Stacey Stratton, who has run her own staffing agency for 15 years, became a working-class entrepreneur at age 10.
That's when her father, a truck driver, left his wife and three daughters in Clear Lake, Wis., in 1987.
"'How can you leave my mom and us?'" Stratton recalled thinking. "I went everywhere with him, including to the dump to salvage parts. We watched WWE on TV together."
Stratton learned early about work and frugality. Dennis Stratton fled to California. He returned to Wisconsin eventually, to live elsewhere, never paying child support. He died in 1996 of injuries sustained in a bar fight, according to Stratton and news accounts.
"We went from being middle class to nothing," Stratton recalled. "When I was a teenager, if I wanted to buy hair spray or a pair of jeans, I had to buy it myself."
Her late mother, Cheryl, a homemaker, took a night job as a cook and opened an in-home day care to hang onto the old house. After Lisa, nine years younger than Stacey, started school, Cheryl took an entry-level job at Bremer Bank in nearby Deer Park.
During her high school summers, Stacey brought Lisa to her lifeguard job.
"Mom struggled to save the house," Stratton recalled. "She told me, 'Don't let this happen to you. Don't be dependent.' She was a rock. She also was the victim."
Years later, Stratton was able to help her mother buy a retirement condominium and retire not long before her death from bladder cancer at 64.
But what Stratton has achieved, as a teen and adult, she did on her own. She worked her way through college in Eau Claire. Her first business mentor, Paul Hanke, a real estate appraiser, taught her "the numbers" and how to run a business.
After college in 1998, Stratton moved to the Twin Cities to be an Enterprise car-rental manager. Long hours and little reward. She rented cars, cleaned them and recovered stolen ones. She managed her own profit and loss sheet.
"That was part of my job," she said. "It was also kind of exciting. If I lost a car, it came out of my bottom line."
First-year pay: minimum wage plus bonuses that totaled $21,000.
Stratton did better selling trailers and modular buildings for a unit of General Electric. After that, she rented storage space for Iron Mountain.
"I couldn't understand why people would spend $75 a month to rent space for four boxes," she recalled. "But I rented a lot of space."
A couple years later, at the urging of a cousin in the staffing business, Stratton joined a recruiting business. She left after the founder's children were promoted over her and the business "didn't fill up my soul."
In 2008, she founded True Talent Group, a staffing agency in Edina that places marketers and creatives. She started solo in her unfinished basement with a $2,000 investment in a computer and supplies. The company now has five employees and 30 contractors.
"My mother thought I was crazy," Stratton recalled. "She wanted me to be successful. But that meant a good job and benefits."
Stratton earned $100,000 in her first full year. The short-lived success was interrupted by COVID-19 and the business disruptions that followed.
Stratton, who also survived an emotionally and financially taxing divorce in 2017, lives with her teenage daughter.
"Failure is not an option for this single mom," Stratton quipped.
Stratton has persevered in a business that requires understanding client needs and matching it with the right hires. A few months to permanent employment. The revenue comes from a placement fee of up to 30% of the hire's first-year compensation.
"She understands what you need and who can do the job," said Lou Claude, retired Allianz Life North America director of marketing operations. "There are dozens of companies who do what she does. She does it differently. She understands talent and the marketing-advertising world. She also has a nurturing ability to understand who will fit and be successful."
Megan Effertz, a marketing executive, has hired Stratton at three businesses.
"She asks probing questions," Effertz said. "She's not cheap. Stacey puts the right candidates in front of you. And her candidates tend to stay. You end up saving money."
Stratton, 47, expects record revenue of about $3 million, up from $2.4 million in 2022.
"COVID almost put us out of business," said Stratton, who now works from a shared workspace and operates in a mostly virtual business model. "Marketing is the first to go during recessions. There were lots of nights trying to figure out how to survive. The comeback has been better than past setbacks."