Anne Meree served as a civil servant deploying around the world in direct strategic and...
Ta Shunda Joiner, Founder of STEP Today
Ta Shunda Joiner is located in a small town outside of Houston, Texas. She has a desire to do more work on the southeast side of Houston, where those areas are very underserved. In those underserved areas, the children and the young people are lacking outside support. She is the founder of the nonprofit, STEP Today Youth Community Development Outreach Center.
Q: If you were to explain who you are in a couple of sentences, how would you do that?
A: I am very outgoing and goal-driven. I am a processor, social impact practitioner and I absolutely love solving problems. I’m a counselor by trade at my everyday job. And I was a teacher before that. So, I would describe myself as a support system to others.
Q: Tell me about STEP Today and who you serve.
A: We are a nonprofit, STEP Today Youth Community Development Outreach Center. It is a mouthful, I know. But, STEP stands for Support Teams to Excel Productively. I am the founder of STEP Today, and I’m also a product of STEP Today. I had to seek out my support system, and I want to reserve that. I want to be able to market in such a way that kids are asking, “What is STEP Today?”
We start working with young people as early as 10 years old, because at this age that’s where the preventions need to take place, as opposed to interventions when they are older. When they become teenagers, I do mostly interventions. Most of the time, they’ve been exposed to many things and may have gone through detention centers, or had troubles in school, or became a young parent, or just need an outlet, or need something positive in their lives other than school activities. STEP Today serves as a support system for them and we teach them awareness. There’s a holistic program where we teach them social, emotional, physical, financial and spiritual awareness, which will allow them to explore who they are and teach them basic life skills, soft skills, preparing them for the world of work. We also prepare them for some academics because we do a bit of writing to help channel their emotions.
We discuss how we navigate through social circumstances and social settings. Because oftentimes, our kids do not know how to code switch or know how to address people in authority. They reject anyone trying to assist them or tell them what to do. They take it as more of a threat when others are trying to help them. So we step in and we build relationships with those young people. Then, we pair them up with a mentor. We do a series of educational classes and we interview them to try to best meet their needs.
STEP Today has many projects in it. Once we learn what the need is for the individual, we try to meet it. So when I say meet the need, it may be a case where a child needs housing because they are in between, maybe living with a grandparent or in transition, so we’re working on group homes as well.
There’s a movement going on right now to support our kids in a different way. It could be an at-risk kid or it could be a kid who just needs an outlet. Many of our kids are gifted and talented. I don’t want to limit that, but I do want to support kids who need someone to connect with. I was a loner kid, I didn’t need a crowd, but it was good to have someone to connect with.
One of my babies in STEP Today, per se, is my mentoring program called GOOD Girls. GOOD Girls stands for Graciously Overcoming Obstacles Daily. This is the component where I work with girls as a mentor and a teacher. Many of the girls have gone through traumatic experiences, and even though they are in a not so good headspace at the moment, I teach them that they’re good girls. There’s some good that can come from whatever experience that you had, be it negative or positive. You still have value and with your value, you can help someone else. There’s something in you that’s great. Let’s figure that out together.
There are other women that volunteer and work alongside me. My goal is to reach down deep, take them by the hand, and let’s pull out their potential. Someone had to pull it out of me. I’m a cheerleader for these girls, I was a cheerleader when I was younger, so I’m always clapping and cheering them on. Especially because I work with so many talented young ladies. They can do hair, makeup, they like to cook and bake, they like to clean, and to sew. They have all of these hobbies. So what we do is we take the talent, the natural gift that they have, and package it and turn it into a business.
My daughter, all she wanted to do was dance since she was in the third grade. She’s 30 years old, and guess what she’s doing? She’s working on a dance studio. That’s what she’s always wanted to do and that’s never changed. All the information that I’m learning and gaining about building a business, guess who benefits from that? They do. So by the time they’re 16, we’re dealing with millennials, and they want things quick, and I want to be able to produce those things for them because college isn’t for everybody. It’s about finding what they love and helping them do that.
Q: What was your first year like as the founder?
A: I knew nothing about nonprofits or business. I’m an educator. I mean, teachers like to learn, but I knew nothing about operation, budgets, and all of that. So, I basically just did everything out of pocket. Everything I did I just paid for it. That’s why I don’t have a budget.
I got a mentor who helped guide me. So, I opened a bank account and I did everything that was advised. But I still had to be a parent. I have two boys and they’re awesome, 18 and 15 years old. I was a football man. I was a taxi mom. I was all of that. But, while I was being a mom, I was volunteering, but I wasn’t pushing my name. I wasn’t saying, “I’m out here. I have a nonprofit. I’m doing GOOD Girls, and I’ll be doing this or that.” I believe in doing functions on purpose for a purpose.
Q: Was there anyone in particular that inspired you or encouraged you to pursue this path?
A: Yes, I met my dad when I was nine years old when I moved to Texas. I was living in California. Life had to start over when I moved here. My dad was married to a lady named Dolores Marie Robertson, my stepmom. I don’t like to say stepmom because I know that this lady loved me, every fiber in me.
So when I met her, I met my dad and I was the only child. They didn’t have any children. But, they were the couple that all the kids went to their house because of Dolores, my stepmom. She loved us unconditionally. I have a lot of cousins who she took care of and I was just kind of thrown in the bunch. We were all raised together. Everybody came to my house because of her. So when I became pregnant, my dad did not approve. I had to transition. I was homeless for a spell until my daughter came.
