Welcome to Leaders Rising, where we explore the development journey of leaders who’ve risen from the ashes of adversity, examining the leadership gifts born from their experiences, the challenges that have held them back, and the moves they’ve made to transcend hardship and openly face the ragged edges that still remain.
For years Stephanie Thornton Plymale, struggling with feelings of inferiority and fear of what others may think, hid the unusual and messy details of her past from her colleagues, from her employees, and even from her closest friends.
One of her fondest memories from early childhood was when she moved into a motel with her mother and siblings at the age of six. “It was my first experience of having a home,” she recalls, “I had a roof over my head-a kitchen, a bathroom.” For Stephanie, life until that point had mostly been spent in the back of a station wagon her mother would leave parked on the beach. Homelessness and abandonment defined her every day. “My earliest memories,” she recalls, “are of my mother leaving us in the car to fend for ourselves.”
Stephanie’s first taste of stability in that motel room, however, would be short-lived. Soon, her mother was arrested and Stephanie and her siblings were sent to what was then called the Dependent Unit-a part of the California carceral system that, as Stephanie describes it, was “essentially a prison for children whose parents were incarcerated.” When she arrived at the detention center, all of her belongings were taken from her and placed in a garbage bag. Stephanie watched in horror while everything that mattered to her was thrown callously into a sea of other garbage bags.
Even after her mother was released from prison and the family was reunited, a stable sense of home continued to elude them. Her mother moved them back into the car on the beach. “My mother was incredibly mentally ill,” she remembers. “She was schizophrenic, she had multiple personalities, she was addicted to drugs.” At age eleven Stephanie was taken from her mother’s custody and put in the care of a sexually and emotionally abusive foster family-the first of many.
Before being placed in the foster care system, Stephanie had never attended school or received education. “I had been living in the wilderness,” Stephanie recalls. “It was so traumatic-being mute, being illiterate, and going into this structured school system where people had parents, and had food, and had all these things that I didn’t have. Just to be dropped into this environment-it was terrifying.” She struggled to feel like she fit in at school, and Stephanie would spend most of the rest of her young adult life feeling like she had to catch up academically with everyone around her. With fierce grit and determination, she recalls, “I had to crawl my way out of that life.”
I was always looking forward at what I wanted in life. I wanted a home, a family, stability, and beauty.
In foster care, Stephanie was constantly made to feel like she was inferior. “My foster mom referred to me as a pissant,” she recalls. “Growing up I felt like the lowest of the low. That’s how I was treated.” She began to believe everyone else around her was better than she was, and smarter. And yet, Stephanie managed to somehow hold onto a sense of optimism and positivity. “I always had a really positive attitude as a child, as I do now. I was always looking forward at what I wanted in life. I wanted a home, a family, stability, and beauty.” Before long Stephanie would meet her high school sweetheart-the man she would later marry. “We had a very strong bond,” she recalls. “He was really someone who helped save my life.”
In addition to the stability she sought through building a marriage and a family, Stephanie’s strong drive to create a lasting sense of home would lead her to a career in interior design. But her interest in helping clients create beautiful home spaces did not stop there, and soon Stephanie found herself pursuing even bigger dreams. “I had an idea,” Stephanie recalls. “I wanted to create a school based out of what I didn’t get.”
While Stephanie might have easily let thoughts that she didn’t have the support or the training she needed discourage her, she transformed her self-doubt into a motivator that would ultimately define her path forward. “I had felt like a nothing and a nobody. I felt like I didn’t learn the same way as other people. So I wanted to create a school that honored everybody’s creativity and their worth. I had a vision based on what I needed-technical skills, and the need to belong to a design and creative community.” Stephanie’s dream was to start a hands-on, accelerated Master’s program for designers that would provide the training and support that she had wanted but hadn’t found. She wanted every creative who wanted a career in interior design to feel like they could have it. “People need training,” she knew, “they need education, but it has to be fast and it has to be reasonably priced.” Stephanie’s vision became to empower others through affordable, accessible, realistic education-a goal that would set her on her path toward becoming the owner and CEO of Heritage School of Interior Design.
