How Being A Motel Maid Helped Me Become Successful

Jennifer Openshaw

Jennifer Openshaw, a personal finance expert and author, explains here how her experience being a motel maid at age 15 transformed her and what she thinks people everywhere need to do to put themselves on a path for success.

By Jennifer Openshaw

My experience as a young girl of what the term "work ethic" really meant began with a fib.
I was 14, growing up in Southern California. My mother had divorced when I was 5, left to raise me and my two younger brothers. She didn't have a formal education, so she had to work two full-time jobs as a waitress to make ends meet.

I can still remember those afternoons when she'd come home from her first job in a maroon dress and switch into the black and white cocktail outfit for her evening job. I'd watch her put on her makeup, we'd figure out what I'd prepare the boys for dinner, and then she was off, often until midnight.

Riding my navy blue Schwinn bike home from school one day, right down the middle of the street, I had this vision. With absolute clarity and certainty, I knew three things:

  1. I never want to end up in my mother's precarious financial situation.
  2. I wanted to help others reach their own financial independence.
  3. I knew it was up to me to make these things happen.

With that inspiration, I told the manager of the Don Carlos Motel in Dana Point that I was 15, so I could get a work permit to work as a maid. With necessities like phone bills going unpaid, I knew every extra dollar I earned would count.

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Since then, I've started and sold successful companies, worked alongside some of America's top leaders, written books, and achieved financial independence. When I look back at my life now, I feel extraordinarily fortunate. It took a lot of hard work and sacrifices.

But what if I was 14 years old today? Would I be able to accomplish the same things in this new, highly competitive world with so many global challenges? It seems hard work and sacrifice aren't enough anymore. Are college students truly prepared for the world they will be facing over the next 30 years?

Today, you need to be extremely adaptable. To progress in your career, it's not enough to know one thing well. As my friend Sean Harvey, product manager at Google put it when we were speaking to students, "Today, companies aren't hiring for a specific position but rather people who are smart and flexible. The way you demonstrate that is by showing you can do multiple things well."

Good mentoring matters more now than ever. When I was at UCLA, I was very fortunate to have one particular experienced professional take me under his wing and teach me entrepreneurship and business skills that otherwise would have taken years to develop. Some corporate mentoring programs exist, but are hard to come by for teens and young adults.

What's clear to me after advising hundreds of young people on their career paths is that colleges still have a long way to go to prepare graduates for all they will encounter in the real working world.

When I went to UCLA as an undergrad 20 years ago, annual tuition was $722. This year students will fork over $11,000 -- but still a bargain compared with quadruple that expense at many top private schools. Now, graduates often wait years to get meaningful employment, dramatically lowering their lifetime earning power by tens of thousands of dollars and dashing any hopes of saving for the future.

My aunt and uncle gave me room and board for $100 a month to help keep my college debts down. But without a pension, could they have done the same for me today?

More:From Waitressing To Dream Job At NASA: How One Mom Did It

People need to take more risks to succeed. The lethal combination of unemployment -- around 15 percent when you consider those who've stopped looking for work -- and anemic wage growth means that we are not only at greater financial risk, but we have to take more risks to succeed.

The picture isn't all doom and gloom, of course. The new Internet world of all-the-time connectedness means that anyone with a hot idea, product or service can create a business out of virtually nothing. Success can be quick and big, at fractions of the cost of starting companies just a decade ago.

But that success demands more creativity, more "out of the box" thinking -- the flexibility that Sean Harvey preaches.

And what about our kids? And it makes me think a lot about the future that my 3-year-old daughter faces. How can I best prepare her for the world that she will encounter 20 years from now? What will that world look like? What experiences do I need to allow her to face now to be ready for whatever comes her way in 2032 and beyond?

Whatever the future brings, I think the best message I'll give her is to believe in herself. Life won't get any easier, but the opportunities will come -- as they always have -- to those who work hard, adapt as they need to, and trust their abilities.

And maybe on our next trip to the West Coast, I'll show my daughter the spot where the Don Carlos Motel used to be.

Jennifer Openshaw, president of Finect, is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal's MarketWatch and author of The Millionaire Zone, based on national research about how those who are financially successful used their networks to get ahead. Twitter @jopenshaw.

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