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Sara Sherry is Mixing It Up

What does a 24-year-old white girl know about business? What does a 24-year-old white girl know about the struggles of being a minority in today's society?

These are just some of the questions that Sara Sherry deals with every day, both as the owner of a unique staffing company, and as a junior varsity volleyball coach at a Grand Rapids city high school. Her company, Mixed Staffing, provides staffing and recruiting services, motivational speaking, educational seminars, resume' building, personality testing, drug screening, and other employment related resources. Mixed also provides diversity training and education, which is one area in particular that Sherry feels passionate about.

Discrimination Takes Many Forms

The inspiration for the company happened in Chicago a few years ago with business partner Marquis Turley. It was through their experiences of looking for jobs in Chicago that they realized that there was blatant and veiled discrimination happening in the workplace, both against African Americans (Turley) and women (Sherry). Their passion on the issue and their challenges led them to launch their own company to work with employers on cultural discrimination and to help disadvantaged minorities find a job.

Sherry made an interesting observation related to discrimination. Online networking sites are predominantly geared toward white male executives. LinkedIn members, for instance, are 83 percent caucasian, 57 percent white males, and 40 percent are already managers or executives of their company, which leaves a lot to be desired for newcomers to the job market -- particularly recent minority college graduates. One of her goals is to create a site and online community that is more friendly to young, minority and female empoyment-seekers.

Sherry grew up in the Grand Rapids area, attending Grand Rapids Catholic Central, Grand Rapids Community College, and Grand Valley State University. She decided to leave Chicago to return to her hometown and try her luck with the business model here. Needless to say, it has been a rough start for a fledgling business in a market saturated with staffing firms. But Sherry feels that she provides the personalized service that comes with working with a small, locally owned business. The connections she has in the area have also helped her to grow her business faster than she felt she could in a big market such as Chicago.

When it comes to dealing with issues of adversity, something she hears about frequently in her role as a JV volleyball coach at Ottawa Hills High School, Sherry drops into introspective mode. When asked who her biggest influences are in her life, Sherry says it has been "the people she has lost" that have made the biggest impact.  By the time she was a senior in high school, she had lost four grandparents. In 2005, at the age of 17, her father died from alcoholism, cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure after amassing a vast amount of wealth; he, too, was a business owner. Shortly afterward, a high school friend committed suicide. She also lost a dear friend two years ago who died from an unexpected heart failure in Colorado. Drugs, alcohol, and trouble plagued Sherry's high school and early college years.

But where many people would internalize these things and lead a path to self destruction, Sherry took them as inspiration to work to help others. She credits her strong faith, her mother and new stepfather, a prominent woman in the community who has been a mentor, her late father, and two brothers and sisters. She also mentions anyone who told her she couldn't succeed as the driving force behind her ambition.

The Court of Life

In both high school and college, Sherry competed in volleyball. She sought out opportunities to coach a volleyball team at local schools to earn extra money while building her business and landed at Ottawa Hills High School in the Grand Rapids Public Schools system, coaching junior varsity.

There had not traditionally been a structured volleyball program at Ottawa Hills, so she and the varsity coach set about to build the program from scratch. She soon learned that even the $10 entry fee to join the team was difficult for some of the girls to cover. Many of the girls had never played a team sport before, so the discipline that comes from working hard --coming to practice regularly, respecting authority, and being a team player -- had to be learned. It became pretty apparent after the first couple of weeks that many of the girls came from broken homes and dealt with crime and death on a daily basis -- something that was unnerving for Sherry. How would they handle having a seemingly privileged "kid" as a coach? Not very well, in the beginning.

The team lacked any equipment, such as kneepads, spandex, sports bras, proper shoes, ankle braces, T-shirts, and uniforms. Sherry contacted several universities and colleges within West Michigan. The only school that responded was Aquinas College's volleyball team, which donated thousands of dollars worth of gear to the girls. As witnessed in researching this article on a typical Tuesday afternoon at the high school gym, the Ottawa Hills JV team looks like a winning squad.

Through those efforts and perserverance, and by sharing her own stories of loss and rejuvenation, Sherry feels she has earned the respect of her team and inspired them at the same time. She started the season with five girls, and is ending it with 12. She proudly cites the fact that only one of the girls on the team dropped out during the season -- not bad for a first-year squad.

Sprinting Forward

Sara finds her greatest joy by helping other people build their skills and self esteem, with the ultimate goal of finding work if they need it and increase their earning power.

When asked to describe what advice Sara Sherry would give to other aspiring entrepreneurs, she doesn't hesitate:

Follow through; don't say you can do anything without being able to deliver.
Never give up.
Don't believe the haters and the people who will tell you that you're crazy (unfortunately, many times, these people are the ones closest to you).
Limit distractions; avoid complicated relationships while you're building your company.
Set realistic daily, weekly, and yearly goals.
Dream big.
Be something to somebody.

In addition to helping companies and individuals find employment opportunities, you can find Sara Sherry helping out with organizations like Endless Opportunities and Grand C.I.T.Y., a nonprofit community of current professional and college ex-football players who give back to the community.

Bump, set, spike.

Jeff Hill is Publisher at Rapid Growth Media

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