Sharon Gill: Six-Figure CEO Resigns To Feed The Homeless
At the top of her game, Sharon Gill was growing a wildly successful law firm. From the outside, everything was picture perfect. On the inside, Sharon was struggling with a great emptiness.
Her faith led her to two days of fasting, seeking the answers to fill what was missing in her life. She walked away from a six-figure income to start a food pantry for the homeless and downtrodden.
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Shea Oliver: Hi, I'm Shea Oliver. Welcome to The Priority Paradigm. I'm sharing stories of amazing people who have made radical changes in their life for something more important. Today, I'm joined by Sharon Gill. She's got a great story to tell. So without further ado, Sharon, tell us your story.
Sharon Gill: All right. Okay. So let's go back to the beginning. Let's see. About 23 years ago, my husband and I, we started a law firm together. I'm a non attorney CEO, and we're doing quite well as a matter of fact, at the point where I had my Aha moment or my discovery moment I guess was really at the top of your game. I remember we had just been featured in a national advertising campaign by Office Depot because they were one of our clients. We were on the back cover of a magazine that there had been, you know, promoting minority businesses and their investment in those types of types of enterprises. They had sponsored me to go to Dartmouth or a what they call, an Executive MBA, which is a one week program for minority and women owned businesses.
Sharon Gill: And I came back thinking, wow, how can I grow my company to $10,000,000? That was my thought. This was in June of that year, June of 92, and I was on fire. It was such an amazing experience. And you know, our company was growing, we're getting awards and so on, and a lot of recognition. And then I remember just a couple months later, I just had this disquiet in my spirit, this feeling of unease, emptiness. And I remember thinking, wow, why would I feel so empty at the top of our game? And I remember taking some time off. It was so overwhelming that I took a few days off to actually fast. I'm a person of faith. Yes, yes. I'm a person of faith. So I wanted to see God, because I've felt like there must be something more to life than this, more to life than making money then. And so I took about two, three days off too fast and to pray about it and asked God to show me what is your purpose for my life, you know, really?
Sharon Gill: And then it ended up three days. I really didn't have a clear direction as to just had this emptiness, but not too long after that I had a dream, a literal dream where someone handed me a sheet of paper 8.5 by 11 with a scripture from the Bible and you know, it may not make sense to many of the viewers, but I. It didn't even make sense to me, but it was almost like a mandate and I still didn't understand what was going on, but then night after night I will be awakened at the same time, 2:00 AM, and I would see images of people who are just broken, disempowered, wanting education, wanting food, wanting help. It became so overwhelming at that point that I went to speak to the pastor of my church. I said, look, I can't sleep at night. I don't know what's going on.
Sharon Gill: And he said, look, write down everything that you've been seeing. Just have a notepad by your bed and just write it down. So I did, and about two weeks after that meeting, I had a 13 page manifesto of what later became my nonprofit. And the pastor at the time, he had a shell company, a shell non-profit and he said to me, why don't your back your vision into that and that was how I started what we called the Oasis Compassion Agency, 15 years ago, and it was a mission that works with families who are impoverished, the working poor, people who are just have a gap between your income and just that next step, so they are very dependent on.. they need help, but there were ones that wanted to do better. It wasn't just a handout. They needed a hand up.
Sharon Gill: And I literally went to my husband and I retired. I retired from the firm, from the law from, from the business. Nobody understood it, but my husband saw me just being a changed person, and he was quite supportive and he actually gave me the seed money to start the nonprofit, and that nonprofit, just so you know, over the years, have just fed and clothed and trained and put back to work thousands of people, fed thousands of families and did a lot. It changed me as a person. It was hard. It wasn't easy. Even though it was what I considered to be a call on my life, I had a lot of moments of doubt. I remember after I left my law firm and I was starting the nonprofit, I was in a small 300 square foot spot trying to put a food pantry together. That's how I started and there were mostly homeless people and immigrants and I remember one day saying to myself, I didn't bargain for this. I left my corner office essentially to come do this. And I said, you know what? I got, I got to stop right here. So even though I had left my company, I had a moment of like today, did I eat bad pizza, what am I doing here?
