by his impressive feats in business. But success is not the source of Shellman’s self-esteem. For that, he gives kudos to his parents, Lenzie Shellman, a retired longshoreman, and his late wife, Betty, an English teacher, who adopted Tony from Catholic Charities in Seattle when he was 2 years old.
“I was living with nuns, and then, on Christmas Eve 1968, I went home to my parents,” Shellman recalls, grinning from ear to ear. “December 24th was my mother’s birthday, so my dad always said I was her birthday present that year. From day one, I knew I was adopted, but they always said, ‘We love you more than anything. You’re our special, precious gift.’ They knew nothing about my birth parents, but they always said they’d support me if I wanted to look.”
Over the years, Shellman thought about searching for his birth parents at times, but never pursued it. Popular and athletic, he was too busy having fun. He became interested in fashion early, modeling before moving to New York to attend college at Parsons School of Design. While there, away from home and his family, he began thinking of his birth parents more and more. “I had two great parents, a great brother, an all-American childhood, but something was missing,” Shellman says. “I just didn’t feel complete.”
Shellman hired a lawyer who quickly returned with bad news. Washington is one of about a dozen states where adoption records are completely sealed. All Shellman got was some non-identifying information such as confirmation that both of his birth parents were black. Beyond that, he says, “everything shut down.”
Disappointed, Shellman let it go. With a partner, he started Mecca, his first company, building it up to $25 million in sales before the partnership fell apart. Then, in 1996, he co-founded Enyce. No sooner was the hot new hip-hop brand up and running than Shellman, personally, hit a wall. “I turned 30 and I shut down,” he says. “Here I was, a successful businessman with a wonderful family and a great life. But something big was still missing. I needed to know more about where I came from, who I came from, what had happened. Luckily, my parents taught me to follow my heart and to find what’s true, so I decided to stop everything so I could do that.”
Shellman took time off from work and began feverishly researching his options. He learned from a network of adoptees online and from adoption search groups that a certified independent (CI)-a professional with no stake in his adoption who is certified to open closed records-could gain access to the same records that a lawyer couldn’t, and for a lot lower fee. Shellman hired a CI and was stunned at how quickly the response came.
“I was in Hong Kong on business when she called me on my cell phone and said, ‘I found your people.’ I got on a plane that night and headed to New York.” The CI told him the first names of his