Lee Marshall Named Entrepreneur of the Year

Kids to Love Founder & CEO Lee Marshall accepts the Catalyst Award for Entrepreneur of the Year

"My journey did not begin with an entrepreneurial vision, but in hindsight it was inevitable. I started on this path the moment I was born. My biological mother placed me for adoption at birth, and my adoptive parents became my forever family when I was 2-years-old. So, my motivation to impact foster children through my Kids to Love Foundation is simple — it could have been me."

The Catalyst Center for Business and Entrepreneurship Entrepreneur of the Year is awarded to the entrepreneur who has been in business for over three years and has a proven track record for sustainability, strategic direction, future growth and community involvement. The 2019 distinction went to Kids to Love Founder and CEO, Lee Marshall.

Marshall was recognized among business peers for her tenacity in advocacy for foster youth — the same year her nonprofit, established in 2004, celebrates its 15th year of service.

The 4th Annual Entrepreneur Awards honor the skill, courage, and determination it takes for entrepreneurs to create a business out of an idea. The Awards have celebrated the hard work and inspiring stories of many outstanding North Alabama entrepreneurs doing great things in our community. Remarkable entrepreneurs are equally driven by their “why” as they are by their motivation to succeed.

Since 2016, The Entrepreneur Awards has celebrated the compelling stories of these individuals and their success! Congratulations to all the winners and finalists who help #innovateHSV

Lee's Entrepreneurship Entry

As a television news anchor in Huntsville I had the advantage of a spotlight. I sought the opportunity to illuminate change. I wanted to find homes for children stuck in Alabama's foster care system, and I knew my broadcasting career could allow it. So, I produced a weekly segment for the evening news which introduced children waiting to be adopted. As I met these amazing kids, I began to see the lack in their lives reached far beyond a family. I discovered a broken system with few people sincerely embracing these children as a priority. I knew I had to create initiatives to give them what they needed.

The "Kids to Love" TV segments caught the attention of the United States Congress, and I was recognized in Washington D.C. as an "Angel in Adoption" in 2003. I determined to turn this honor into further action. The return flight to Huntsville was the turning point.

My assigned seat was next to a Huntsville businessman who recognized me from our church and from the local TV news. He asked what brought me to D.C., and when I told him about my passion to advocate for foster children, he encouraged me to start a non-profit. Our conversation continued for many weeks, and in 2004 the Kids to Love Foundation was born.

In 15 years we have impacted the lives of 250,000 foster children. Our programs have grown from 1 outreach that included filling school supplies with my daddy in my garage to 10 programs that operate on two campuses, with a third location in my long range plan.

All of the programs I have created through Kids to Love have value, but two are truly healing brokenness.

Davidson Farms, a home for girls, and KTECH, a workforce training initiative have taken me and my team into the trenches alongside the youth we serve. A startling statistic estimates 75-80% of jail inmates were former foster children. Our youth deserve better. I learned of a program in Tennessee that teaches a skill set called Mechatronics. I researched and found that in as little as 16 weeks we could train students for a viable career in the advanced manufacturing industry. KTECH just began class 10. Every student in our previous 9 has completed the course. A 100% success rate!

Davidson Farms has returned me to our roots of finding families for children in foster care. Seven girls now call the Farm home, where they are learning the value of themselves and the gift of family and home. One day, maybe sooner than later, we will have a boys ranch that offers the same refuge for young men.

Every program we offer reflects our mission: Invest, Educate, Sustain.

One of my biggest challenges is one not exclusive to my industry, and that is putting the right people in the right seats. I have an amazing team and I know neither Kids to Love nor I would be a success without them. But I’ve had some missteps along the way. I attribute a large part of that to the risk of uncharted territory. I am leading my team to do things that have never been done at the level of integrity I require.

At Davidson Farms I am committed to serving our girls with excellence. DHR has what they call “minimum standards” for group homes and that is not acceptable to me. We operate with maximum standards and give our girls the best. It is hard work. Our girls have been physically abused, sexually abused, starved, and literally locked up. There are not words to adequately capture the emotional stamina you have to summon each day to meet them where they are and then lift them to where you know they can be. I have hired, and accepted resignations, of two pairs of house parents and one house mom. We have a new house mom with us now, and she is supported by no fewer than 4 other women who support our girls on a daily and weekly basis.

KTECH personnel changes have unfolded similarly. Our students are smart, but many come from the hard place of poverty and homelessness. It has taken time to find instructors and support staff who can teach our students what the tests require, and also support them as they navigate life decisions. I believe I have the right people in the right seats now, and we are thriving as an organization. But we can’t be successful without the investment and involvement of community and that’s where my other challenge is found.

From day one, my chief obstacle has been to convince people to care. When I proposed a Kids to Love segment to air on local TV news, the station’s general manager told me no. “No one will care,” he said. It is my job to make people care, and I do that by turning statistics into stories. A foster child named Eric once said to me, "I want one person in my life who isn't paid to be there." Social workers, case managers and group home staff were all he had known. I met Eric 8 years ago at the McWane Center in Birmingham where we interviewed children for my TV segment. (The first GM may have said no, but the next one told me yes.) We shared Eric’s story but he was not adopted. Five years later I saw him again at our Camp Hope Leadership Camp. He was surprised I remembered him. Another year passed and our paths crossed again, this time as he interviewed for our KTECH program. Eric enrolled last fall and is now a KTECH graduate with 3 industry recognized credentials. He’s working full-time and continuing his education at Calhoun Community College. Eric, and students like him, are the reason I care and why I want others to care. There are a lot of “Erics” we need to reach.