Sharon Gill: And so I again, I like to be true to my feelings. So I took another almost a month off to seek God again in prayer, and says, look, I essentially said to God, I don't like some of these people. There are smelly. They are messy. I'm uncomfortable. I'm not used to this. I don't even know what I'm doing, but I can only do this if you change my heart and my eyes. And so I waited about a month. I kept praying until one day I felt okay, it's time to go back to the pantry and I never forgot Shea, the first time I went back after this time I had prayed to God to give me new eyes.
Sharon Gill: And there was this homeless man that I saw,and I had seen him before. And I remember I was bracing myself for his oder, for his homelessness. And I remember that day I had no smell. I didn't smell anything. And I remember walking up to this gentleman with my hands held out and I said to him, sir, what are you doing here? What is your story? And he was shocked. And I remember seeing the cuts on his hands. I remember seeing him being messy, but I have no smell. And for the first time I saw him as a man, not a homeless man. And he broke, and he told me his story, which was a really interesting story.
Sharon Gill: He was, he was a guy who was working. He had lost his job. It was a good amount of methodist church goer, lost his job, got into alcohol, started drinking, lost his family, and it became a spiral. And he ended up being in this cycle of, you know, drugs, alcohol, homelessness, and for the first time I realized these were just people. There weren't homeless people, they weren't dirty people. There were people and I knew that God answered my prayer to give me a new set of eyes because to do that type of work, I would later realize I needed to have compassion and that I literally named the agency Oasis Compassion Agency. It was called Lifesteps before, but with that it became Oasis Compassion Agency. And I began to give people, you know, through our work, hope, I began to expect more from them. I began to show them how to invest in your own success. You know, we're by, I can offer you food, but in exchange for that how about you offering me attendance at classes come to classes. Let me show you how to get your computer skills better. Let me prepare you for jobs. Let me prepare you for the workplace. Let me. You may need some counseling. Maybe you need some, some something else. Maybe you need a mental counseling. I mean once you open up yourself to that, you'll get the entire community in, and you get a lot of broken people. It's almost like an emergency room. It's like triage. Okay, you're okay, you need counseling, you need to go see a mental counselor. And so that became the story of Oasis.
Sharon Gill: By the way, when I took this challenge, when I left my law firm, this was a job with no pay, this charity that I went, so I gave up a six figure salary at the time plus my bonuses. So it takes this project on, to start this mission, this ministry, this charity with no money and I really give credit to my husband because, like I said I was the CEO of the firm. I was handling all the operational stuff, all the client relations, you know, just a whole lot of responsibility and he had to essentially replace me.
Sharon Gill: But something beautiful happened when I made that step. What happened was when I took that step of faith or what I call a step of faith and my husband agreed to it, remember, I mentioned to you that we were at the back of this magazine and Office Depot had been sponsoring us. Okay. Well another major law firm has seen us and approached my husband and right at that time while I was making this transition, and essentially said, we want what you guys have. How did you get the other back of that magazine? We want that. And they acquired our law firm. Yes. And they we're the largest minority owned firm in the country at the time. So my husband became one of, a shareholder in a big organization. His salary got doubled. Actually my salary was put on top of his salary and then doubled, so I really did not need money at that time.
Sharon Gill: It was actually paid and it's been a theme in my life. You have to take a step faith. You have to take that big risk to really get that big reward. And even though I wasn't being paid in currency in cash, what I, who I became and the impact that the agency had on the community and is still having to this day, Money just couldn't buy that. It couldn't buy that. And I did that for eight years. I operated that for eight years. And right around the seventh year I began to feel a shift again in my, in my consciousness, like, you know, maybe it's time to do something different. Maybe not necessarily to abandon agency, but it was time for another shift again. And I think it's important to listen to that. I practice self-awareness. And I actually became the Chairman of the Board of the charity, hired as an executive director. And for about three or four years I went between my husband's law firm and the charity. And then like Steve Job's, this charity because to have a little bit of a mission drift, so I came back for another couple of years, straightened it out.
