In the US, more than 700,000 children grow up in the foster care system each year, and Leanna DeBellevue is no different.
After becoming an orphan as a child and being taken in by a cult, she is here today to share her incredible story of resilience, triumph and perseverance in spite of the odds.
If you haven’t listened to any other episode, this is definitely one you need to hear.
Full Transcript Below
Dee: And today I have an amazing guest with an amazing story. I mean, she grew up in foster care, she didn’t have the best childhood, and yet she somehow managed to create a successful global marketing agency. So without any further ado, Leanna, can you please introduce yourself?
Leanna: Sure, absolutely. Thank you for having me on. My name is Leanna DeBellevue and as you mentioned I own DeBellevue Global Marketing. We handle social media for companies all around the world. We’ve got 19 countries, I believe so far under our belt, and we help businesses get in front of their target market and create a brand that has loyalty behind it.
So definitely an amazing company that I founded in 2011. But I’m really excited to talk to you today about the fact that, you know, given my circumstances, I’m probably the last person that anyone would ever think would own an agency of this size doing what I did and what I do just simply because of some of the twists and turns of life. So I’m excited to talk to you today. I appreciate your time.
Dee: Thank you. I appreciate your coming here to share your story because like I said, I believe everyone is unique. Everyone is significant and your story is one that is going to touch so many lives and I’m super, super excited to get started. But the first question, on a scale of one to ten, how weird are you?
Leanna: Oh wow. Okay. I’ve been asked a lot of questions and never that one. Honestly, I would say I’m probably about a seven, seven or eight. I think you have to be somewhat weird to be creative.
A lot of things I didn’t know were weird until I was talking to someone else about them. And then, you know, they get that look on their face, like what? And then you realize that you might be weird. So I’ll go with the seven.
Dee: So you’re a seven? Well, I mean seven is a good number to start with. I think I’m like a whole 10 because I mean the things that I watch, things that I talk about, everybody’s like, eh, like you’re weird, so seven, that’s a good number. That’s a good number.
But before we get super like carried away with our numbers and our weirdness, can you please tell me where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
Leanna: So I am originally from Southern California. I grew up in a town called Pasadena. It’s where they brought the Rose bowl every year. And it’s a really beautiful city and I’m very proud to be from Pasadena. I was born in Los Angeles and grew up in California until I was 18, so that’s where my roots are.
Dee: So what was it like growing, I know you mentioned that you grew up in foster care until you were ultimately raised by your grandmother, but what was that like? What was foster care like for you?
Leanna: You know, not too many people honestly know my story. So I’m very new at sharing this, but I was in foster care from the time I was three and a half until the time, no, it was three to four and a half. So for a year and a half, I was in the foster care system.
During that time, my grandmother wasn’t actively trying to get custody of me, and because I was so young, I don’t remember too much. I just remember being constantly confused by the number of people coming in and out of my life and not understanding why I couldn’t go home. I was very blessed to have had, I believe, foster parents who were genuinely in it to help others.
But it was a very, very scary time for me. And now that I’m a parent myself I’ve come to understand that parenting is very hard and that there are no answers. So for so many years growing up, after my grandmother adopted me and I was raised by her I had all these questions like how come everyone else has a mom and dad and where’s my mom?
And why did these things happen? And it wasn’t until I had my daughter that I really understood how difficult being a parent was and how difficult it was. My mom was 21 when she had me. I didn’t get how difficult it was to provide not only for yourself at that age, but for an infant at that age. So my grandmother raised me. She sent me to a private school.
I was very lucky because of that. But because I was in private school, I was definitely the odd man out 95% of the time. Most of my friends, their moms stayed at home, their dads worked, they did stuff together on the weekends and they had what seemed like a perfect life. And I was home alone a lot. My grandmother had to work full time to care for me and support us.
And I just didn’t have all of the family structure that those kids around me had, which I think made it even a little bit more difficult and made me feel a little bit more of an outsider and an outcast if you will, growing up, which was something that now I can look back on and appreciate how hard she worked. But at the time it just felt like another situation where I was being left alone or left on my own.
Dee: Okay. So I understand that being a foster child and then having your grandma raised you must have been difficult. But what was life like when you’re actually in the foster home? Like what did you go through? Were there any struggles or any obstacles? What was it like for you then?
Leanna: You know, I don’t remember too much just because of my age. I just remember that it seemed like I was moved around a lot. Like once I would start to get used to being in someone’s home I would come back to their house. And there would be a caseworker waiting for me to pack up my three shirts and two pairs of pants and take me to another location.
