CEO finishes college degrees after being sidelined by dyslexia

Joy Mitchell’s eyes filled with tears when she saw her family smiling from the stands of the University of Alabama coliseum. Shoulder to shoulder they stood, her husband, her siblings, her five children, all to watch the highly successful CEO earn her bachelor’s degree.

Joy’s college journey did not go as she hoped after high school. As the youngest of four, her mom frequently reminded her of the value of education. Her older sisters both earned their doctorates, her brother graduated from Georgia Tech, but, unlike them, Joy struggled with reading and writing. She attended Georgia College for a while, she moved back home and tried cosmetology school for a semester, then attended Georgia State for a short time.

“It was so hard, there were many challenges, and I felt like I’d failed,” said Joy, 41. “Still, it was important to me, and I knew I could do it. My heart wanted it.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

While living back at home, Joy began working alongside her mother, who sold used furniture. Joy and her boyfriend Brett Mitchell, her husband now for 19 years, drove all over town, delivering the furniture from the back of Brett’s pick-up truck.

“I loved working and began seeing a bigger picture. I wanted to transition into new furniture,” said Joy. “I grew up in Gwinnett and had a great support system and network. I made a plan and I hustled.”

Joy’s business, Office Creations, a corporate furniture company, was founded in 2001. She utilized many skills her mom imparted, but many lessons were learned in the baptism-by-fire approach. As her success began to grow, so did her family.

Joy, who splits her time between Atlanta and Sea Island, has four daughters and one son, spanning from ages 8 to 17. Though she’d proven she could be successful without a college degree, her desire for it never waned. While pregnant with her fourth child, Joy secretly began classes at Georgia Gwinnett College. She only attended for one semester.

“I quit and felt like I’d failed again,” said Joy.

Joy’s daughter OletaKate, now 15, began struggling with reading and writing in elementary school. Joy saw so much of herself in her daughter. She could read the same paragraph five times and not comprehend what she’d read.

“Through the process of testing we discovered OletaKate is severely dyslexic,” said Joy. “My husband and I looked at each other and realized I was dyslexic, too. I spoke with my mom about my struggles from childhood and instantly it all made sense and it was actually exciting. When someone who’s dyslexic realizes there’s hope, it’s a game changer.”

Since the dyslexia journey began, Joy has learned how to better retain information, audible books being one of the best methods. This discovery reinvigorated her desire to earn her bachelor’s degree, if not for herself, then to show to OletaKate how it was possible for her.

“I saw the University of Alabama was offering an online hybrid school opportunity,” said Joy. “I applied without telling my husband and kids and when I got accepted, I sobbed. My kids’ response was ‘you’re going to Alabama?’ because we’re Georgia fans, but they were proud.”

A decade had elapsed since she’d been in school. Mitchell retook many classes and adjusted her days to get the work done. Office Creations had grown exponentially (annual revenues up to $42 million) and her kids were all involved in extracurricular activities. Mitchell took classes from 5 to 7 a.m. before the kids were up, then again from 8:30-10:30 p.m. after they went to bed.

“My kids saw the work, they saw I had to step away and prioritize what I wanted, and what could drive opportunities for our family,” said Joy. “What others see is a successful business owner, but my kids got to see all the effort and I’m grateful for that.”

The validation she felt was immense and her desire to learn only intensified. Once again, in secret, Mitchell applied to a school, this time to the University of Georgia for her executive MBA. A year later, she walked at her second graduation ceremony.

“It meant the world to watch my mom get her degrees,” said OletaKate. “She reminds me all the time that even if I get a bad grade, or if I’m struggling, I can work for whatever I want. Seeing her do it made me see I can do it, too. She is who I want to be one day.”

Through happy tears, OletaKate held a sign at her mom’s graduation ceremony with bold writing that read “I am so proud of you.”