Sharon Gill: And now one of my clients, a woman who came to the agency in 2010, who didn't speak a word of English, a domestic abuse victim. I mean extreme abuse with two kids she asks, really is one of our most successful stories. She's been featured in magazines, newspapers, on the air. She was hired by us in 2012, 2013, brilliant woman, learned English, just a brilliant background, and she is now in the line right now to become the executive director of the charity. Amazing, that for me, it was full circle. It was always about that. It was never about me. It was never about me being tied and was about me being obedient to that voice that says, Hey, I want you for something else right now. I need your skills, talents, and your availability for something else right now. And me stepping up and doing it. Not to hold onto it, but to constantly be listening for when next shift is happening.
Sharon Gill: And for me right now, my new shift is to take, you know, all that experience that I've had and really invest in female entrepreneurs and women who are trying to make shifts themselves. Trying to go to that next level. That's now what I truly enjoy doing that in this moment.
Shea Oliver: Fantastic. That is a wonderful story. That's so amazing how impactful you have been in the community that you're in. I love that story. Thank you so much for sharing this. I do have a few questions. So, you know, my expectation, just kind of hearing your story is you and your husband probably had a pretty, for lack of a better term, high social standing, being successful executives. Did that begin to shift when you said I'm going to go work with homeless people? And how did you deal with that?
Sharon Gill: That is a very good question. And to my shock, no, quite the opposite. My work with the homeless people gave me a lot of notoriety in the community. I was on television a lot, on radio a lot, in magazines a lot because, and I think it was because I was an unpaid CEO, an unpaid founder. I think people felt , I don't know, I was a hero or something to give up so much to do with this. And because of that, my first initial donors were individuals with a lot of money. He gave me 50 grand, the first year he came back, they gave me 50 grand the second year, another construction company gave me $70,000. I had a lot of high level volunteers - professionals who came and taught classes at the charity. They gave their skills - computer people, tech people, HR people. So no, it actually pushed us even higher and we were more like philanthropists at this point. So in a business circle and being given awards and recognition and being on magazines and stuff here, now, we were at another level in people's eyes as Philanthropists and givers and compassionate people. So it, it actually in our circle, it made people more aware of being more selfless, I should say. It made people feel more guilty about being selfish. A lot of law firms partnered with us and supported us, so no, it was quite the opposite actually.
Shea Oliver: That's fantastic. So, your stepping out was absolutely the right thing to do many different ways. So as you look back at this period of time, especially during that first shift where you were experiencing, oh my gosh, what's happening, you know, I'm a successful executive. What were some of the doubts that like hit you as you realized you needed to take that step, and then how did you deal with those specific doubts?
Sharon Gill: Some of the doubts was what you asked before how people view me. That was, that was the major thing. How will people view me? Because at that time I didn't see that notoriety. All I saw was, oh my gosh, I'm giving up my career, my office, my staff that you know, that that lifestyle to work with homeless people and poor people, you know, impoverished people. So it was more of how would people view me? Will they think I'm crazy? But because of my faith background, I think I so believed that I had a call on my life, that I kept going back to, that I kept going back to why would I do this? And I literally felt like I had a mandate from God to do this and if I didn't do this, it would be worse for me. So for me, you have to have that strong why?
Sharon Gill: You have to. You have to resolve that strong. Why? When you do something like this, you'd have to go back to your why at all times and it has to be strong. There's so many other forces pulling at you, so many doubts. And it didn't always go smooth. I had no money when I. my husband gave me the seed money. I had to raise money, I have to educate donors. I had to educate the community. I had to get work. I had to convince people to come along. And people began to believe in me before they believed in the vision. So you have to be convinced because people have to believe in you to support you. But yeah, having that strong why is important.
Shea Oliver: So how does, how does somebody and how would you encourage or how do you encourage people to figure out their why?
Sharon Gill: You know, I tell people to get quiet, to get quiet, and if there's something else that you could do and be happy. Do that thing, if you're torn between two things and you think this is where it should go to the way I should go, okay. If the easier way is something that you could do and still be happy to do that already, okay?
