This Motivational Speaker Went From Being Unemployed to Making $50,000 Per Appearance in 3 Years. Here’s How She Did It

A photo to accompany a story about Kelly Charles-Collins Getty Images; Kelly Charles-Collins
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For Kelly Charles-Collins, being let go was the push she needed to take her passion for speaking full-time.

“I had the comfort of my job, so I played footsie,” she says. Charles-Collins, an attorney, had four paid speaking engagements under her belt as a side hustle at rates ranging from $5,000 to $7,500. While lucrative, her day job created a time crunch that prohibited her from going bigger.

“I had one foot in and one foot out. Because of the security of my job, I’d go all out [with] pursuing my dream at times, and then other times I’d retreat to the comfort and safety of my paycheck.”  

The comfort and safety soon disappeared: at the end of 2019, the prestigious law firm Charles-Collins was employed at could no longer afford her salary and decided to let her go. Being terminated set her on a path to becoming an in-demand speaker on unconscious bias, bystander intervention (about which she has an award-winning TEDx talk), and courageous conversations. She now commands a fee of $50,000 per speaking engagement, and helps other women build businesses and brands that involve speaking up and being fully themselves.

Getting there wasn’t easy, though. Here’s the advice she has for current and aspiring entrepreneurs when it comes to landing dream clients and charging the rates you want.

Prioritize Savings to Prepare for Unexpected Circumstances 

Charles-Collins had a target date to eventually pursue her side hustle full-time, but the sudden termination forced her to shift her timeline.

A photo of Kelly Charles Collins
Kelly Charles-Collins

“I had been planning to leave, but not until August 2020,” she says. The entrepreneur had been building up her speaking business as a side hustle in the evenings while still practicing law. “At the time of being let go, I hadn’t done what I was supposed to do as far as saving money. I had an emergency fund in the low five figures range, which would have paid bills for three months. What I would have liked to have had was six to nine months of expenses saved. It was scary because I was now doing what I wanted to do, but the business needed to support me.” 

The first few months were rough as she went from steady paychecks to the uncertainty of securing clients and revenue. She got some referrals, pitched associations and organizations, and started to see movement in people hiring her as a speaker. She also used this downtime to build her website and market herself more actively on social media so she would be easy to find when prospective clients wanted to learn more about her work.

Pro Tip

In addition to planning for retirement, consider passing your emergency fund in case an unexpected layoff or hit to your income requires more cash on hand.

Make It Easy for Others to Refer You 

Then, in 2020, a race-related incident stoked the fires for Charles-Collins.

“When I heard about what happened to George Floyd, I put out a post on social media,” she says. “I told those who wanted to learn how to become allies that I would do a Zoom call, and they could come and ask questions. I felt I should create a safe space for people to have conversations and ask questions.”

As a speaker on the bystander effect, a psychological phenomenon in which the presence of others prevents us from intervening in an emergency — and the mother of a son who was a victim of police brutality, per a story she tells in her TEDx talk — the entrepreneur aimed to be helpful, but also direct.

“I told the people who attended that I was not there for their comfort, but that I had perspective, capacity, and context to answer their questions.”  

The call — along with groundwork she had laid beforehand in the months prior — was the catalyst for Charles-Collins’ business growth. In addition to referrals from attendees themselves, the YouTube livestream was shared so widely that it began to show up in Google search results. Company representatives from various organizations were discovering her through search engines and began reaching out, asking her to do similar “listening sessions” and Q&As for their teams.

She presented in social media groups, with corporate teams and leaders, and at town hall events. As she sharpened her approach, she incrementally raised her rates along the way – eventually reaching $50,000 per engagement.

“One of the first companies that hired me for listening sessions was Raymond James,” she says. “That was their first-ever town hall event on race. It was myself and Dr. Johnnetta Cole who were the speakers, and there were over 3,000 people on that town hall.”

After the event, Raymond James asked Charles-Collins to train its leaders. Other companies that engaged her for speaking and training commitments included eBay, Cherry Hill Public School District, the Tampa International Airport, and various law firms. In six months, she was able to match and then exceed her salary as a lawyer.

“I was very fortunate that, for 2020 and 2021, I got a lot of business through word of mouth,” she notes. 

More Income Streams, More Impact 

Charles-Collins wanted to help other women build financial independence and cultivate a sense of belonging. She founded a community called Ladies Who Leverage®,  and a new stream of revenue was born.

“I never wanted to be a coach, but I like mentoring and strategizing,” she notes. “My goal was to create a safe space where women could work together without competing. I now get to share all the lessons I’ve learned over the years with my community.”

Now a sought-after speaker, women’s empowerment strategist, and owner of a six-figure business, Charles-Collins wakes up every day excited to help others use their voices to both make a difference and get paid.

“I could have gone back to the comfort of practicing law, or I could do what I said I wanted to do, which is to walk in my purpose — and speak.”