September 1, 2003
From Welfare To Wall Street
Margo Robinson has one of those lives littered with ups and downs, fits and starts, and before and after snapshots that speak volumes about her verve and tenacity. At 50, the journey has taken her from being a single mother on welfare to the head of her own financial services firm in Philadelphia.
The third of 12 children, Robinson was an accomplished student who became pregnant at 16. Her parents decided to raise their granddaughter so that Robinson’s education wouldn’t be interrupted. Robinson vowed at that point never to marry or have more children. Then, as a business major at Pennsylvania’s Cheney University, Robinson made a dangerous choice: to experiment with drugs. She overdosed on heroin and ended up in a coma. It was a frightening lesson she needed to learn only once.
After graduating from college, Robinson always had jobs, but no real career. “I just kept searching for something but not finding it,” she says. “My 20s were all about having fun.” When all the fun grew stale, Robinson, who had changed her mind about wanting more children, got married, and then pregnant in rapid succession. She was 33, her husband was abusive, and she quickly realized she’d made another wrong turn.
“I had stopped working to become this wife and mother,” Robinson says. “I had nothing, but I knew the marriage had to end. I’ve had my share of problems, but self-esteem has never been one of them. So I called my dad and asked if my son and I could stay there for a while, and I left.”
Robinson went on more than 30 job interviews before landing a job in the financial aid office of a small trade school. During that time, she applied for and received welfare. Without it, she says, “I really don’t know what I would have done.” Once she began working again, this time in finance, her life began to transform. “Finally,” she says, “I started to find out who I was and what I was supposed to do.”
Robinson went on to several jobs in finance and retail before landing at Equity One, a mortgage bank. With no prior mortgage-lending experience, she was offered a job on the spot when she was the only candidate to brave an ice storm to get to the interview. Everyone else had cancelled.
“I took that job in January 1991 and by March, I had closed $1 million in accounts — more than anyone else in the office,” she says. “Whenever anybody asked how I did it, I said, ‘When you have a child to care for and you’re determined, that’s what you do.'”
Four years later, on a Friday afternoon, Robinson came home from work and went into prayer. “My mother always told me, whatever decisions you wake up with the day after prayer, that’s what you should go with. When I woke up, my spirit told me to resign, so I did — that day. Then I thought, ‘What did you just do?’ I did not have a plan, but