Stephanie traces one powerful gift that pushed her on her path toward leadership to her impoverished upbringing. “Going back to my childhood, I was always designing stuff out of rocks, out of toilet paper holders. I was always creating something out of nothing.” There was no book written on how to start colleges, so Stephanie had to create her own vision for it. And while her creative spirit and bold vision were strengths that bolstered her dream, Stephanie’s childhood beliefs that she wasn’t good enough or smart enough to realize that dream continued to surface.
The same feelings of unworthiness that were instilled in her in foster care emerged for her later in life as what Stephanie considers imposter syndrome. Her self-doubt peaked as she struggled to believe that she was worthy of starting a college at all. Stephanie recalls her nervousness before meeting with the Board of Education President during the process of securing accreditation for her educational program. “I had to sit there with him and say, ‘I’m perfect to run this school and to own a college,’” she remembers. “I thought he was going to throw me out.” But instead of discouragement, Stephanie encountered only enthusiasm there. “He was so excited about what I was going to do, all he said was, ‘Try not to do too much at once.’”
I love to bring everybody’s thoughts in. If it’s a good idea, let’s explore it-let’s explore all of the options.
Today, Heritage School of Interior Design has grown into three schools with locations in multiple states and, as CEO, Stephanie leads upwards of sixty employees who guide dozens of students through the school’s programs each year. At Heritage, Stephanie’s leadership is defined by a team-oriented focus on collaboration, combined with an open, growth-centered mindset. “I love to bring everybody’s thoughts in. If it’s a good idea, let’s explore it-let’s explore all of the options.” Also vital to Stephanie’s leadership is a heart-centered sense of humility, which she emphasizes includes a willingness to accept feedback and to admit mistakes when they happen. “It takes courage to change course, and humility to admit mistakes,” Stephanie admits. “When you’re willing to apologize if you’ve wronged someone, it allows them to feel safe, and lets them know that you take their concerns to heart.”
Even though Stephanie’s professional trajectory has surpassed even the wildest dreams of what she might have thought was possible when she was a child, her leadership today extends further than just her educational and professional realms. In fact, when Stephanie first imagined Heritage School of Interior Design, she had no idea that her path toward leadership would include reconnecting more deeply with her traumatic past than she could have ever believed-and no idea that her journey would involve helping others to confront their own traumas as well.
While for years Stephanie felt as though she had to keep her past a secret, “hiding was awful,” she remembers, especially when in professional circles. “My husband was a CEO of pretty big companies,” Stephanie recalls, “and we’d be with all these successful people coming from normal backgrounds, from happy families. And then I had my story. Just being with people was so challenging, because there wasn’t a normal thing I could share with people.” On top of it all, Stephanie often found herself triggered by even common objects. Garbage bags, for instance, would take her back to see all of her belongings discarded in the Dependent Unit. “Seeing photos of other people’s families was a trigger,” she recalls. Visiting her children’s school to volunteer would sometimes leave her feeling sick with anxiety for the rest of the afternoon.
It had been years since Stephanie had estranged herself from her mother to keep herself and her family away from her mother’s erratic and volatile behavior. “She was so incredibly dangerous and abusive and violent,” Stephanie recalls, telling of how her mother had threatened her, and had even tried to take one of her children from their school. But after her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Stephanie knew she needed to find answers to better understand her childhood. “I wanted to know how she became so mentally ill. I wanted to find out what happened to her.”
Through an extended series of interviews with her mother Stephanie uncovered the story of her mother’s adolescence-one marked by unimaginable trauma. “My mother revealed that she was abducted and kidnapped when she was eleven years old and gang-raped by up to seventeen people,” she says. Learning of the trauma that seemed to instigate her mother’s mental illness was, for Stephanie, a revelation of understanding. But perhaps just as meaningful as learning the origin of her mother’s trauma was the information her mother finally shared of her family’s lineage and heritage. “We came from a very prominent family of educators and artists,” Stephanie discovered. “I feel like that family history lived in me and later came out. The drive, the grit, all of those components of my personality-if I had met my grandparents, I think they would be similar.”
With this newly discovered information motivating her, along with the support of her husband and her long-time personal counselor and executive coach, Stephanie made the decision to finally bring her past out of hiding. She chronicles her own story-along with that of her mother-in her recent book, American Daughter. And while her decision to share would ultimately be an empowering one, Stephanie admits it was a challenging and, in many ways, frightening experience to write and publish her book. “It was really hard when my book came out, people in my industry thought of me as a CEO-they thought it was a design book. I was kind of embarrassed. I had friends who I had been friends with for years who I hadn’t shared this with. I just didn’t know how to bring it up. I didn’t know where to start.”
