"Having kids motivated me"

To celebrate Mother’s Day, we asked our contributors to interview the most influential woman in their life: mom...

syreeta martin, Tammy Charles
syreeta martin, Tammy Charles

Name: Tammy Charles, 56. Occupation: In God We Trust Our Little One's Daycare, Inc. Children: Brandy, 36 and Syreeta, 26

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania.

What was your childhood like?

I was the oldest child [of five]. I was always in charge [laughs]. I always liked to dress—my mom would dress us; we’d be sharp even when playing. I had a pretty good upbringing. I was close to my grandmother—she taught me how to be a lady.

Tell us about your career…

[After high school] I tried to get work here in Pittsburgh, couldn’t get it so then I moved to Detroit where my mom had relocated to. I found a job out there and I started school [for computer programming]…and shortly after I got pregnant with Brandy. I continued with school and working—I [actually] worked two full-time jobs.

The one thing that I liked about Detroit—and I was 18 when I went up there—was to see so many black people doing well, owning businesses, being professionals…you just didn’t see that in Pittsburgh; they primarily only allowed white people in those fields. [In Detroit] I worked for an all-black law firm, I was a receptionist there, and just to be downtown working for an all-black law firm—and I think at that age, 18, 19 — it helped me see the possibilities for my future. It was an awesome experience.

[Still] I end up wanting to come back home. I worked for Westinghouse, then after that I worked for BlueCross BlueShield and then I went to Duquesne Light.

I used the tuition reimbursement program, worked my way up in the company and I learned—I guess from having a programming background—that I’m more of a process person; things flow a certain way and when they flow a certain way you have success. Being able to save companies money—saving Duquesne Light money, fixing things that were going wrong and then going out to JP Morgan Chase and saving them 6.2 million dollars a year in waste that they were generating in purchases that they didn’t need—I just realized that I’m never going to be utilized to my full capacity working for somebody else. It just was not going to happen. I had never been so bored making so much money.

I always wanted to have a daycare when I was young. My desire was for the kids. So I would volunteer when I worked for JP Morgan and when I was at Duquesne Light. I saw that children—our children—were not learning anything. I could go in once a week, work with a child and bring their reading level up three grades by the time the school year was over. [That] bothered me…so that was a turning point. I [wanted] to get to the kids before they get to school. If I could get them feeling confident about what they’re doing before they get to school, they won’t be torn down by the “mental bondage” in the school districts [that] makes our kids feel like they’re inadequate, or they can’t get it or it’s too hard. It really pushed me into childcare and drove the way that I operated my business—I [wanted and] expected them to know just about everything that they were going to learn in kindergarten, already going into the door. And we’ve had a very great success rate with that, hands down. Parents have come back to me after their kids have gone into school and said, “I had no idea you taught my child that much.”


Did you face any hurdles in your professional life as a woman?


I came out of the union in Duquesne Light and went into management. The area that I went into management was a predominantly black area in the company, which was warehousing and materials management, and I was the first black woman in management over there. It wasn’t very well received to have a black woman telling anybody what to do. I was dealing with a lot of craziness that made me feel inadequate as a person, and made me feel that I was a horrible person…until I took organizational behavior 101 as one of my courses at Carlow College. When I opened the book and read chapter one…it was my work life! [laughs]

Carlow was primarily a woman’s college so I got to network and talk to other women who were managers and… we all had the same stories! That boosted my confidence level back to where it should have been; it just made me look at the fact that they’re just people as well and you have to treat them a certain way to [get] that level of respect—[but] you still want to maintain your integrity about what you’re doing.

At Duquesne Light, while I was still in the union, I noticed that we didn’t have any black women in management. There was a woman who came before me, she had fought for black women to become management secretaries—that was before I was even there—and then when I got there I fought for women just to be in management.

