Biggest piece of advice: Follow your passion and don’t let anyone stop you.

Seven years ago, while living inside a cult with very little freedom of my own, I built the foundations of a multi-million dollar agency. Today, I lead and build my company, which has more than 80 on staff and has served over 5,000 clients. I’m also a wife and a mom.

I haven’t told the “cult side” of my story often online. In fact, I hid it for more than four years, thinking it was better to shove it aside and focus on portraying a fully “normal” Julia. After realizing I’d made incredible strides both as an entrepreneur and person, and experienced full healing and restoration, I’m realizing this is a story I have to share with the world. What’s more, the cult I grew up inside of is still functioning. No one questioned my childhood, because the abuse was so well hidden: and no one is questioning the safety or wellbeing of my little siblings and many other victims connected to this cult. (I’m currently writing a memoir about my life story, coming February 2020. Sign up here to read it.)

Life inside of a cult for 21 years

For 21 years out of the 28 years I’ve lived on this earth, I grew up in a religious cult in Pennsylvania. I wasn’t allowed to wear pants, makeup, sandals, or bright colors. The list went on. I was locked in an upstairs wing as a young adult, fined monetary amounts and mentally harassed, shunned, and beaten if I didn’t live up to extreme religious standards every day. My father was an extreme narcissist. If I didn’t bow down to him and do everything as he said, I lost his “favor.”

By the time I was 19, at my parents’ urging, I was enrolled in nursing school full-time and working full-time at McDonalds to pay my way. I didn’t enjoy any of it, especially with the constant mental abuse I had to come home to, and I began to fail my classes.

One morning in the middle of that year, I woke up and asked myself how can I make a living doing something I LOVE? The question was simple, and the answer was just as simple. I loved to write, and had been writing stories and poems since I was nine years old.

That very morning, I went online to research “how to make money writing” and discovered an entire online industry called freelance content writing. I launched an online profile and started looking for work.

In the next three months, I successfully taught myself how to be a freelance writer, earned my first writing clients, and tripled the income I had been making working at McDonalds.

I was able to quit McDonalds, and I began to put in 90-hour weeks to learn and teach myself writing, market myself, and win new clients. Things ramped up, fast.

My passion became my path out of a life I hated living

At 20 years old, I decided to go from freelancer to business owner to keep up with the amount of work I was getting.

I had no business background or training, but I was naturally curious, learned everything I could on the topic, and worked incredibly hard.

It was easy because I was working hard at something I loved.

I put in long hours to code and launch my first website, and within a month of having an idea for a business, I went from idea to a live website and a real brand.

Eventually, I realized that my future was about to head in one of two directions: a life of forced, rigorous unhappiness and probable business failure inside my dad’s cult, or a life of entrepreneurial freedom, if I escaped. My parents, seeing my success, forced me to set my profit margins at 10% and made me hire family members. Hiring untrained family members and putting them on payroll caused a few of my biggest client accounts to walk away.

On top of that, I was experiencing mental and emotional harassment daily inside the cult. I began to sink into a deep depression.

A few months later, I pulled myself together and realized I needed to get out if I wanted any chance at success. It was time to be brave. Through my writing business, I had enough money to buy a car with cash. I planned to live on my income while working remotely.

If I hadn’t followed my passion and built my business, I may not have ever found my way out of the cult.

In September of 2012, together with my older sister, I left the Pennsylvania cult I’d known all my life in the middle of the night. It was the scariest and biggest life move I’ve ever made.

Seven years of hard work paid off

I married my husband, Josh, the year after I left the cult. He was another reason I was able to safely escape the cult, and was my “knight in shining armor.” I’d met him online when he hired me to write his content. Shortly after, he was there for me when I escaped. I left Pennsylvania and headed straight to him, in Missouri.

Josh was a total Godsend, and I don’t know where I would have wound up if he wasn’t there, kindly and lovingly nurturing me through my first weeks and years in normal life.

Funnily enough, a few months after we met and wound up together in person, I hired him to be my CTO. (We still joke that he first hired me, but now he works for me.I’m the boss. 😉) His tech and web skills couldn’t have been more of a perfect complement to my copywriting and marketing skills.

Within the next two years, he and I put in long hours and gave up our weekends to grow my little agency by 200%. By year three, my little agency was pulling in a six-figure monthly income.

I had a baby daughter in 2014, Jaina McCoy. She forever changed the way I saw life and added unexpected depth to my character development.

Growth stalled in year five, when two employees in Romania that I’d hired and trusted with everything, unexpectedly tried to steal all my business ideas out from under me. They tried to run away with all my concepts and clone my entire business model after I found out they’d been stealing revenue for eight months.

I had to fire them, and rebuild everything from scratch. But the lessons I learned from the failure of putting my trust in the wrong people were incredibly useful, and a major reason why my agency has now grown by another 200% inside the last two years, finally reaching a six-figure monthly income for the first time every January of 2018.

A key lesson to building a business that lasts: trust your instincts and work hard

If there’s one lesson that sums up the reason I’m here today, smiling and whole as I write this story, despite everything I went through: Be fearless in following your instinctual, gut-led passion, and be unafraid to commit to what you love.

Stick it through no matter how tough it gets. As simple as that sounds, that is the key.

Three of the biggest names in entrepreneurship can back up this lesson. Jeff Bezos left his lucrative career on Wall Street in the 1990s to open, which was a huge risk. His first office was in his garage.

Every time I see Jeff Bezos’ garage office (circa 1999), I am physically and mentally inspired.

His yearly sales went from $510,000 in 1995 to more than $17 billion in 2011. Today, he is one of the richest people in the world.

Walt Disney, founder of one of today’s most famous motion-picture production companies, dropped out of school at 16 years old and followed his dreams of building a studio despite failure after failure, including bankruptcy and experiencing intellectual theft when an employee stole the rights to one of his first characters.

But it was after that character theft he invented and came up with none other than Mickey Mouse.

Oprah Winfrey was born to a single mother and grew up sexually abused by relatives, from the age of 9 all the way until 13. At 14, she tried to run away, was sent to juvenile detention, and there denied admission because all the beds were filled. At 14, she was homeless and living on her own. Teenage years were terribly rough on her — she birthed a baby boy who died in infancy. But, Oprah went on to boldly follow her dreams and become a radio and television mogul, following her passion and staying true to herself by pledging to keep her show free of tabloid topics back in the 1990s when trashy and exploitative was the norm.

June 26, 1978: Oprah becomes co-anchor of WJZ’s Eyewitness News in Baltimore, Maryland. (Getty Images)

She has gone on to become one of the richest African-American women of the entire 20th century.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from. The ability to triumph begins with you. Always.” — Oprah

I believe that the hardest, toughest, and most tragic life situations can be turned into an arsenal of strength for a human being. God knows what he is doing, even if we don’t.

With God, all things are possible. — Matthew 19:26

No matter what situation someone is in, there is always room to reinvent life’s path to discover, build and live a purpose-driven life, if life is not enjoyable in its present state.

Take it from me — and every successful entrepreneur living a purpose-filled life. All it takes is a little bit of instinct, a lot of courage, and a good deal of consistent action.

Julia McCoy is the CEO of Express Writers, a content creation agency. She is the author of So You Think You Can Write? The Definitive Guide to Successful Online Writing and Practical Content Strategy & Marketing. She teaches an online course at The Content Strategy & Marketing Course.