So I was constantly being moved. I remember that. I remember going to a family that had multiple children and I think I was the only foster kid, so I definitely felt out of place. Being that young, it’s hard to express your feelings or say that you’re scared or ask appropriate questions. So I just remember retreating within myself and not talking much. Just constantly trying to understand why my world was changing on a daily basis. Again, I don’t remember anyone being abusive to me or mean to me.
In fact, I think it was the opposite. I think I was placed in very good homes but I just had no idea why I was there. So I didn’t know why I had to spend the night with these people. I didn’t know why I had to go to a new daycare. I didn’t know why I had to fit into a routine that was so far from what I had known growing up.
Dee: So how did that affect your self-esteem and your belief in yourself? I mean I can only imagine being passed around like a doll or a toy would. But how did that affect your self-esteem when you were growing up?
Leanna: You know. I was just having this conversation with my husband the other day. It really seems like people who have the type of beginning that I’ve had go one of two ways. There’s not a lot of people that just turn out okay or mediocre. They either fall into the pattern that they came from, which is typically abuse and drugs and alcohol and addiction and those with mental health concerns.
Or they develop a resilience and they far exceed what people expected from them. And I think I was just one of the lucky ones that developed a resilience. Going to private school really helped with the self-esteem because they focused on education and encouraging students to go to that next level, to take the risks to excel and to succeed. And thankfully I did very well in school, so that helped reinforce that self-esteem.
So in some aspects of my life, I’ve been very lucky to feel secure in who I am. There are other areas that I definitely have struggled with. For example, academia, I felt very secure and I knew that I could do it. I knew I would be able to achieve whatever goal was set for me. When it came to the personal, the social side, my self-esteem was very low because again, when something traumatic happens to you, and you’re that young, you don’t know how to process it.
So you internalize that something must be wrong with me. I must have done something. So I fell into patterns of wanting to always people please. “Yes, I’ll do it”. I would say yes when I didn’t want to because I wanted to get approval. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be part of the crowd.
And honestly I struggled with that for quite some time into my adulthood and it was not until I was probably about 25 that I started working on my personal self-esteem and my relationships and building secure bonds with people who are in alignment with me versus just trying to please everyone. And I think that that’s definitely a result of my upbringing and my childhood.
Dee: Oh, okay. So you basically were a self-proclaimed people pleaser and it impacted your adulthood, impacted your decision making, like how you interact with these people and stuff like that.
But my question is how did you overcome that need to please everyone? Like what steps did you take to get you from there to where you are now?
Leanna: It’d probably be easier for you, for me to tell you what I didn’t do. I read every self-help book. I started a meditation practice. I did meditation every single day. I wrote letters to the people that hurt me and burned them in a fire to try and release that shame and that guilt so that I could start to build self-esteem. I let go of friendships.
I did EFT tapping. I did the nightly subliminal messages for self-esteem. I did hypnotherapy. I tried everything I could think of. If someone said that this was a way to build your self-esteem and to release shame and guilt. I tried it.
Dee: So you did all of this. Kind of sounds like you were on this self-esteem junkie journey. Like almost like you’re addicted to trying to find some way to release all of this guilt and build your self-esteem.
But ultimately what worked for you? What was one thing? If you could say to anybody, this one thing worked for me, what would you say?
Leanna: I would say it’s two things I do and I still do it every day. I do meditation and I do a combination of goal setting and gratitude journal. So every morning I write down my intention for the day with the goals that I’m going to achieve for that day as well as five to ten things that I’m grateful for.
And the goal-setting has been huge for me because every day as I checked those off my list, it makes me feel a little bit more self-assured. Yes, I can accomplish these things. Look at what I have accomplished. Look at what I am capable of. And feeding myself that way has really laid that foundation for self-esteem.
Dee: I really love that because it is so, so important for us to be able to internalize the fact that we can do so much more than we imagine ourselves being capable of doing. It’s so important for us to be thankful for all the things that we have in our life because there are so many people out there who don’t have half as much as we have, and yet they are thankful.
They are thriving. So the fact that we have so much a good reason to feel good about ourselves and I love that. I love that practice. I do it all the time. I think gratitude is one of the best ways to build your confidence because it does really open your eyes and helps you to see life in a whole new light. And it is amazing and I love the progress you’ve been making so far.
But I want to peel back and go back a couple of years. You said that your grandma was part of a religious cult-like that that was like what? Like what happened there?
