work with other women that are paralyzed by fear, can’t move or go forward, I’m like, “As your coach, teacher, trainer, whatever capacity I’m working in, the truth of the matter is, I don’t work for you. I work for the people that are waiting for you to show up because I believe that you specifically carry something so important. We have to get you to leave it here, use what’s in your hand and discover what’s in your house. We have to get where it’s in you on the menu.”

We have to do it because someone needs that. If you have ever read a great book that has been life-changing, you read the book and you see what that person has written and it changes your life, imagine if they did not show up for that assignment. For me, that’s happening all the time. That’s on repeat. I can’t let them down. People are waiting for me.

That jives with my theory of entrepreneurship. I believe that non-entrepreneurial behavior is learned. The desire to fulfill human needs through our own efforts is intrinsic. It’s a powerful motivating force that’s in all of us. We all come to this life with interests and abilities that are unique to us. People don’t realize this but you don’t get to choose what you are interested in. It comes on a hard drive. You could be interested in basketball because you live in a world and that’s a cultural thing. I get it. Some interests and capabilities are unique to us like things we are capable of becoming good at.

It’s natural for us to figure out how to use our interests and abilities. When we pursue things that interest us and we develop our abilities, we don’t need someone to coerce us to do it. Nature rewards us for doing that with joy with a sense of excitement and energy. Nature is trying to tell you, “Keep doing that.” You know that feeling you get when you learn something. The human organism is meant to learn.

The feeling you get when you create something that other people find satisfying to them, that’s better than any drug. When we can figure out what interests us, what we are capable of becoming good at, and use that in ways that benefit other humans, that’s why we are here on Earth. That’s how a human tapping into the most potent form of human motivation and that intersection of your interests, abilities and the needs of others. That’s your superpower.

That is the superpower outlier. I get asked questions like, “How do you stay motivated?” I’m self-motivated. I don’t need anything to pop me up.

I can tell you what it is. You gave me a clue. It’s the story that you are telling yourself. People don’t pay attention to that. Psychologists call this an explanatory style. “Are you telling yourself a beat-down story or are you telling yourself like, ‘Today is going to be a great day. I’ve got to show up with everything I’ve got?'” The story you tell yourself makes an enormous difference. The challenge is that you don’t know what you know. You struggle to articulate what even makes you tick because to you, it’s the water you swim in.

I need to walk around Gary with me all the time because Gary is the one who has all the information about what’s going on at what I’m trying to tell you. That’s the one thing I love about you. Every time we talk, you know the scientific reason for what I do naturally. When I took the Ice House Course, sat in the facilitator training and watched this thing all come together, I was like, “Is that what I was saying? Was I really saying that?” There’s a whole graph and chart.

It’s amazing to me to hear because you are right. It does. You can’t fake that. I already told you who I was in kindergarten. Who taught her how to be that way? I came like that. I was introduced to this world the way that I am. Over time, the only thing that I have done has gotten closer to the one that created me, first of all. Second of all, I have gotten more intimately familiar with the fact that I’m created with purpose and there are people connected to that purpose. I have a responsibility as a human being to serve at a high level and give it everything that I have. The closer I get to understanding that, the more potent the superpower.

You are a great example, Sirena. I’m always saying this, “What happens to a human being?” For most of us, learning and work are thought of as a necessary evil. It’s drudgery, “It’s something I’ve got to do to pay the bills.” It’s like, “I would rather be on a beach.” People don’t realize when you interpret the world differently and learn how to use your abilities, and interests to benefit others, learning and work become a source of joy, meaning, growth, and prosperity in our lives. Same person, different interpretation. I’m going to go out on a limb here and call this Sirena Moore-Thomas part one. We haven’t even touched the story. We are going to have to come back and do a second episode. I’m hoping I can get you back on the show to do part two.

We have to tell part two because the one thing I will say is Elohim Cleaning Contractors is still alive and well. My father and brother run the business. They are doing a great job doing that. I am no longer the CEO of Elohim Cleaning Contractors. I live in Florida. Things have evolved. I’m running some other companies. I can’t wait to dive in. This has been a phenomenal conversation and they always are.

We had so many great conversations. I’m grateful for what you are doing. I’m serious. I tell you this every time. The work that you do is so important and the way that you do it is masterful seriously. It is amazing. The way you articulate what little folks like myself are doing blows my mind every single time. Please keep doing what you are doing.

Thanks, Sirena. We will talk to you next time.

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About Sirena Moore-Thomas

Sirena Moore-Thomas is a dynamic speaker, executive coach, and business leader. Known for her energetic delivery and charismatic storytelling, she compels her audiences to play at a higher level with her message of NO EXCUSES!
Having experienced the challenges of being a teen mom of twins, Sirena defied the odds and accomplished the seemingly impossible. As a visionary and CEO, she has led several small businesses to multi-million dollar revenues and won hundreds of Federal Contracts (Cage 3FB43 & 366W6).
Sirena has consistently demonstrated her ability to deliver results to clients of all sizes where and how it matters most.
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