I think as much as I’m fierce,” she reflects, “I’m still really afraid.
Where as a child she had needed grit and determination to make up for her lack of education, Stephanie now exemplifies this same determination in her willingness to share. “I have to be strong,” she believes. “For me there is fierceness in sharing this story, sharing what happened to my mother. It takes a tremendous amount of courage.” Through interviewing her mother and writing American Daughter, along with tackling the ensuing publicity that surrounded the book, Stephanie developed what she now understands to be a broader leadership style and gift defined by fierceness-by an almost bulletproof ability to not worry about what others think and to effectively handle anything that comes her way.
“My biggest moment was the leadership that it took to write American Daughter and get American Daughter published,” Stephanie admits. “The process has made me this strong leader. Just going in for these interviews with my mother, who had threatened my life-just showing up week after week and doing that work with her.”
While leading Heritage School of Interior Design continues to be deeply meaningful and powerful work for Stephanie, she sees herself now in a new phase of leadership. A former tennis player, Stephanie thinks of it as being in “the second set” of her life-one in which her experiences sharing her personal history and trauma might help empower others in their own journeys to overcome trauma. “I lived too many years separated from this,” she reflects. “I tried to put it away, hide it, tuck it away, act like it’s not there-and I really wasn’t ever myself. Now I can just talk about it.”
Stephanie hopes that through leading by example-by sharing the story of her own past traumas-she will help others to understand that their own traumas might ultimately create resilience. “The beautiful part about sharing my story,” Stephanie admits, “is that so many people have written to me and said, ‘I have this same story. You have helped me to be able to come out and talk about my story, and have inspired me to not feel so alone.’” She hopes to amplify her message further by sharing more stories of others who have overcome unimaginable circumstances on her soon-to-be-released podcast, Overcoming.
Yet despite her many achievements, Stephanie still struggles from time to time with recurring notions of fear and doubt that still linger from her past. “I think as much as I’m fierce,” she reflects, “I’m still really afraid. I still have moments where I wonder what I’m doing-where I ask myself why I don’t lay down and take the easy street.” In many ways, Stephanie’s relentless drive is a way, she admits, of keeping herself protected. “I don’t want to go back to feeling like nothing, like nobody, and alone. That drives me to continue on in my growth.”
One of her biggest accomplishments in recent months was having been invited to appear as a part of writer and podcast host Zibby Owens ‘ popular book club. Though she didn’t realize it when she agreed to participate, Stephanie discovered that as part of the book club not only would her book be rated, but the group would rate her as a speaker. “I got a 9.75,” she recalls proudly, “which is the highest rating of every author they’ve hosted. That was like winning the Olympics for me.”
With that in mind, Stephanie’s next growth edge might just be letting her burgeoning sense of self-worth and her vision for doing what she loves steer her path forward-rather than letting fear do the driving. “I feel like a lot of times I’m always just striving and striving and it’s never enough,” she admits. “I’m just getting to the point where I believe I won’t be homeless again.” But after her show stopping book club rating, Stephanie reflects that she was finally, for once, able to register her own worth. “This felt like ‘Wow. You accomplished something,” she recalls, “you earned this.”
Moving forward with hopes for another book on the horizon one day, Stephanie is learning to keep listening to her gut regardless of what her imposter syndrome is saying. “Now I’m really just doing the things I love to do. I love meeting students, I love helping people find jobs. Now I’m sharing not just my story but amazing stories of other people. I’m really enjoying the journey.”
Stephanie acknowledges that through her adverse childhood experiences it feels like parts of herself were also kidnapped as a child, and defines her path of transcending trauma as one of integration. “The integration of my story, my fierceness, and my drive is all coming together to make me a whole person.” No longer afraid of what other may think, she reflects, “My past is not a dark cloud — it’s part of my story and has become a gift in my leadership. My childhood and where I am today are one — and that is the ultimate overcoming.”
You can learn more about Stephanie Thornton Plymale and connect with her at
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Originally published at https://www.trueformleadership.com on May 27, 2021.