Leanna: Yeah. Yeah. So the private school that I went to was part of this church. You can look it up online. It’s called the worldwide church of God. It’s considered a cult. It has pretty much dismembered. But it was an extremely religious upbringing. God was an angry God, a mean God. So if you did anything wrong, you would be punished.
If you got sick it was some form of punishment. If you had a bad day, it was because God was mad at you. So I was constantly living in fear somewhat of this thing that I couldn’t see. So in this religion, we didn’t celebrate birthdays. We didn’t celebrate Christmas. We didn’t celebrate most of the traditional American holidays. We didn’t celebrate. We weren’t really allowed to talk to people outside.
If you’re in a grocery store, you could talk to the clerk or you can interact minimally with anyone outside the church. But we were raised in a very religious atmosphere where everything you did was scrutinized. We couldn’t eat certain kinds of food. I’m just trying to think like Saturdays, I don’t think I had bacon cause we weren’t allowed to eat pork until I was like 18 or 19.
I finally rebelled and had a piece of bacon. So it was little things like that. It was so micromanaged. And I think that that kind of goes to creating the seven on my weirdness, right? Because I grew up in such a weird atmosphere and I didn’t have any idea that it was different. I thought everyone lived this way.
So in some ways, it was a very hard way to grow up. In other ways, it taught me discipline because it was such a disciplined religion. There were so many rules that you had to follow.
Pasadena at the time was small and we had a huge concentration of people within our church living in that town. So it felt like you were always being watched. So that led to my desire again to people please, and to make sure that the rules were followed and do things along those lines.
In some ways, it was very hurtful and hard to feel that this ultimate spiritual being was mad at you. And that’s a lot of pressure to put on a little kid. Right? You pissed God off. But on the other hand, as I’m getting older, I understand and appreciate some of the value systems that it taught me- hard work, dedication, honouring your word; things along those lines. But yeah, definitely grew up in a cult.
Dee: Oh wow. I cannot imagine growing up in that atmosphere. I mean, I’m a Christian. I love God and God is amazing, but I can’t imagine being so terrified of doing every single little thing and putting so much stress on myself as a child.
I can’t imagine it. And I must say that you are one strong woman and I love that. And I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your marketing agency. How did you get from there to here? What happened?
Leanna: The first answer that popped in my head, anytime someone asks me that, my first answer is always God’s grace. Right? I was working as a massage therapist for a chiropractor and insurance regulations changed. We went from making a lot of money to no money, almost overnight. He pulled me aside and said I think you could help me with marketing.
I had no idea what marketing was, but I knew that we were kind of in a tight spot and I loved the office I worked for. And I said, absolutely, I’ll help out. What do I need to do? And he said, well, we need to figure out how to grow and we have no budget to do so.
So he gave me a credit card and said, this is your marketing card, don’t spend more than $50. And I’m like, Oh, like a day, a week, a month. Like where are we? Right. And he was like, no, no, no, like $50. And I was like, oh, okay.
I had no idea what I was doing, but at the time of Facebook had, what was called fan pages before they were the business pages that they are. So I said, Oh, this is a free, a free thing I can do. So I created a business page and started posting on it and posted our specials and started getting some traction. More and more people were telling us, oh, I saw you on Facebook or I found you online and Twitter. We started playing with a lot of those different platforms.
This was back in 2009 or 2010. And within two years we had grown significantly. We had doubled the size of our office. We had gone from four employees, I think it was to eight or ten, I don’t remember. And then a staff and outside staff of 20. And we had done all of this and my marketing budget still pretty much did not change.
I was allowed, every once in awhile, obviously money was, was a lot less of an issue. But I learned how to do things very inexpensively. And more and more people started coming to me and saying, I noticed what you did for this office. Can you do this for my business? Can you do this for me? Can you do this for my cousin? Can you do this? Can you do that? And I was very loyal to the place where I was working and I said, no, I’m happy here.
One day my boss called me in and said, everyone is asking how we’re growing and I know that it’s what you’ve been doing, so I think you need to go do it for yourself. I was super excited. Then I realized, wait a second, are you firing me because I’m not trying to get fired? And he said, absolutely not. I think you can do this on your own. Go try it. And if it doesn’t work out, you’ve got a place here. And in 2010, 2011, I started my company, word of mouth. I started out with zero marketing dollars again cause this time I was doing it for myself.
Word of mouth brought several new clients in and then one thing led to another. And I started getting clients in New York, LA, which led to Canada, which led to London, New York, Brazil, Dubai, Sweden and it’s just grown ever since then. So what started out as helping an office out turned into a dynamic career for me.