Sharon Gill: But if the only thing that can make you happy is this other challenging thing over here, then you have to take the step. You have to believe enough in yourself to take that step knowing that you won't have all the answers when you're stepping out, because you never do. This will make it so exciting because you're going to grow as a person. You will change and you won't even recognize yourself really, because you're taking such a risk that the person who you become in the process is just more courageous, more confident, more self-assured person. Yes, there'll be downsides, but there's downsides in everything, but if the only thing that makes you happy is this big thing, this risky thing over there, then that's when you're ready and that's where I got to. I had the law firm and it's trimmings and his trappings. And then I had this deep unease so I couldn't quite be happy anymore at the firm, and then it had this hankering for... I need people need me. They need help, they need, they need my background. They needed my immigrant story. They need my rags to riches, they need what they need me. God needs me. That was bigger than the trappings of the law firm for me.
Shea Oliver: I definitely can see that. So as you made those first steps to take that first change. Obviously, your husband's a great man because we supported you and that's fantastic. Did you run into anybody who directly said to you, are you crazy?
Sharon Gill: Friends, Friends. Because they didn't understand, and my employees at the firm, they didn't understand why I would give that up, to go into a room that's smaller than my current office to operate, a food bank and especially I started out with a food pantry which is the lowest form of charity. Okay. Just to, just to be frank, but that's where I started, and I knew I going to remain there, but that's where you start. You started heading up basic needs, food and clothing. And so that wasn't very sexy. It became sexy or later on when I added computer training and classes and counseling and workshops and these other things. But in the beginning it wasn't sexy so it, so it was more looked down upon at that time by friends. Like really you're using your brains and everything that you have to do with this. So that's where the doubters were. But I knew that God had a plan. I knew that this wasn't where I was going to stop because in the vision that I had, I saw education, I saw jobs, I wasn't there yet, but I'd seen it so I knew it was a matter of time and I actually had expressed that to some people and my first donor was that gentleman who gave me 10 grand to buy computers to start the computer lab.
Sharon Gill: So along the way, every time I wanted to expand, someone would supply the money for me to expand this space into a larger space or expand my program somehow. So yes, there are going to have naysayers and it's tough if your naysayers is your husband or your wife or your kids. My kids were pretty good. They were young, so they went along for the ride. But you have to really know who you are. You can't do this for people. You have to do this for yourself. That's the truth. You have to do this for yourself.
Shea Oliver: Say a little bit more about that because I think a lot of people who look at charity work or look at any type of work where you're working with other people believe there's this huge altruistic selflessness that comes, but you're saying this is for you?
Sharon Gill: Yes, yes. This was for me, this is for me answering a call on my life. I didn't know all the. I didn't know what was gonna happen really, but this was for me. I was doing this for me, I was fulfilling a call, a need to feel satisfied. The law firm and the money wasn't satisfying, so this was for me. I had to go explore this. Yes, it's altruism because you're being selfish to some degree. I'm working without a salary, but really I did that by choice. You know? I could've gotten seed money to pay myself, but that wasn't my. That wasn't my issue. There was something beyond the money and that was satisfied. When I made that step. I mean, I have no regrets. I loved every hard moment of it and there were hard moments, but I loved it. It was satisfying.
Sharon Gill: It was more satisfying to me that building the firm at that point. So it was for me, it was, it certainly was for me and I was then able to, I hate to use the word self actualize, but I did, I did. And because I did, I was able to flow with that energy to the constituents who were and let them see, look, I'm self actualized. You can, you can come up the ladder too. And I actually adopted that Maslow hierarchy of needs in terms of how I designed my program, food and clothing and we'll get you some jobs, get you, you know, this stuff and sort of we can get you to the top. I actually use the same model in the program because I felt like, you know, what, God allowed me to really, you know, get through these steps and here I am now doing something I truly love. Even if there was no money involved in it, it was for me.
Shea Oliver: That's awesome. That's truly awesome. So, your children were young, so you have a, you know, we didn't talk about your rags to riches story, but you have a, you know, without even hearing it, I know that you have a work, there's this work ethic, there's this go to school, there's do all of these things you're supposed to do, but then you kind tossed some of that and went a different direction. What are you teaching your children today? Are you trying to push them down the structured path? Are you doing something a little bit different?
