At 16 years of age, Lia Grimanis fled an abusive family.
Suffering from undiagnosed autism and PTSD, she spent the next three years couch surfing and sleeping in women's shelters, all while trapped in a vicious cycle of homelessness and addiction. Grimanis would return home from time to time, but would be forced to flee again when the abuse became too much to take.
At times she fell victim to predatory men, one of whom was an older male school teacher. Her life became a struggle to survive, amidst constant revictimization.
Grimanis recalls laying on her shelter bed one night and feeling overwhelmed by the hopelessness of her circumstance:
“No one ever came back to the women's shelter to say look where I am now… homelessness is not a dead end.”
Struck by a profound sense of purpose and urgency, Grimanis vowed not only to rebuild her own life and but to help other homeless women rebuild theirs.
Lia Grimanis, founder of Up With Women.
“I made a promise to myself that I would become that successful person who came back,” says Grimanis. “And from that day to today, almost 30 years of life has been dedicated to the fulfillment of that promise.”
Undaunted by her lack of a high school diploma, Grimanis started applying for positions that normally require a Master's Degree in Business Administration. Eventually, she landed a job in tech sales and began building a career that landed her on Financial Post Magazine’s list of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women.
“I think true entrepreneurship…”, explains Grimanis, “comes from a desire to make things better. An internal drive that is bigger than ourselves. When we commit ourselves to the service of others and to the improvement of life, our genius emerges.”
In 2009, Grimanis founded Up With Women, a not-for-profit organization with the mission statement, ‘Success Belongs to Everybody’. True to her promise, UWW works directly with homeless women, offering personalized support services and one-on-one career counselling with an emphasis on social entrepreneurship.
And for UWW alumni like Doina and Sarah, the organization has been invaluable in helping them to become successful entrepreneurs in their own right.
Doina always had an interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) but because of an abusive relationship, she had to put her professional pursuits on hold. After ending up in a shelter for abused women with her two children, Doina worked with UWW to start her own not-for-profit organization focusing on networking opportunities for women in STEM-related fields.
Sarah was a solid A student who had just won a scholarship to study at a prestigious university. But her dreams of a career in academia were cut short when she became a victim of sexual assault.
Suffering from PTSD as a result of the assault, Sarah succumbed to alcohol and drug use and found herself in a series of abusive relationships. But with the help of UWW, she realized that she had the passion and the first-hand experience to help others in her circumstance. Sarah now works at a drop-in that directly attends to the needs of homeless and marginalized people.
“Our number one goal is to help women connect with their deeper purpose,” says Grimanis. “Every woman who walks away from violence, successfully navigating a disability and making her life what she wants it to be, becomes a beacon for the women behind her.”