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Zoe Damacela on how she went from homeless to high fashion

Zoe Damacela

Zoe Damacela

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Updated: May 7, 2013 7:15AM

When I was growing up, my family was extremely poor. In fact, we were homeless. My single mother worked full time and was trying to go back to school. But despite these challenges, I always knew that I wanted to start a business and be able to provide for my family and myself.

When I was 8, I started my first business, selling greeting cards door to door. I made $30 in a day, and by age 14, I was on my fifth or sixth big idea. I started an apparel company from my bedroom when I was a freshman in high school. In the seven years since then, I have had the honor of being on the cover of Seventeen magazine, working with Presidents Obama and Clinton, speaking at the White House and selling my collections around the world — all while triple majoring at Northwestern University.

But I know that my success would not have been possible without the help of a series of amazing mentors who changed my life, many of whom I met through the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). This past Saturday at TedxMidwest, I spoke about the people who have helped me along the way, and about how everyone should take the time to be a mentor. (You can watch that talk at

One of my most dedicated mentors, Deborah Quazzo, met me at a business plan competition and spent countless hours helping me write my business plan, guiding me through college applications, proofreading college essays and even taking me on tours of schools across the country. But it wasn’t just the practical help and advice that made a difference. It was also just her presence. Having an adult tell me I was talented and could achieve something was astounding. Hearing her say it made me believe it myself.

Tyra Banks became another mentor of mine after she saw me do an interview on a local news show. She flew me to New York to be a guest on her show, put me on the cover of Tyra magazine, introduced me to people in the fashion industry, wrote me letters of recommendation and even modeled my dresses. For a 17-year-old up-and-coming designer, having the support of an international supermodel was phenomenal. She provided industry-specific guidance that was just the boost I needed to turn a dream into reality.

But there also have been mentors who helped me on a much smaller scale. I’ve had teachers who supported me by buying garments or helping me learn a new skill. There have been designers who let me shadow them for an hour or a day to see how they operate in their own studios. There have been people in all sorts of industries who just offered advice or took a minute to listen to my pitch and give me feedback.

It’s important that all of us take time out of our busy lives to help someone who needs it. I encourage you to mentor someone. My own mentors were constructive because they were all people who knew something they were willing to teach — but also because they truly cared about my future and my success.

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