My stepmom called my mom, who did not believe in abortions, and she was like, “We have to bring her home. We have to do something.” So, she went against my dad, and that was pretty courageous. By her doing that, that showed me that I can do and become anything that I want to become even with a baby. During that time, I think I was 15 or 16, I was scared. I didn’t want to drop out of school. But, Dolores was like, “We’re just going to let her be out in the street? We can’t do that.”
So, I came back home, and I graduated from high school. I went to college clueless and didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was determined to do something great with my life. So even though Dolores didn’t go to college or anything, she had a corporate job. I knew that I’m not corporate material. I’m not a desk person, I’m a people person. I wanted to make her proud, so I stayed in college. I ended up going into education. Then, when I started praying and getting into church and things of that nature, then this is when this whole idea came about.
But, she was able to see me get married. She passed away. That’s why I’m so determined to build legacy wealth for my children and do something great, make an impact. And I believe that that’s my purpose in life is to make an impact, touch everybody who runs across me.
Q: How do you define success for yourself, both personally and as a professional?
A: Well, success is measured differently for everybody. Right now, in my personal life, I don’t feel so successful because I am currently in transition. I pretty much had to sacrifice my family. I’m just being transparent right now. It’s probably for the better because early on, when you ignore signs and you try to conform into a different person and you lose a part of who you are. You take hits, but you have to keep going, and if you keep going that is a measure of success to me.
So in my professional life, it took me seven and a half years to get a counseling job. I thought that was my only purpose. I can teach really well, but I want to get out of this classroom, so I became an interventionist for kids before they go into a setting like a detention center. So, I did a prevention program. So in my professional life success for me is working hard and just learning the things I needed to learn to be productive in the community.
Q: What’s been the most important skill that you have developed to be a good business owner?
A: To be slow to speak and quick to listen. I’m still working on that. It’s a struggle.
I also think getting a mentor has absolutely made a difference for me. That’s the number one thing. If you don’t know how to do something, there is someone who knows how to do it.
Q: Have you ever thought about quitting? If so, can you tell us the story?
A: I’ll say in 2018, I shelved the project to be a parent. So, I didn’t quit. It was always there, but I didn’t promote the brand or even think about marketing. When I started learning all of those things that I had to do, I was like, “I can’t do that and be a mom because my kids were much younger then. And they were in little league, football, and baseball, and all this other stuff. So, I became a Girl Scout troop leader so that I could still be connected with the youth of my community. I was also a camp leader.
So, I never really stopped, but I stopped, if that makes sense. In the summertime, I would take kids to camp, and my boys were involved in that. So, I found a way to still recruit kids to go to camp and get them sponsors to go to summer camp. Then, I still did my volunteering with the Girls Scouts, and I volunteered in a community. I just didn’t push myself or push STEP Today. I just kind of stepped back, but I was still there.
So when I picked it back up, like I said, my kids are older now. They don’t care if I’m gone now. But, guess what they have? They have all the memories of summer camp. They didn’t know that I was actually working. All they know is, “Oh, I’m at camp with Mom.” It was great for them to see me there and we were spending quality time. I was good with that. And I was still able to be at everything.
Now, I feel like I’m behind and there’s an urgency to get more done. So, I have notes, books, and flash drives full of information, things to get done, and my goals. If you’re passionate about what you do, then all else will happen. It might take a little bit more time and effort, but you will get there.
Q: What makes you want to keep going when you feel like quitting? Or what do you do when it feels hard to be a business owner?
A: Well, it is hard and sometimes it is a struggle. But, I wake up every morning with a new type of energy, a new type of urgency because I feel like I am behind times. And I feel like in my head that I need to be reaching more girls. I need to be out there communicating and connecting with them, and I can’t do that if I’m focused on myself and what I don’t have, and what I’m lacking, and what I’m missing.
So, I switched my brain to advocacy. I’m an advocate now. I can’t focus on what I don’t have at the moment. I need to figure out how I can market and how I can build capital. I’m on a thousand webinars learning how to make me better, and how to brand, and how to do all of these things that I probably already know how to do but I want to make sure everything is right in place. I don’t want to start over.
Q: What does the future of STEP Today look like?
A: I do have a five-year plan, actually, where I plan to retire in two years. While I’m in that process, I want to start a Shopify where the girls create dresses and matching doll dresses for children in Africa. I want to get them involved in community outreach. Even though you feel like you’re in a not-so-good situation, there are people that need you, and we need to do this as a team.
I want to do group homes, transitional facilities for young people who may be in a detention center and need some guidance, kids aging out of foster care. My five-year plan is to have the outreach center be a brick-and-mortar building with a transitional living facility attached to it. But, I want it to mimic a college. They’re away from home, but they’ll still be in school online. They’ll still have opportunities to go to a recreational center which will have businesses inside of there where they can get hands-on job training.
We’ll rent out space out to CPAs and other people in the community who have businesses but just need a space. So, I’ll partner with them and have the kids go in there and work as interns. I’m planning to have a daycare attached to it as a resources for young moms and job opportunities.
I want them to be able to shift their mind from, “Oh, I have to be here,” to, “I get to pick my own classes and make my own schedule.” I’m giving them ownership of their education based on their success plan. That gives them a sense of independence and also allows them to have a job and create the life they want. We want them to be productive, but we also have to give them some support and some tools so that they can become independent.
Q: What would you want to learn from a community of other women business owners?
A: Women are brilliant and are all full of superpowers. Oh my god, there is so much I’d love to learn from others. I like to connect with power players. I want to know “Okay, I want what you have. How did you get that? What did you do?” I believe that women thrive learning from each other. I do have a mentor that is helping me understand how to open a group home, how to form certain business models, how to get the daycare up and running, how to do X, Y, and Z. I just think that there is so much I could learn from other women in these areas too.