Starla McDermott’s journey to where she is today has not been easy nor direct. After nearly two decades of years excelling in corporate sales and marketing, she was unfulfilled – and ready for a career change. She persevered through multiple job rejections, a difficult divorce and a bout of homelessness to pave a new career path in nonprofits and philanthropy.
Her determination ultimately landed her the leadership position she holds today as development director of Guiding Light. She’s today’s Powerful Woman.
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Produced by women, about women, “Powerful Women, Let's Talk” is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world, transforming who we are and how we live. “Powerful Women, Let's Talk” is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real.
Jennifer Moss: Hello everyone and welcome. Welcome to another edition of “Powerful Women, Let’s Talk.”
I certainly want to thank you for tuning in today and today's powerful woman is Starla McDermott. Starla is the Development Director for Guiding Light right here in Grand Rapids and so everyone, I'm happy to welcome Starla to today's edition of “Powerful Women, Let's Talk.” Hi Starla.
Starla McDermott: Hi, thank you so much for inviting me.
Moss: We are happy to have you here and join us today. So we want to get right to it, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover here.
So, I'm looking at your bio and reading today, right now you are the Development Director of Guiding Light here in Grand Rapids, the mission. Which we know is a blessing and a great resource for so many going through a difficult patch in their life. You all worked tirelessly to basically carve out a program that creates employment, independence and sustainable living for men in the Grand Rapids area. We want to give a hats-off to you guys for all the work that you do. However, ending up at Guiding Light wasn’t really initially part of your journey, was it?
McDermott: No, it was not.
Moss: Tell us a bit about your beginnings. I read also that initially you were strong in corporate sales and marketing, however, life through a few curves and with a difficult divorce, and you were even homeless at one point. So, kind of fill us in on that journey to get where you are today.
McDermott: OK, well, I lived in Indiana. I'm originally from California but when I got married, we lived in several different states and we did end up in Indiana. And shortly after that I had two kids and was pregnant and went through a divorce. Looking back, it was a very unhealthy divorce. But I stayed in it for a long time because I thought that's what I was supposed to do and for my kids. And finally got my first, actual paying job and I'm only making $20,000 a year, but that was enough with three kids; well, a newborn was on the way. Finally having my own little bit of income was when I finally said I don't want to be in this marriage anymore.
And I was married to a very kind of, somewhat powerful political family and it was difficult to… There was a lot of court, him trying to take the kids away and I had a good job, but it's expensive as a single woman. And when I had to move out, I moved in with a friend first and then I had to move out of there very quickly and I had nowhere to go. I had a car, I had a job, and I had childcare, but I did not have money to move in to anywhere.
Moss: And people would think, if you've got a job, and you’ve got a vehicle, that you can get to work…
McDermott: My kids were going to day care and going to school…
Moss: You would think that you would have enough money for a place to live, but it just doesn't always stretch out that way, does it?
McDermott: No, it takes a little bit of time. When things happened so quickly like that, it takes time to save up the money and to get, you know, first and last rent to get into a small place.
So, I camped for an entire summer. First, I was kind of sleeping secretly behind a church. When my two older were with their dad, the newborn and I would sleep in the parking lot.
Moss: Did he have a clue?
McDermott: Oh, no. I would never let him know because he would have taken them away. That was that was why I did not tell a soul because I was afraid that he would take my kids away. So, my kids thought we were having a fun summer camping… going to the beach…
Moss: Like, wow, Mom this is fun. This is great, can we do this again next summer?
McDermott: Yeah. But, no, we were homeless, and we were just camping in a campground.
Moss: But again, you were able to maintain your job and move forward from there. So, you really know how some of the men who walk through the doors at Guiding Light feel, then. Does that make it easier to help them?
McDermott: Yes, yeah, you know, I didn't even share my story when I first started working at Guiding Light. I had the empathy, but it actually took a conversation with one of the gentleman one time. He asked some questions, really concerned that did we really care about the homeless, did we really understand what they're going through.
And I could tell he needed me to sit down, not just stand up and listen while he's talking. And I sat down at the table and had a very long conversation with them and finally that was my first time actually physically telling that story. And I think he was caught off guard and it was very empowering for me to actually verbalize my situation. And it had been a good 15 years after I had been homeless but verbalizing that really was eye opening for me.