I got two people together who had degrees, because at that time I didn’t have my degree [yet], and I said, “Look, I need you all to help me with this,” and they did. I organized a company-wide campaign to get black women [in management]; we did a letter, got signatures, put that whole thing together, sent it up [to executives]—and he was getting flooded with the mail—and it was addressed immediately. It changed the company. We all got positions; I was one of the last ones of course because I was the up-riser but that’s how I end up being the first black woman supervising [in warehouse and materials management].

So, there were all kinds of crazy things that I went through as a woman, and a black woman in management, in corporate America.

What is one of your proudest accomplishments in your career?

When I went to [JP Morgan] Chase—they gave all of their undesirables to work for me. I started noticing that I was having all these problems with the work that was being produced from one man in particular. I went to my manager and [told him] this man is putting out erroneous reports, etc. He said, “Fire him! FIRE HIM! We were giving him his last chance with you anyways and if he isn’t doing it, fire him.”

So now I’m like, ok I’ve been in this company for less than two months; you gave me somebody that you knew was no good, and you wanted to get rid of him but instead of you all doing the dirty work—because he had two autistic kids, a daughter and a wife—and I said this to myself—it ain’t going to happen. I had a talk [with the man], told him what the problem was, showed him the reports, asked him where he got his data…and I said, “Does this make sense to you?” He said, “no, but [in 18 years] nobody ever [really] cared about what I did before.”

I took two weeks with him, worked side by side with him and showed him everything. We were going into three weeks, I’m thinking, he should know this by now. I said, “You should be able to do this now.” He said, “Give me one more day with you,” and I gave him that day. He started producing stuff, building and coding interfaces for me—all of that. His wife called me and said, “I just want to thank you. My husband is happy to come to work. He has never been happy to come to work before. He cares about what he’s doing. He’s excited about what he’s doing. I have a brand new husband, and I just want to thank you.”

Oh my gosh, that was the best compliment I could have ever received from anybody—to have the [spouse] of an employee call me.

How has your life been different than what you’d imagined?

I really didn’t imagine my life when I was a teenager. I always knew I would live nice and comfortable but I was never that kind of person [to imagine]. I took everything for face value. I always wanted a Mercedes Benz before I left Duquesne Light. I bought it the very day I got laid off [after 16 years]. I was just a person who was like, this is how I want to live and this is what I have to do to make it happen.

How did having kids change your life?

I think having kids motivated me; it gave me a bigger purpose. One of the biggest things when I first had Brandy—I was working a minimum wage job, going to school—I wanted to go to school to make sure I was able to take care of her and have a better life for her. I didn’t get my degree until I was in my 30’s. The school aspect of it made me struggle more but I love kids so it was like, I lived my childhood with my kids. I had said if I didn’t have a kid by the time I was thirty I was getting my tubes tied, and at 29 I got pregnant [laughs]. I just turned thirty in March and you were born in May, so that was perfect. That was even more motivation to finish school because having been married once, I didn’t feel like I needed to depend on a man.

When you came along, you calmed my butt down. Brandy was old enough to watch herself…I said, “I’m OUT, this girl can watch herself now!” And God reeled me right in—said I think I’ll give you another baby.

What is your favorite memory of your mother?

When we use to dance. She used to play music and we would all lay on the floor and listen to music—she liked listening to all them love songs.

What woman has been the biggest influence on your life?

My grandmother. We were close. I loved my grandma…man, I loved that lady. I thought she was the baddest thing walking—she was sexy, she was petite, she was smart, she could bake, she could cook….she could do any and everything. My grandmother was awesome.

What lessons did she teach you?

One thing I liked about my grandmother was that she poured wisdom into me; she would make me think. She would ask me questions—sometimes it would be like, parables or riddle—and  I would have to sit there and filter through to get the meaning out of it. I would have to think it through. I think that was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

She’d tell me, “don’t sit there and just take anything what somebody feeds you. Pay attention to people.” She said, “if you watch them, you’ll see what their next move is.”

She taught me to think and pay attention to my environment. It helped me to ward off a lot of attacks. She was my greatest influence; we were close.