Plenty of business owners claim entrepreneurship is in their blood. For Kathy Mills, founder of the Louisville-based IT firm Strategic Communications, that statement might actually be true. As told to Issie Lapowsky.
I come from a family of eight. I have six brothers and one sister, and all of us are business owners, every single one of us. It's unique, I think, especially considering our background.
We grew up very poor in the projects, in Jacksonville, Florida. Our father was an alcoholic, and if you've ever been exposed to alcoholism, you know you go through a lot of emotional things, and sometimes physical things. But still, we all loved this person despite his faults. Our dad died of cirrhosis of the liver when I was 17. Sometimes things like that happen for reasons you don't understand, but they're clear later on. Now, I think maybe it was supposed to happen that way so the rest of us could be free.
My mother had never worked before he passed away. She's from Japan and speaks broken English, but she went to work in a school cafeteria to support us. Years later, she worked as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant. She stayed there until we all got to a place where we could chip in to a fund so she didn't have to work. It's the least we could do after all she did for us.
"We must have passed something on to our kids. Because now they're starting businesses, too."
We owe a lot to my mom. She's an incredibly strong woman, and she's brutally honest. She knew each of our talents, and if we were settling for less than our best, she would tell us it wasn't good enough. She'd say, "You can do more than that. You need to do better." She wouldn't let us sit by and waste our talent.
I remember when I graduated high school, I started hanging out with the wrong crowd. I was just bored and started getting into trouble. My mom said, "You're better than this. You're going to school in Kentucky and moving in with your sister." And I did. I got my act together, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I met my husband, Rick, there when I was 21, and we've been married now for 28 years.
My husband and I were the first in my family to start a company. He had always dabbled in electronics, and in 1984, after the Commodore 64 came out, we met a representative from Commodore, who persuaded us to get into the computer business. We sold everything we had and opened one of the first computer stores in Louisville. In 1992, we sold that business, and I opened Strategic Communications two years later.
I knew the computer-store market was saturated by that time, so I decided to focus on helping businesses with telecommunications. Over time, our customers started asking us about installing cabling and supplying phone systems, and as our customers grew, we did, too. Now, we provide voice, data, video, cybersecurity, and wireless services.
Everyone at the office knows my siblings, because on any given day, one of them will pop in. We also interact with one another in our businesses a lot. With my brother Roy, I own two other companies. Roy also co-owns Neutz Brothers Cars, Trucks & Vans with my brother Tommy. Tommy's the baby of the family, and Roy set that up for him to run. When my brother Eddie sold his IT business, he ended up buying a moving company from my brother-in-law, Joe Taylor.
I can't tell you how many times my family has been there for me and for my business. Roy, Harry, Debbie, and my mom have helped out when we were in dire straits. My mom took out an equity loan on her home, my sister invested money in the business from her divorce settlement, and Roy and Harry loaned me money with no interest. Of course, I've helped them, too. When Roy was getting a divorce, he moved in with my family, and we helped him start his mechanic business, which has been here for 25 years now. And when Debbie was starting her moving company, before she even had a chance to ask, we upgraded her computer system and software, as a surprise.
I've learned a lot from all my siblings. My brother Karl taught me about how to face adversity. He had kidney cancer, and I was so impressed by the way he handled it, and he's still running his commercial cleaning business. From Debbie, I've learned bravery. She had been a stay-at-home mom for years, and she started her business when she was 53. A lot of people wouldn't have taken that chance at her age. The list just goes on. I learned finesse from Eddie, loyalty from Harry, the importance of customer relationships from Tommy, the importance of integrity from Bobby, and how to take it slow and steady from Roy.
We must have passed something on to our kids. Because now they're starting businesses, too. My niece Laura is the oldest of the kids, and from her on down, the five oldest nieces and nephews have all started companies.
Sometimes I wonder how we all ended up entrepreneurs. I don't know. Our life was always such a roller coaster. We always felt out of control. I think owning your own business means you have some say in deciding what your destiny is going to be. And if we didn't have our mom there, who knows?
Looking back, I think that any one of us could have said that we were victims, but nobody did. We all said, "I'm not going to let what I've been through weigh on who I'm going to be," and I'm so proud of my brothers and my sister for that. We've given each other a lot of strength. We know that none of us would be as successful as we are today if we hadn't had everyone else there supporting us.
One wonderful thing my father did do when we were kids was, he would always gather us together and tell us, "United you stand, divided you fall." He was right. It's hard to fail when you know someone has your back.