I had the empathy but being able to share that story with him really opened his eyes and also opened my heart and my eyes.
Moss: Your heart and your eyes at the same time. And so, let's go back to where we were. So, you camped that summer. Then, what happened after that?
McDermott: I was finally able to get into a small apartment and I lived there. I stayed in Indiana for quite some time after that.
Then my job… At that point I was in marketing and sales for a company and covered all of Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. So, eventually, in 2016, I did get a transfer here to Grand Rapids and I absolutely love it here. It is my favorite city ever.
Moss: You found your space. You’re home.
McDermott: I did. This is where I'm supposed to be. Correct.
Moss: Your bio says too that you applied three times before getting the job at Guiding Light but you kept pressing forward. Was it important that you work there?
McDermott: I felt that there was. I liked what they were doing. I had done a lot of research. In 2010, I was done with travel and corporate and I really wanted to get into nonprofit. And I went back to school, took some classes, and I did a couple of small stints at other nonprofits, but I kept seeing – I think it was in 2014 or 2015 -that Guiding Light kept posting for just a Development Coordinator, but it was doing the things that I enjoy doing. It's like e-blasts and marketing and things like that that I'm really good at in my corporate job. And I never even got called for an interview. Part of me thought, well maybe it’s my age, you know they can kind of guesstimate what that is, but whoever they were hiring each time never made it past their 90 days and so thankfully, the third time I did get a call, and went through like three or four interviews.
McDermott: So, they were being careful.
Moss: That was a blessing for you, that was the third time. So, you press forward, you work there. As we talk about powerful women, you know you look at all that you've been through because you've got quite a story. And I know we could sit here for a much longer period of time and really get into the depth of a lot of things that you went through and what happened. But as you look back at what you've been through, whether in sales or marketing or now at Guiding Light - have there been any barriers that you perhaps have encountered as your career continued to move upward and onward in this realm? You move from one segment to another. I know that you said you kept your homeless situation a secret. Again, everyone needs help though- and at some point in their life. So, what kind of barriers, or struggles, did you face in addition to the obvious that we've talked about? What are some of those things?
McDermott: I think probably one of the most significant eye openers that were barriers… Once I did get into the nonprofit segment sector, one of my first jobs was with an organization and it was actually pay. I actually was getting paid less
by somebody who was, essentially, my assistant - a young boy, a young man who was right out of college got hired making more money than me. And after I'd been with the company for a year and had a raise.
Moss: And you still weren’t at that equal pay.
McDermott: I was not. He was right out of college, was paid more than me. It was very upsetting, a lot of crying, unfair anger, but finally there was something inside of me… I've always also not liked to cause problems. I was not good at that.
But it was eating inside of me and I finally had to confront my boss about it and I did get a raise and but essentially was let go about six months later, because I was angry and they knew it. And I think they just thought it would be safer to get me out of there. And I'm sure I didn't handle it well either, because it was my first time blatantly seeing…
Moss: It’s unfair.
McDermott: Yeah, it was very blatant and you hear about it, but that was when it actually affected me. And I'm very good at my job. I take what I do very personally and I know I'm good at it. And to see that happen with someone out of college was devastating to me.
Moss: And you know when you know that you're good at what you do and you know that you're doing a good job for them and then to be basically insulted by, okay, here's a kid right out of college. I've been doing this. I've proven myself, you know that, but because of the stigma, because of this thing where men are generally and typically, still, paid more than women. It's a hard pill for anyone to swallow and women have to continue to endure this in which is why we want to talk about “Powerful Women, Let's Talk.” Let's talk about those things. So, how did you get over that and, you know, and move forward? Yes, you left, but then it left you stronger I would imagine at some point.
McDermott: Absolutely. It was a reality, it was something that just opened my eyes of things. And, of course, that's when the Lean In Movement started coming in and I'm like, oh I get it now. So I need to start representing myself better. So going forward, I did. As I got other nonprofit jobs and, of course, I did that with you know Guiding Light as well. That was definitely a big learning curve and also probably really the very first time that I used my voice.
