How a struggling single mother became a millionaire motivational coach

Lisa Nichols, a best-selling author, speaker and founder of Motivating the Masses, changed her fortunes by writing herself cheques

Lisa Nichols will be the headline speaker for Cha-Ching 2.0 Financial Breakthrough Weekend, taking place at the Dubai World Trade Centre this weekend. Photo: courtesy Lisa Nichols
Powered by automated translation

Lisa Nichols’ transformation from a broke single mother on welfare to a millionaire entrepreneur is often one of the first things highlighted about her success story.

“I always cringe when they describe me that way. It’s so awkward to hear,” says Ms Nichols, who founded the training company Motivating the Masses in California 20 years ago. “When I first heard it, I corrected the person and I said, I was a struggling single mother and now I run a multimillion dollar business, because that’s different.”

Ms Nichols, who has a net worth of $5 million (Dh18.3m) according to Celebrity Net Worth – a website that reports total assets of famous people – says our financial experiences are "a result of our choices".

"I made certain choices and those choices took me from being on welfare to running a multimillion dollar business,” she adds. “So I like to empower people from the angle of: what are you choosing?”

Everyone said invest in yourself first, write yourself a cheque, invest in your future, invest in your education … and I just started doing it.

In Dubai for the first time, Ms Nichols is the headline speaker for the Cha-Ching 2.0 Financial Breakthrough Weekend at the Dubai World Trade Centre on Friday and Saturday, which aims to help attendees find new sources of income through financial literacy, education and overall empowerment.

The entrepreneur, 53, certainly has the life experience to lead others down a better financial path.

Among her many accolades, she is a featured teacher in the 2006 self-help movie The Secret and book of the same name, which sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. She has authored several books, including New York Times bestseller No Matter What!: 9 Steps to Living the Life You Love (2009) and Abundance Now: Amplify Your Life & Achieve Prosperity Today (2016). She has also been a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Today Show and The Steve Harvey Show, to talk about her work as a motivational coach as well as a humanitarian. Ms Nichols' charity foundation, Motivating the Teen Spirit, has touched the lives of more than 200,000 teenagers, helping prevent teen suicides and supporting dropouts return to school.

Ms Nichols took Motivating the Masses, which provides personal and business development training programmes through coaching, courses and speaking engagements, public in 2013 and it is now listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange.

So, how did she achieve all of this?

The journey that took Ms Nichols from being on public assistance to taking a company public began during her childhood in South Central Los Angeles – a rough area that was known for its rival street gangs "The Bloods" and "The Crips".

“For me, life was about survival. It was a life of avoidance – I was trying to avoid being broke, avoid being in gangs and avoid getting beaten up,” she says.

Her father was a computer operator and mother a nurse, but money was limited. Her family qualified for a youth employment programme, which provided teenagers with summer jobs as a way to bring additional income to the home. Ms Nichols started working at 14 and her first “real job” was at 16 for McDonald’s.

“I had a family experience where we were rich in love, rich in spirituality, but we often ran out of money before we ran out of month,” says Ms Nichols. “My mother used to say money burnt her pocket, she couldn’t keep it.”

Although her basic needs were met, the lack of money ultimately became a barrier. Ms Nichols had to drop out of university in her second year, because her family could not afford the fees. Thereafter she was unable to hold steady work, getting fired from five jobs, including an office manager, a telemarketer and a collections agent – mainly, she says, because they were not the right fit for her.

In 1994, at 28, Ms Nichols was a single mother with a son, eight months, and barely any income, qualifying her for public assistance.

“I was working for a charity organisation that went in and out of no profit,” she says. “We would have to wait sometimes 30 days to 40 days to be paid.”

One day, she needed to buy nappies for her son, but went to the ATM and found she had only $11.42 left in her bank account.

“That was my most vivid memory of what rock bottom felt like,” she says. “That was the beginning of the turnaround.”

Over the next few years, Ms Nichols started reading books, including Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, to educate and inspire herself and attended entrepreneur conferences in the US. Then she landed a job as a resources co-ordinator at the Los Angeles Unified School District – and started saving.

“Everyone said invest in yourself first, write yourself a cheque, invest in your future, invest in your education,” she says. “Everyone kept saying invest, invest, invest, and I just started doing it.”

When her son was 3, she wrote herself her first cheque for $110 and deposited it in a savings account.

“Every two weeks, I wrote myself a cheque and every two weeks, I made sure it was 5 per cent more, and in the memo line I would write on every single cheque ‘funding my dream’,” she says. “I didn’t even know what the dream was. I knew I wanted to speak and inspire people, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t know what that would look like.”

To keep saving more and more money, Ms Nichols cut out extra expenses and took on a second job.

“I wrote myself a cheque for three and a half years. I stopped getting my nails done, I stopped getting my hair done, I stopped going out to dinner, I stopped taking my son to McDonald’s, I stopped going out dancing with my cousins. I sold my newer car, I bought an older car. I moved out of my three-bedroom house, I moved in and became roommates with my friend,” she says. “I was really willing to inconvenience myself to keep writing bigger and bigger cheques.”

She used to keep her bank statements unopened in a rubber band because she did not want to fall into the same trap of spending the money. When she finally went to the bank, the tellers told her, “Oh my God, you’re the funding my dream lady.”

“They told me, Ms Nichols, you have $62,500 to fund your dream,” she says.

Ms Nichols founded her company in 1998, but got her first big break in 2007 after becoming a standout in The Secret. Her speaker's fee had been $5,000, but it then jumped to $12,500. Today, her speaker's fee is $35,000 for national events and $85,000 for international events.

“One of the things I did really well as a businesswoman was I would leverage the moment,” says Ms Nichols. “Every event that I did, I considered that to be the doorway to three more events. That was my agenda.”

From 2008, her company “grew double digits every year”. On the advice of a consultant, who was a friend of Ms Nichols’ business coach, the company made an initial public offering to manage the growth.

“We had more people coming through the front door than we could service,” she says. “The idea of going public was to give us the capital infusion so we could get the proper resources in place.”

Motivating the Masses has $5.1m in revenue annually, according to business platform Crunchbase. Ms Nichols says going public satisfied an immediate need, but it has its challenges: mainly "being public".

“I’ve always made decisions based on either what I intuitively felt was right or the counsel that I receive from someone who was 10 to 20 steps further than me,” she says. “Being public can be noisy because that counsel then includes auditors and attorneys, legal teams and investment bankers, you’re not just managing operations, but you’re managing optics. So that’s probably the number one thing.”

Reflecting on her journey, Ms Nichols says her top advice for getting out of a financial rut is to think long term – “move beyond a 30-day plan and make a three to five-year plan” – and take action.

“Most people think about having a better life, they think about being financially independent, they think about living their dreams, but the level of action is not in alignment with their thoughts,” she says. “When you align your actions with your thoughts, the results are inevitable.”