Sharon Gill: I grew them up in the charity. I had them volunteer there for summers. I had them, you know, work with the people as a matter of fact cool story. I remember one summer, the summer I started my charity, putting my kids in what you would consider a very bad neighborhood, really bad and put them in summer camp there for four weeks. I wanted him to be a little bit immersed in that environment.
Sharon Gill: I wanted them to see if, I wanted to see if they could keep their integrity, their teachings, their values, even though they were exposed to a lot of curse words a different social economic background and they did, and then I expose them to the work that I was doing, and that was really good for their character building years because they never want to ask me for these crazy price sneakers. They didn't. There weren't, here we had some, I want to say money, but here we're comfortable, but they were never kids that wear that were never materialistic because at five and seven, pretty much how old they were. They were raised to see how people can live and they were grateful. They learned to gratitude for what they have and they learned a certain sense of humility.
Sharon Gill: So yeah, but I teach them, okay, go to school and go to college Learn all that stuff, however, follow your passion. What is your passion? My daughter loves education. She wants to go to law school, so she graduated. UCF, my son, he started college and he says, mom, I want to do something different. Now at first. I was like, Oh, you gotta you gotta finish college. Then I realized, I actually went back to college very late in life and graduated top of my class. So I relaxed and says, okay, what do you want to do? What is your passion? I don't care if you get a degree as long as you're doing something that you're passionate about and that you could earn a living, make a living a good living. So that is what I try to instill in my kids and just be decent people, you know, love people, care for people have compassion. I really push that in my kids.
Shea Oliver: Very, very cool. Very cool. So what is your son going to do?
Sharon Gill: He loves cars and he loves technology. So he, right now he, he likes to do what you call dipping. This is this treatment to do with cars as they call a dip. It's almost like painting, but it's, it's like a rubber treatment to put over the car. He likes that. And he also like building and creating websites, so he does a lot of that, started small with his friends, and now this is getting a lot of referrals. So that's kind of where he's trying to find himself in that technology, you know, lane, which I really try to push because that's what we're ongoing right now, where the world is heading. So that's what I think he really likes that. I doubt I still liked the legal system. So that where she's heading.
Shea Oliver: She's certainly been exposed to some that in her family life.
Sharon Gill: Yes. Yes, definitely, definitely, definitely.
Shea Oliver: Very cool. So as you talk about the direction you went and what you talked about, you're with your kids, you hear a lot of people talk about, you know, do I follow my head, do I follow my heart? You know, do I use, you know, my emotional thinking where my rational, critical thinking. How do you, do you have one you favor or how do you balance?
Sharon Gill: I consider myself a logical person. You know, I do, I like to think things out, but, and I can't say I followed my heart with this move because I had no, I was not a bleeding heart person for the poor. I just wasn't. So I can't say I've followed my heart. In my particular case, it was beyond heart and head. I just felt like it was a call, that whether I liked it or not liked it, it didn't matter. This was my destiny to do at this point. So for me, I guess my faith and my belief structure is bigger than both of those. Generally speaking, do I follow my head or my heart? I like to think things through. I really do, but in this particular case it was, it was, it transcended both head and heart. It was like I have no other choice, I have to do with this. This was a call.
Shea Oliver: Very cool. So, if you had the opportunity, today, to go back and tell that young CEO who was kicking in the world, some advice, what would you tell her before she started this path? She ended up on.
Sharon Gill: I would say that included from the onset a place for giving back. I think if that was part of the of the business model, I maybe would not have had that yearning. I would've been doing something supportive community earlier instead of getting to a place where okay, it's all or nothing. I think I would have said integrate that in your business structure where there is a community focus as well. So in part of your companies, know culture should be giving back. I think that's important and I think I, you know what I do and I, I coach Lady Boss with Purpose and the with purpose just means that even though you're a lady boss, it's beyond money. It's bigger than money is bigger than climbing to the CEO ladder. There's more to life than all of that. What are you doing to add value to the world to add value to your community? So what are you doing that's bigger than your and your pocket book. That's the with purpose part. And I think that's what I would say that young CEO, you know, integrate that into your culture, into your corporate community or people that, you know, your employees, integrate that structure in more robust, not just a little bit but more robustly.