Moss: And that was my second question, how did you find that voice.
McDermott: That was the very first time.
Moss: Many women deal with this, a lot do. And so we continue to make positive strides, but like you said too, you make the stride, you get the job, but you're still being paid less than others. And you did speak out. So, what is it that happened along the way to make you more comfortable in your own skin? Like you said, you don't like confrontation, that's not up your alley, that's not part of your persona, your character
McDermott: It used to not be; I know much better.
Moss: I saw the eyebrow raise and I was like, wait a minute. Wait a minute, it is now. So how did you get to that, to really have that voice and that comfort zone, where I'm going to let this be known.
McDermott: Probably a couple things. I think anger was one of them. I did have a friend who did also say, you know, it's okay to use your voice, that you can represent yourself. I used to use the word “stand up for myself” and she said, no, it's “representing yourself.” So, more and more I kept telling myself that I need to represent myself, I think that was strengthening that word or that voice. I think the other, two, is I love reading. I read, read, read. Lately it's just about other women and I'm finding more of my voice from reading those stories. Maya Angelo, Oprah, Shonda. I've been reading Shonda a lot lately and I just love her because of that “yes, I can use my voice.”
Moss: And they’re inspiring.
McDermott: Yes, exactly.
Moss: And it makes you think, okay if I'm in this situation what can I do, what can I pull from this to utilize that, as I move forward, onward, upward.
So, you looked at the barriers. Now you found your voice and now as the Guiding Light Director of Development - I'm sure you know that or you figured out that you can't do it all alone. What leadership traits then do you like to instill in others or do you like to see? Because I'm sure there are those who are following in your footsteps and coming up behind you, perhaps those you mentor or those that you work with - what are some of the leadership qualities that you find are important?
McDermott: I think listening is one. I think the other - and I don’t know if I want to say this - is leadership. I think I do this with any relationship now. Because I have finally been able to let go of that shame of things that actually weren’t even bad things, but I thought that they were.
Moss: That's part of the problem, how we perceive it and we hold on to it right, when it really isn’t bad at all.
McDermott: Sharing. Being honest and sharing that, those stories, or you know when someone you know when someone messes up I don't want them to think that they’re only person that’s ever done that, that’s made a mistake, or is in a certain sick circumstance that they think is because they’re bad or they've done something wrong.
I think we as women need to share our past and share our experiences even if they are bad or negative or sad or scary, because and they can see who I am today and that I was able to overcome that. And I've had a lot of Lady friends and I don't think a lot of them share. And so, I didn't realize what made them so great was those experiences and I think that we need to start sharing those experiences with other people so that they can see, oh my goodness I did that, too. And it's not bad and I'm going to be okay. And that we can empower them to be okay, but I think we need to share our stories.
McDermott: I really do, and I guess, with leadership, I don't treat people as if I’m their boss. We are partners. We are in this together. We’re a team. You know, I'm not your boss and you don't have to be afraid of me. You have to respect me, but you don't have to be afraid of me.
Moss: Absolutely, that’s a good word there. So a lot of people would like to know, probably, how you do it all. How do you balance your work life with your personal and family life? I know you had three kids when you were in Indiana.
McDermott: They’re all grown.
Moss: Now they’re all grown.
McDermott: Yup, 21’s the youngest.
Moss: Okay, wonderful. So, do you still have to balance things in your life to, kind of, do your work, little fun, little play, family life as well. Family time, I should say, even with grown children – I don’t know if they’re in West Michigan – but, still, pull time and make it balance?
McDermott: Actually, it's harder even now because of the pandemic. I'm working from home. So, it's trying to keep that all separate from doing it at home. Writing is very important to me, so I have really kind of forced myself to get up super early so that I have my time to write before I do anything else.
Moss: Are you writing a book?
McDermott: I'm not there, yet. That is something…
Moss: Putting it all down and together…
McDermott: Ever since I was 13 that is something that I have always known that I would do.
McDermott: It’s just writing right now and that keeps me from depression.
I really, since the pandemic - it was kind of easy to keep things separate because I go to work, do my work, and then I come home. Now, it's all in my home. So I spend time early in the morning, just with me and writing.