Kids to Love has exploded over the past 2 years with the inception of KTECH and the opening of Davidson Farms. We joke around the office that we blew through our 5-year plan in 2 years. But in all seriousness, I calculate carefully how we grow. I pray a lot and let God direct my path. It may be an unconventional method these days, but it is working for our organization.

Our “More than a Backpack” campaign is one example of how I use strategy to dictate our growth. Four years ago, Jack’s restaurants adopted Kids to Love as their company-wide charity. Jack’s operates stores not only in Alabama and Tennessee, where we already serve foster children, but also in Mississippi in Georgia. So, I reached out to social workers in the Mississippi and Georgia counties that border north Alabama to see what supplies Kids to Love could provide children in their care. As part of their campaign, Jack’s asked every restaurant to collect money to support Kids to Love programs. By expanding our services to additional areas, customers in those new places could help children in their hometowns. It was, and still is, a win-win. This summer wrapped up our fourth charitable campaign with Jack’s.

Another lesson I have learned that will move us forward is that sometimes growth is deep and not wide. The Jack’s campaign is an example of growing the breadth of my organization’s reach. Davidson Farms is a case study in growing depth. As we take care of the girls living at Davidson Farms we have discovered many layers of trauma and grief. Did you know foster children struggle in the same way as soldiers who have been in combat? Our kids actually experience PTSD at almost two times the rate of returning veterans. We know our compassion and competency must reflect the depth of the girls’ needs. So, I hired a premiere therapist trained in Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI). TBRI counseling gives our girls the greatest chance of success to cope with and move beyond their traumatic past. Our growth at Davidson Farms right now is deep, not wide.

Growth in either direction is inevitable. With the onset of new auto manufacturing plants, I have a vision to expand our KTECH program. The rapid pace of children entering foster care fuels the urgency to build a home for boys mirroring what we’ve built at Davidson Farms. But passion must be tempered with planning and patience for sustainability and success.

Leadership and entrepreneurship require grit. The first lesson I learned on my journey is don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

I shared in an earlier entry how the first general manager at the TV station where I worked did not allow me to produce Kids to Love television segments. I didn’t settle for “no.” When new management was hired I was at the door again, dogged in my determination to find adoptive homes for foster children. Through my television segments more than 300 children have found their “forever families.”

When I began to pitch our KTECH program to trusted colleagues and advisors, one of them told me it would never work here. I did not settle with his “no.” Now, companies are now calling us because they want to hire our students.

As a leader and an entrepreneur you find a way to make your vision a reality, especially when you know your vision can help other people.

I have also learned you have to select your circle carefully. As a television news anchor I learned quickly the infatuation people have with celebrity. When I left TV, many "supporters" left me. I have chosen my team with care, and I know that everyone in my circle is loyal to my cause and to the children we serve. For me, it's all about the kids.

My professional growth has blossomed through relationships I have nurtured with community and state leaders. I learn from their stories and consider their best practices. I am involved in a CEO roundtable, participate in Leadership Alabama, and immerse myself in books to strengthen my leadership and entrepreneurial knowledge. I operate my non-profit as a business. Our clients are the kids we serve, and I am committed to serving them with integrity and excellence.

KTECH has presented unique opportunities to partner with other community organizations as we address the issues facing the underserved population. Our first KTECH class opened our eyes to the level of poverty in our own backyard. Life is dire for many of my neighbors, and not just the foster youth I have come to know and care for.

I am a big believer that Kids to Love should not duplicate services that are already offered by a credible organization. I needed to know more about services offered in our community, and how they could benefit our KTECH students. I created a “Community Conversation on Poverty,” a roundtable discussion through which I invited leaders in other charities and organizations - The Downtown Rescue Mission, Manna House, Lincoln Village, Christian Women’s Job Corp among others –to pool our resources and better serve the community at large. Now if I receive an in-kind donation that Kids to Love cannot use, I reach out to executives in these places to see if their clients need it. And when they encounter an individual who may qualify for and benefit from KTECH classes, they let us know so we can reach that potential student. The biggest payoff in this effort aside from the success we see our clients reaching is that working together erases the competitive spirit and fosters an environment in which we can make a bigger difference in our community. Personally, I mentor foster youth who I have met through our college scholarship and KTECH programs. Sacred, a young lady who is finishing law school at George Washington University, Lexi, a KTECH student and Kids to Love intern who lives at Davidson Farms, Jacobie, a young man who struggled to find his calling and is now thriving as a Huntsville firefighter. These are my investments in our community, and I can think of no calling more honorable than teaching our youth and training them for success!

My motivation to advocate for foster children is simple: it could have been me. I am adopted, and I wish for every child to know the value of family. Kids to Love is my commitment to make a difference, one child at a time.