How Entrepreneurship Saved My Life

By George Joseph, EO Houston member and CEO of The Right Step and Spirit Lodge

I have always had a passion for business. Growing up, I would work fervently at my parent’s clothing stores, folding and re-folding clothes, ringing up customers and helping people pick out their wardrobes. Even as a child, I knew I wanted to be a successful business person— someone that made a difference in the lives of others. As I got older, that dream was put on hold. I grew up in a small town in South Louisiana, USA, where alcohol flowed like the nearby bayous and temptations ran rampant.

When I was 13, I smoked marijuana for the first time, not knowing where my curiosity would lead me. Pretty soon, I began drinking. My casual experimentation with alcohol and drugs led to a full-blown addiction that threatened any hope I had for a future. It had gotten to the point where my addictions began to override everything I loved and held dear.

This was a very difficult time in my life. My days were filled with mistrust, suspicion, fear, car accidents, hospital stays and friends dying from alcohol- and drug-related incidences. I began dealing drugs to support my habit. Thankfully, the local police department ended up firing me as CEO of that operation, and I was promptly thrown in jail. Little did I know that this arrest, while terrifying, was a sign of better things to come.

In 1981, at age 19, I accepted my attorney’s advice and checked myself into the Baton Rouge Chemical Dependency Unit. I did this primarily to help my court case. Not only did it save my life, it helped me find my calling. While there, my counselors recommended I read a book called, On Becoming a Counselor. They thought I had a natural ability to reach out to others without putting them on the defensive.

I remember leaving their office, laughing and thinking, “They must be really hard up for help.” I thought there was no way I could do what they did. Well, when fate knocks on your door, you have little choice but to answer. So, I read the book, and I began to feel a connection to the lessons I was learning. After my stint in jail, I dedicated my time to becoming a drug and alcohol counselor. Four years later, I became licensed in the state of Texas. Over the next couple of years, I worked hard to help others afflicted with addiction. Along the way, I became an entrepreneur.

In 1994, I was blessed with the opportunity to turn around a struggling rehab center that had about US$300,000 annual revenue and was on the brink of bankruptcy. I was given 25 percent ownership and a minimal salary. Twenty-five percent of a negative number didn’t sound very appealing. However, I took the challenge and used my passion and business skills to rebuild the company. Today, The Right Step has more than 200 employees and generates US$14 million a year in revenue. To top it off, in 2000 I was named the national drug and alcohol counselor of the year. It has been a long, harrowing journey from my parents’ clothing stores, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

Throughout it all, I learned that it’s not about the roads you take, but the destination. Every entrepreneur is faced with some sort of dilemma in his or her life— whether it’s something as serious as addiction or as tough as turning a business around. In the end, it’s what you do with what you have that makes you truly successful, as an entrepreneur and as a person.


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