Shea Oliver: Sure. That's fantastic advice. So, not to put you on the spot, but how do you then, or do you communicate that to your two children as they're heading out into the world?
Sharon Gill: Well, they have no choice on most because they, for 15 years they've seen how we've lived our lives totally immersed in. We have our law firm still, but we have the charity still and at home we are a life lesson time is about, okay, who are we adding value to? And we've done even other things, Shea, believe it or not, I won't go into this, but at one point my husband had actually started a church while we're doing all of this stuff. But it was mostly young people. It was, those were the attendees. It was a mission church in a low income neighborhood. And so they've seen how we've lived our lives for the last 15, 16 years. Yes, we are business focused. We do have, you know, a business that brings in money, but we're really heavily community focused as well. And we're faith focused as well too. That's been their background. That's what they know. So I don't think, you know, they said to train up a child in a way that they should go and when he's old he will not depart even they stray a little bit, they know what their roots are.
Shea Oliver: Sure. Very cool. Very cool. So obviously faith plays a huge role in your life outside of the faith-based beliefs, who else has inspired you as you've gone down this journey?
Sharon Gill: I remember reading a book by Kay Arthur, which is, actually no, it wasn't Kay Authur, it was a. Oh God, I forgot her last name. It was called Dangerous Surrender. It's a pastor's wife out there in town of... Warren, Kay Warren. And it was talking about how pretty much they had it all. Then she got ill and then she realized how selfish she was on the inside. And how she have to surrender. Had to confess to herself pretty much, and become a different person. And I realized that a lot of us walk around selfish not being mean, but we're so self absorbed that we're so blind to what's going on around us. And that was a real big inspiration for me. Like, you know, we are in a bubble really, you know, especially the business people were in the business bubble. The business trade shows, the business building, the business personal development and business development. Well we are literally blind to the guy right there, right there. We may toss him a dollar and we're blind, but it's a whole other subculture, a whole other life teaming around us, if we will just be a little bit less, like I said, a little bit less self absorbed. So I liked her, and I like John Maxwell because he's a guy who was able to straddle both faith and business. He was a pastor, but now he's a leadership guru and I've followed his teachings over the years. I've taught his material on myself. I've read his books, so he's another person who I truly admire and I'm,
Sharon Gill: Those two are, was, I followed when I was starting out. I, especially down this road with that with the charity. I read a lot of books. Read a lot of books, I'm currently reading one called Chase the Lion. Really enjoying that one as well by Mr Mark Batterson and his name is.
Shea Oliver: Very cool. So if you were to have an opportunity to say one thing to somebody who was out at point of wanting to make a radical change in their life and shift gears, go somewhere else, what would the one thing you would tell them to do would be?
Sharon Gill: Do it afraid.
Shea Oliver: Expound on that a little bit.
Sharon Gill: Because if the dream doesn't scare you, if the move doesn't scare you, then maybe it's not big enough. You know this... the only reason why you're struggling is because there's fear and if you're waiting for the fear to go away, it won't it's because it's something big that you're going to do and you may have like life changing impact for you and for those of you are going to serve, so you're going to have to make up their mind to do it. Do it afraid.
Shea Oliver: That's fantastic. I love that! This, I really enjoyed listening to you. If people wanted to get a hold of you websites, emails, what is the best way to contact you?
Sharon Gill: My website is SharonGill.com and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shea Oliver: That's fairly easy. So I always wrap up at the end with one final question and that question is what question did I forget to ask you?
Sharon Gill: Well you're a very good interviewer. Let's see what you could. You might..l. Do I have any pets? I don't know.
Shea Oliver: Do you have any pets?
Sharon Gill: I do. I do. I have a little dog, Zek, and he's a really comforting animal. Yeah.
Shea Oliver: So is there any big questions that I have forgotten to ask you about your journey?
Sharon Gill: Um, no. I think, maybe you could have asked, is there any regrets and no none.
Shea Oliver: Well Sharon. Thank you so much for your time today. This has been a wonderful story to hear. I've loved talking with you and I wish you all the luck in the world as you continue down your path.
Sharon Gill: Thank you so much and good luck with your show. All the best.