Dee: Wow. That is amazing. Like you are able to take this side project basically and turn it into a globally recognized agency. That is amazing. Do you know how awesome you are?
Leanna: Thank you. Thank you. I tell people all the time, I’m just a girl.
Dee: You are just a girl, but you are just an amazing girl. I’m going to add that part. You are amazing. I’ve got a question though. Do you have any regrets about your childhood? About your upbringing?
Leanna: You know, if I wasn’t 1000% satisfied with my life in this moment, I might. But I have an amazing company. I have a phenomenal husband. I have brilliant, wonderful children. I have friends that I love. The world is in front of me. Right?
And it’s welcoming and it’s a wonderful, loving place. I don’t know if I would change one thing that could potentially change where I am at this moment. I would walk through all of the hard stuff all over again to get to this moment.
Dee: Wow I love that. I love that. I was actually talking to someone else saying, you know when I first started out online, I used to hide the fact that I was divorced. I didn’t want people to know because I thought they would judge me for it. And I’ve had to come to realize that, you know what had all those things not happened to me. I wouldn’t have been where I am today. I wouldn’t be here.
Being able to talk to you and to talk to other people and have a platform to be able to spread messages and help other women across the world. And it does show that our past is a big, it’s not the only indicator, but it’s is a big indicator of what our future could be. And if we can only find the lessons or the messages in the mess, then we can use our past experiences to build fantastic futures for ourselves.
And I love that. I love that so much. I love your outlook on life. That’s amazing.
Leanna: Thank you. And honestly, I think it is because I came from a culture of such shame and guilt and fear and I could have easily continued to live that life. And a friend of mine said to me one day, she said, the world is either a good place or it’s a bad place. You have to decide which one it is and whichever one you decide is which one will show up for you.
That was probably the best piece of advice that I was given in my early twenties and I decided, wait a second, the world’s a good place. People are helpful. People are friendly. And ever since I’ve had that view, the world has stepped up and it has been. I’m not saying that bad things don’t happen. Not saying that life isn’t hard sometimes, but in general, what you expect, will come at you. You know? That’s why I love what you’re doing.
My life, if you look at it, there are people that will say, it has been a mess and some days it’s still messy. But ultimately it’s helping me with my message to understand what I’m here to do and how I’m here to help.
Dee: That right there. That right there was a marketing message for yours truly. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. That was awesome. I love that. And I just want to ask you though, I know that you built your company, you have now been very successful.
But one question that people probably don’t ask you was what is your biggest failure along the way and what did you learn from it?
Leanna: Oh my gosh. So my biggest failure actually happened to me about a year ago. It was last summer. I have been doing a lot by myself. I would hire contractors here and there. But a majority of the day-to-day runnings of the company I did and I started to burnout. I was tired and I had all these great ideas, but I didn’t have time to implement them because I was busy doing like daily tasks-things.
So everyone was telling me you need to get help. I had an assistant, but they were telling me I needed to get like a VP, right? A VP of content creation, director of sales; all these different positions. And I hired someone to be directly under me. I don’t how else to say it other than she was a bad hire and I didn’t see it. People around me were saying, you know, I just, she just not quite, there’s something not quite there.
And I was so tired and sober now and I really just wanted to be able to take some time to breathe that I ignored the red flags. She partnered us with a company that was doing some ad creation for us, and it was not the most reputable company. And because I let go of that portion of it, I didn’t have my hands where my eyes on it all the time, I didn’t catch it until a couple of our clients came to me.
It was the hardest thing because for the first time as a business owner -I am always willing to take responsibility if we’ve messed up, but it was the first time that I was caught off guard and I didn’t have an explanation. It was the first time that I didn’t know how to explain what had happened and how I had missed the red flags.
I landed on my butt pretty hard on that one. And it hurt. It hurt from a business perspective. It hurt from a financial perspective, but ultimately it hurt my feelings as a business owner who is dedicated to doing things ethically. Because this company that we paired with was doing some shady stuff. So it was my biggest failure to date.
It took me a lot of time to recover from that. I think most people suffer sometimes from imposter syndrome. You know, when you’re doing really well, you’re thinking, gosh, who am I to be doing this? Or there are people that have more experience or there are people that have more this or more that. And that mistake sent me into an imposter syndrome spiral. I started to think, am I cut out for this?
Am I doing them justice? Am I doing the right thing? It really took me some time again to kind of go back inside myself and heal that. It probably took me a good six months before I got my confidence back.
