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The Business Success Story of Kelly Charles-Collins

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For Kelly Charles-Collins, being fired was the boost she needed to pursue her passion for speaking full-time.

“I had the comfort of my job, so I played football,” she says. Charles-Collins, an attorney, had four paid speaking engagements under her belt as a side hustle at rates ranging from $5,000 to $7,500. Although lucrative, her day job created a time crunch that kept her from getting fat.

“I had one foot in and one foot out. Because of the safety of my job, I would do anything [with] sometimes I chased my dream, and other times I retreated to the comfort and security of my paycheck.

The comfort and security quickly disappeared: at the end of 2019, the prestigious law firm Charles-Collins could no longer afford her salary and decided to let her go. Being fired set her on the path to becoming a sought-after speaker on unconscious bias, bystander intervention (on which she has an award-winning TEDx talk), and courageous conversations. She now commands a $50,000 speaking honorarium and helps other women build businesses and brands that involve speaking up and being their full selves.

However, getting there was not easy. Here are the tips she has for current and future entrepreneurs when it comes to attracting dream clients and charging the rates you want.

Prioritize savings to prepare for unforeseen circumstances

Charles-Collins had a target date to eventually continue her side business full-time, but the sudden termination forced her to change her schedule.

A photo of Kelly Charles Collins
Kelly Charles Collins

“I had planned to leave, but not before August 2020,” she says. The entrepreneur had developed his speaking activity as a sideline in the evenings while continuing to practice law. “At the time I was made redundant, I hadn’t done what I was supposed to do to save money. I had an emergency fund in the five-figure range, which would have paid the bills for three months. What I wish I had was six to nine months of saved expenses. It was scary because I was now doing what I wanted to do, but the company had to support me.

The first few months were difficult, as she went from regular salaries to the uncertainty of securing clients and income. She got referrals, introduced associations and organizations, and began to see movement in people who hired her as a speaker. She also used this downtime to build her website and market herself more actively on social media so that she was easy to find when potential clients wanted to know more about her work.

Pro tip

In addition to planning for your retirement, consider spending your emergency fund in case an unexpected layoff or loss of income requires more cash.

Make it easy for others to refer you

Then, in 2020, a race-related incident stoked the fires for Charles-Collins.

“When I heard about what happened to George Floyd, I posted a message on social media,” she says. “I told those who wanted to learn how to be allies that I would do a Zoom call, and they could come and ask questions. I felt I had to create a safe space for people to have conversations and ask questions.

As a speaker on the bystander effect, a psychological phenomenon in which the presence of others prevents us from responding to an emergency – and the mother of a son who was the victim of police brutality, according to a story that she recounts in her TEDx talk – the entrepreneur aimed to be helpful, but also direct.

“I told those present that I was not there for their comfort, but that I had perspective, ability and context to answer their questions.”

The call – along with the preparatory work she had done over the previous months – was the catalyst for Charles-Collins’ business growth. In addition to referrals from the participants themselves, the YouTube live stream was shared so widely that it started showing up in Google search results. Company representatives from various organizations discovered her through search engines and began contacting her, asking her to do similar “listening sessions” and Q&As for their teams.

She has presented in social media groups, with corporate teams and leaders, and at civic events. As she refined her approach, she gradually increased her rates along the way, eventually reaching $50,000 per engagement.

“One of the first companies that hired me for listening sessions was Raymond James,” she says. “It was their first-ever town hall event on the race. It was myself and Dr Johnnetta Cole who were the speakers, and there were over 3,000 people at that town hall.

After the event, Raymond James asks Charles-Collins to train his leaders. eBay, Cherry Hill Public School District, Tampa International Airport, and various law firms are other companies that have engaged her for speaking engagements and training. In six months, she was able to match and then exceed her salary as a lawyer.

“I was very lucky that for 2020 and 2021 I got a lot of business through word of mouth,” she notes.

More revenue streams, more impact

Charles-Collins wanted to help other women develop financial independence and cultivate a sense of belonging. She founded a community called Ladies Who Leverage®, and a new source of income was born.

“I never wanted to be a coach, but I love mentoring and strategizing,” she notes. “My goal was to create a safe space where women could work together without competing. I can now share all the lessons I have learned over the years with my community.”

Now a sought-after speaker, women’s empowerment strategist and six-figure business owner, Charles-Collins wakes up every day elated to help others use their voice to make a difference and get paid.

“I could have found the comfort of practicing law again, or I could do what I said I wanted to do, which was to walk in my purpose – and talk.”

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