Nicole Whetzel Cheryl Miller
The first time Cheryl Miller decided to change her life for the better, it took a push from her sister. Homeless after being evicted and on welfare, Miller, then 29, was pregnant with twins when her sister made her a deal: if she went back to school, she could move in.
With encouragement — and babysitting help — from friends in her small Texas town, she finished her teaching degree and got a job teaching the fourth grade. But less than a year later, she hit another low.
"I was doing a lot of cocaine and speed," she says. "And I came back from a weekend of partying and found out I was pregnant. It scared me so bad, it was the last time I ever used."
Fortunately her son was born healthy, and Miller managed to turn her life around again. She also came to realize that the skills she had gained from surviving those dark times could actually be an asset, not something to hide.
After enduring homelessness and fighting addiction, plus raising babies while going to school and working, "I realized there wasn't anything I couldn't accomplish," says Miller, now 62 and married with four grown children.
"Once I entered the professional world with my head on straight," she adds, "I became motivated to show the world that I'm somebody."
Cheryl Miller while pregnant
Miller eventually became the executive director of a housing program in Victoria, Texas, for women on the margins: some had recently been released from prison, some were homeless, most were battling addiction. But in each woman, she saw the same valuable coping skills she had recognized in herself.
"They bring a non-traditional skill set," she says. "They are resilient, they're tenacious, they're hardworking. They've learned how to survive and how to think on their feet."
In a new book, Business Doing Good, co-written with Texas A&M University business professor Shannon Deer, Miller argues that marginalized women like herself and the women she's worked with in the housing program are exactly the kind of workers companies should be hiring — not as a form of charity, but as a way to boost their bottom line.
"They become incredible employees," she says.
Nicole Whetzel Cheryl Miller and Shannon Deer
She saw evidence of that while running the housing program in Texas, where she began a social enterprise effort to develop the women's unique talents and provide them with the means to make a living.
"We were seeing these women making changes in their lives, but they were having a hard time finding jobs that paid enough to support them," she says. "We started looking at what they are experts at — and realized they're experts at overcoming."
Through the social enterprise project, the women learned how to use their skills to teach others and develop curricula for community classes and trainings.
"Once they were given the chance and realized they were smart and could do it, they were unstoppable," Miller says.
Business Doing Good
By 2016, Deer had heard about the inspiring work Miller was doing. Deer's own research focused on women who have transitioned out of the sex trade, a population that overlapped with Miller's work, so she wanted to learn more. She was struck by how transformative the program, and Miller herself, could be.
"Cheryl tells a story about a woman in the program who had once ridden her bike miles down the freeway in the August heat in Texas to steal some blue jeans, which she then turned around and sold," Deer says. "That's entrepreneurial! It may not be entrepreneurial in the way that we hope people are, but it is entrepreneurial. Cheryl was able to say, 'Don't do that anymore, but use that skill. It's valuable.' Their whole lives, these women heard that those skills and attributes were the things people hated about them. But Cheryl would say, 'There's value in that. Let's just point it in a different direction.' "
In their book, Miller and Deer share some stories of women transformed by opportunity, such as one woman who left the sex trade, and through Miller's program, learned to give conflict resolution trainings.
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"She was doing a training for law enforcement and discovered that her own probation officer was in the class," Deer says. "She told me she had been on the wrong side of the table in an interrogation room multiple times, but for the first time, she felt like she was on the right side of the table."
With the book and BDG Partners, their training and consulting business, Miller and Deer want to inspire other organizations and companies to replicate the success Miller saw in the housing program (which was destroyed by Hurricane Harvey in 2017) on a larger scale, and to help businesses connect with and retain marginalized women in their workforce.
"These women's work ethic, their problem-solving skills, their ability to hustle and motivate others are unique and appealing to companies," Deer says. "But they didn't know their own potential. It's so important to show them they have valuable skills and are capable of growing, learning and becoming productive members of society with a job."