I think most people at this point think that because we’ve been in business so long and we’ve been as successful as we have been, that these things don’t happen to us anymore. Or if they do, they don’t happen very often or not on that scale. But that one knocked me to my knees. That one knocked me to my knees.
Dee: So what did it teach you though? What was the one big takeaway from that that helps you to keep going? Cause I know that we make mistakes, we fall down and it hurts, and we are embarrassed. But what is one big lesson that it taught you and how has it helped you to further grow your company to where it is today?
Leanna: Great question. I think what it has taught me was to systematize our practices so that anyone can step in and run the company to my standards. So that means I have to take the time. I’ve had to take the time and set up policies and procedures and systems for everything so that there are no grey areas. We know what our company does. We know that our company stands for. We know how things are done and it takes out a lot of that elimination and that guesswork.
One of our systems now is a vetting process for our vendors. We don’t just use anybody and everybody. We have a process that we didn’t have before. Same with our hiring process. I have put into place hiring protocols that should prevent any of the red flags that I overlooked last time.
So it’s not perfect and it’s not foolproof, but it taught us where the holes within our company are so that we could fill them so that as we grow, we don’t fall back. Does that make sense?
Dee: It does. It does completely make sense because there are some times where we are so caught up in running the business that we forget that there are certain things that we need to put in place to properly run the business.
So I understand that and I’m so happy that you’re able to find the lesson and be able to use that lesson to propel your company forward. And I do have one more question for you.
Dee: What makes you feel inspired or like your best self?
Leanna: What inspires me? It is our clients. Especially our small business clients. I love our corporate clients and they’re fantastic. They’re our bread and butter. But what makes the fire burn in me even more is talking to our small businesses who are so positively impacted by the service that we’re providing. They can be the best plumber, but if no one knows that they exist, it doesn’t matter if they’re the best. Right?
So hearing their feedback and getting their ideas and hearing the message that they want, that they’ve been trying to share, but that hasn’t been landing. Us being able to go in there and create that message that resonates with the people that they’ve been trying to talk to for so long is so fulfilling for us.
And to get those phone calls that are like, man, I didn’t think this was going to work, but we’ve had amazing success or you know, thank you for putting this together. This is what we’ve been trying to say, but we didn’t know how. And it’s moments like that that make me want to do this all day, every day for the rest of my life easily.
Dee: Oh, I love that. I love that. So where can our listeners connect with you online?
Leanna: Absolutely. So we are on Facebook. The company is DeBellevue Global. We are on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You name it. Google DeBellevue Global. You can find all of our social platforms for, you know, for services.
If they’re looking for services, they can go directly to our website. debellevueglobal.com. Or if you want to connect with me personally on Facebook I can be found under L DeBellevue.
Dee: Okay, that’s awesome. And of course, all the information will be in the show notes. Now finally, for all the women listening out there who are listening now or years from now, is there any wisdom you want to pass onto them? Like what would you want them to know?
Leanna: I am debating between two, two pieces of advice that I wish I had known when I was 20 or 21.
Dee: You can go ahead and share both.
Leanna: Okay. So the first one is don’t be afraid to fail.or you know what? I can tie them together. Ready? Don’t be afraid to fail and go all in. Go all in. If you fail, which at some point in time everybody fails, all it is doing is redirecting you so that you can get back on the path to success. Success does not have to be a global marketing agency.
Success can be finishing school or being a great mom, or being a great spouse or having a daycare; whatever it is, whatever that dream of yours is and that passion is, go all in. If you have a plan B and a plan C and a plan D, that’s great, but it prevents you from going all in. Go all in and if you fail, celebrate it.
Look at it. Figure out why is this happening for me instead of why is this happening to me? Once you figured out the “for” part why it’s happening for you, you can step into even greater greatness, bigger greatness.
Dee: I love that. I love that. That is so amazing. It’s like again, go all in. Yeah sometimes we stumble, sometimes we fall, sometimes we fail, but like Leanna said, it’s really a redirection to get you back on the path to where you’re meant to be. Thank you so much for coming today.
I am so happy that everyone got to hear your story and understand that within them, even if you had the worst background, even if you had the most trying of circumstances, you can still do something amazing with your life. And I want to tell everybody out there listening, never quit. If you stumble, get back up. What happened yesterday, no longer matters because what? Today is another day.
So get back on track and move closer to your dreams and goals because guess what? You can do it. Thank you so much again for listening and I am so, so happy again that she was able to share her story.
This is Dee and you have been listening to She Is A Mess.