My Story – by Claudia Fox
I was born and grew up in the Midwest, the eldest of six children. My father’s philosophy of education was that “boys go to college and girls have babies,” and that certainly seemed to be what my mother did because, to me, it appeared that she was always pregnant. My father ran the household with an iron fist, and my mother was expected to do whatever he asked. In fact, my father and mother spent most of their marriage—which ultimately lasted forty-five years until his death—arguing and talking about divorce. In that atmosphere, and with so many younger siblings and babies around, it was difficult for me to get much attention. As a result, I found it difficult to be assertive, but I did discover my strengths: being smart, friendly, and nice.
During my first four years of elementary school, I was a popular kid and got straight A’s. And then my father announced that we were moving “to a big city far away from here.” As it turned out, the new city was only about an hour away, but at my age, it might as well have been another world.
At first I was excited about the move, but when I told my fourth grade teacher, her response was to say, “Claudia, don’t think you’re going to be smart in your new school.” That really shocked me, and as I played it over and over in my head through the years to come, it became more and more true. As it turned out, the kids in my new elementary school were not only ahead of me academically, they were also more affluent, and I always felt that I just wasn’t good enough and would never catch up. To make up for my insecurities and “fit in,” I developed what is generally called a pleasing personality.
When I reached high school, there were two “tracks” that I could follow. The academic track was the direct route to college, and the business track offered courses such as typing and shorthand. Since it had already been drummed into my head by my father that a woman’s greatest aspiration ought to be to become a secretary and then “graduate” to becoming a devoted housewife and mother, I, of course, followed the business track. And I found out that I was good at it.
After graduation, I got my first job as a secretary, and I remained a secretary, at one place or another, for the next twelve years—not particularly because I wanted to, but because I just couldn’t figure out what I needed to do to get ahead like others were.
My big breakthrough—really the turning point in my life— interestingly came not through what I had learned on the job, but through social experience. By that time, I’d moved to New York City, and I’d met a young man at the office whom I began to date. Very early in the relationship, however, he informed me in no uncertain terms that if we were going to continue seeing one another, I’d have to learn to ski because that’s what he did every weekend during the winter months.
I was willing to try. I even committed to joining his “ski house” in Vermont, but, in fact, I was miserable. It was a four-hour drive every Friday night, and everyone was up bright and early the next morning to hit the slopes. Putting on all those layers of clothes was a chore, and no matter how many layers I wore, I was always cold. By the time I got to the slope, I was in tears. And, since all the others had been skiing for years, they headed up to the top of the mountain while I was relegated to the beginner’s or “bunny” slope for lessons.
It was a tough winter for me, but I was determined to get up to the top of that mountain and join the rest of the group. After a month, I announced that I was ready. The others were doubtful, but I insisted. After only three runs, I plowed right into two other skiers and was taken off the mountain on a stretcher with pulled ligaments that kept me in a cast for a week. But I was still determined, and just two weeks after the cast came off, I was back on the mountain. After a few more lessons, I finally “got it.”
The group had already planned to go to Aspen the following spring for a skiing vacation, and when we got there, I headed right for the slopes with the others. It turned out to be a great vacation, and as the years have gone on, I’ve become an expert skier. I had so much confidence, when I returned from vacation, I volunteered to teach beginners.
What the experience taught me, however, was that if I had a goal, I might not like everything I had to do to achieve it, but doing those things would ultimately build my confidence and get me closer to where I wanted to be. The “bonus” for me was discovering that I could also pass along what I’d learned to others and take pride in their my achievements and theirs. These were lessons that I’d use in my business life from that point on.
Once I’d discovered my own power, I began to use my experience to advance my career. One of my secretarial jobs had been with KLM Airlines, and I now built on my skills and the knowledge I’d accumulated about the airline industry to go from secretary to account executive to director of sales and marketing for an airline uniform company. Within six or seven years, I was earning in the top one percent of all women in the country.
After having worked for the airlines for several years, I became interested in real estate and secured a position as a secretary with Sotheby Parke Bernet Real Estate. I worked for twelve women in the real estate department while attending classes to become a sales agent. Once I was licensed, and after completing my commitment, I began to sell high-end properties. Starting at the lower end of the spectrum, I worked my way up over the next two years to selling million-dollar residences, including Lee Radziwell’s (Jackie Kennedy Osassis’s sister) Park Avenue apartment. Through my good reputation, I began to work with celebrities like Billy Joel, Al Pacino, and Ronald Perlman. However, working on commission was difficult for me, and I, therefore, expressed an interest in a new condominium project Sotheby’s had taken on. I sold the total 35 units and, through that experience, became very knowledgeable about condominium projects. Subsequently, I was hired by Donald Trump to work on Trump Plaza in New York City. As I’d learned along the way, one great experience generally leads to the next great experience, and as a result of the Trump project, I was hired by Manhattan Sales, of a joint venture between William Zeckendorf and Worldwide Volkswagen, to lead, train, and motivate the sales agents for their condominium projects. After only four months, I was asked to become President of Manhattan Sales and was earning an income of well over six figures.
In 2003, I co-hosted the cablevision program “Get a Job,” and at present I am interviewing guests who have turned their passion into profit on my cablevision program “Alive with Claudia and Clive” Turn Your Passion Into Profit.
What has become clear to me over the years is that the only thing that initially prevented me from achieving success was not the lack of a diploma, but the lack of belief in myself. In the pages that follow, you’ll read the stories of others who, like me, have succeeded and thrived in many walks of life without a college degree. Some of them overcame difficult childhoods and used their adversities to strengthen their determination. Some floundered for a while before they found their true passion while others knew from an early age exactly what they wanted to do and gained the courage to go after it. I hope that all their stories will be inspirational, and will give you, too, the courage and passion to follow your dream.