Moss: Do you journal, or do you write?
McDermott: it's journaling, sometimes it's writing stories, kind of preparing, but really, it's just freehand, whatever. I mean, it’ll go all over the place.
Moss: And that's okay.
McDermott: That's what kind of focuses me during the day, for the beginning of the day. And if there's things that are stressing me out, if there's appointments that are coming up, if there's a deadline, even if there is a staff issue that I know I have to work out, you know, that I have to confront and talk through – I’ll just sit there and write about it. And I do that for about an hour with my coffee and then I work for about five hours and then I take a nice long about four, five mile walk with my dog. And then I do a couple more hours of work, and then then it's kind of my time. My youngest lives with me. We’ll cook dinner, what have you.
Moss: Balance it out that way.
McDermott: I live a little bit more simpler now than I have in a long time and it's very peaceful. From the hecticness that I've had for a long time, it's very nice to have a very simple routine.
Moss: Nice and calm.
McDermott: It is, yeah, yeah.
Moss: Very calm and relaxing. And so, when I say relaxing, what are some of the things you do to have fun with your family and friends? One child at home, still. I know that feeling as well. And so, you know, what do you do?
McDermott: I love the outdoors. That's one of my most favorite things: camping kayaking, hiking. I love travel. My middle son graduated from law school last May and we were supposed to go to Ireland but the pandemic did a little kick on that.
Moss: We all have those trips, don't we?
McDermott: So, we did Sedona for a week instead.
Moss: Good for you.
McDermott: And that’s one of my favorite places. I rented a house. We went by car, so we didn't have to fly. And I took my family and my dog and a girlfriend and her son went, and we just we hiked all the vortexes and made dinner together. Really, it was probably one of the best vacations we have had in a very, very, very long time.
Moss: And you drove as well, I mean, obviously with the pandemic.
McDermott: It’s a lot safer. And then an Airbnb.
Moss: When you did that, you had that family fun, as relaxing as it's been a long time. They say laughter is good for the soul. What makes you laugh?
McDermott: Funny shows. I always like to watch funny shows. When I need a good laugh, I will watch reruns of Friends.
Moss: Always. You can always find one.
McDermott: I laugh a lot with my friends. During shelter-in-place we did a lot of regular Zoom and I've got some fun girlfriends, and we kind of goof off, we’ll dance, we’ll talk on the phone, dinner with girlfriend, laughing with girlfriends. That has been really important and really great, through the summer camping with them, hiking kayaking.
Moss: You like those things anyway, but a lot of those things are good things that you can do during at least parts of the pandemic.
McDermott: Yeah, absolutely. You can be outside.
Moss: That just makes for a good time. So, with all that we have going on in the world today, do you have any favorite sayings or mottos that encourage you or perhaps you could share with others that might, you know, ground someone in something that they're just unsure of?
McDermott: I don’t know if I have a favorite.
Moss: Or a theme.
McDermott: The word “yes.” Yes, that I can use my voice. Yes, that I can share my story. Yes, that I don't feel guilt anymore. That really had a negative effect on me for many, many years that I can actually know that I am good at what I do. I love what I do, and I think that's why I'm successful at what I do. I don’t know if I have a slogan, but I do know that I am here to share my story to empower others. I know that deep in my soul that me sharing and telling anybody that they can let go of guilt and have a voice and have confidence.
Moss: Confidence is huge.
McDermott: Right. I did not have it. I was scared to death all the time. It feels like it's just the last two years.
Moss: You found that voice. You found your voice and you’re sharing with others. Starla, I can’t tell you how much we appreciate you sharing that in an extraordinary story. So, we want to thank you, one of our powerful women right here in West Michigan, thanks so much for joining us today.
McDermott: Thank you.
Moss: And, of course we also want to thank all of our listeners as well for joining us for this edition of “Powerful Women, Let's Talk.” I'm Jennifer Moss.
Produced by women, about women, these powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more “Powerful Women, Let's Talk”? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe. “Powerful Women, Let's Talk” is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real. It is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters, or Grand Valley State University.