by Kate Branum • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
When Veverly Austin walks into a room, she commands it. Her dynamic personality and welcoming smile draws her audience in, and as she speaks of her accomplishments, her eyes reflect the passion and excitement that made it all possible. Though she radiates confidence, it took years of practice and self-reassurance to get to where she is today.
Austin was born with big dreams and an unstoppable drive. She grew up on the South Side of Chicago, raised primarily by her grandmother while her mother worked long hours to make sure she and her three siblings had all of the things they needed.
“Where I grew up, there was a lot of violence, but in my home, education and faith were heavily instilled in us,” Austin shared. “Going to high school, college and even graduate school was pushed.”
Both her grandmother and her mother served as strong role models for Austin. She realized at a young age that if she really wanted something, she would have to hustle to get it.
“I got my strong work ethic from my mother,” she stated. “I work very hard and I believe in finishing a task once I start it. If I think I can do something, I go hard after it.”
A self-proclaimed “school nerd,” she excelled in her classes, fueled by a hunger for knowledge and a determination to break out of the confines of her hometown. She remembers the abundance of drug usage and teenage pregnancies in her neighborhood and vowed to distance herself from it all.
“[A couple of] struggles I had [growing up] were focus and self-esteem,” she divulged. “I was trying not to fulfill any of the statistics that I was around. It was tough, but it gave me my drive to escape and do something different.”
In 1994, she moved to Grand Rapids and enrolled at Aquinas College where she studied Organizational Behavior with the goal of becoming a dentist.
“After two years of struggling, I looked at my grades and realized that I had high grades in business and very low grades in science,” she recalled. “My mentors told me that while science may not be for me, business definitely is.”
In 1996, Austin returned to Illinois to finish her bachelor’s degree at Benedictine College. Though she had her four-year degree, Austin felt that she wasn’t finished with her education. She was on the fence about pursing a Masters of Business Administration degree when one of her mentors from Benedictine reached out to her told her that if she had the opportunity now, she needed to take it because ‘You never know what life has ahead of you.’
After she graduated, she and her long-term boyfriend, Jathan Austin, got married and relocated to Oklahoma. There, she assisted her husband as he served as the Youth Pastor at the Bishop Clinton House. The couple moved from Oklahoma to Las Vegas to Kansas, finally landing in Grand Rapids.
In Las Vegas, Austin and her husband pastored at Mountaintop Faith Ministries; here, she met Dr. Mary House, founder and CEO of Mary House Ministries. House would become one of Austin’s closest confidants, her personal mentor and a dear friend.
“I call her my daughter,” House said. “I mentored her a bit and continue to do so. She sought out things that she wanted to do in her life as far as her business is concerned, and she has also come to me [seeking advice on] how to be a better woman within her community. Austin is very focused, very motivating and a very empowering woman.”
In 2007, Austin and her husband planted themselves in Grand Rapids to carry on the legacy of her husband’s grandfather, the late Bishop William Abney. Her husband was appointed as Lead Pastor of One Church Empowerment Center and she took on the role of Assistant Pastor.
“My faith is the glue that holds me together,” she said. “It’s the foundation for everything that I stand on and it keeps me confident.”
“From the first interaction with her, you know that she loves women and loves helping people.” – Dr. Stacia Pierce, founder of Life Coach to Women.
In 2010, Austin attended a conference organized by Dr. Stacia Pierce, founder of Life Coach to Women. Motivated by the message of the session, Austin asked Piece to be her mentor, seeking career and leadership advice.
“She had started to work outside [of her ministry] on activities like putting together women’s programs,” Pierce said. “Austin has to be sweetest person you’ve ever met. From the first interaction with her, you know that she loves women and loves helping people.”
Austin chose to channel her own experiences with self-doubt to help others succeed. When she created Girl, Get Your Fight Back (GGYFB) in 2011, she had no idea it would develop into a large organization; she simply wanted women to have a outlet that empowered them. Austin set up private sessions with her clients to hear their concerns and share her wisdom.
The popularity of her first session motivated Austin to further develop the organization. She offered empowerment classes, activities and conferences targeting physical, emotional and mental health. The topics of her sessions would vary each time, but all contained the same underlying theme: Confidence.
She often spoke about navigating difficult financial situations and provided personal grooming and beauty tips in an effort to help her audience members pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses.
Many of the people who attended her talks were women in the midst of a career change, others were stay-at-home mothers looking to re-enter the working world and some were college students on the cusp of kick-starting their careers.
“One of the biggest messages I had for people who were stuck and didn’t know where they were at in their lives was just to move. Whatever you do, don’t stop moving; good times, bad times, tough situations – move.”
As Austin’s sessions began to generate a larger following, she realized that both women and men sought help fine-tuning their life and career skills.
She decided to create a second, all-inclusive organization called Confident Living. Through this program, Austin covered important career topics, including time management, interviewing techniques, networking and makeovers for confidence building.
In 2010, Austin held a GGYFB women’s empowerment weekend, where she met a woman who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was experiencing financial difficulty while caring for her deceased sister’s children. The woman’s story motivated Austin to help.
“We were [organizing] a fashion show for our women’s empowerment weekend and I decided to give some of the proceeds to this woman,” she said. “From there, people started to ask how they could help; people wanted to reach out and donate.”
The fashion show was such a large success that attendees began inquiring about what Austin had planned for the following year.
“I began to learn all of the statistics and I knew I had to do something for the urban community – big or small,” she expressed.
That first show, held eight years ago, has since developed into a full-fledged organization called Rock the Runway.
“Sometimes, you’re called to fight for something much bigger than you.” – Veverly Austin
Austin holds regular health sessions at her Confident Living conferences year-round to educate attendees about breast cancer by sharing statistics, warning signs and lifestyle risk factors. She also provides free health classes, brings in doctors for Q & A sessions and offers free yoga and Zumba classes.
“I spread those messages throughout the year and they come to a head at Rock the Runway,” Austin said.
The models for each Rock the Runway show are breast cancer survivors; these women are able to receive free photo shoots, extravagant makeovers and trendy outfits to debut on the catwalk, but most importantly, they have an opportunity to share their inspirational stories with the audience.
“The key focus is to help them escape from the effects and experience of breast cancer,” Austin said.
The attendance for each Rock the Runway show has more than tripled in the last couple of years as the message continues to spread.
“Sometimes, you’re called to fight for something much bigger than you,” Austin said. “Just because breast cancer doesn’t affect me personally, doesn’t affect how hard I fight for it; it doesn’t have to affect you to affect you, and I’m committed until the end.”
In addition to her organizations and ministry work, Austin owns and operates a clothing line called Confident Wear. In 2010, Austin created a shirt that said “Confident Women,” which she wore at a confidence class she taught at a GGYFB conference. Dozens of women approached her asking where they could buy a “Confident Woman” shirt of their own.
“I wanted to [have these shirts] available for each attendee in the hopes that wearing my shirt would cause them to find confidence in their own lives, even when they didn’t feel confident.”
Austin offers her staple shirt and custom designs on her website Confidentwear.com. This February, she will be launching a Confident Living journal.
Though she keeps a full schedule, Austin still makes community service work a priority. She sits on the board at St. Mary’s Foundation and has become a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and the Greater Grand Rapids Chapter of Jack and Jill of America, Inc.
In 2017, Austin received the W.W. Plummer Humanitarian of the Year award from Grand Rapids Community College for her outstanding service to the West Michigan community. She also recently received a Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses award as well as a Giant award. This year, Austin will host the Giant Awards.
As a mother, Austin has always strived to teach her children the importance of giving back. Her 9-year-old daughter has already started following in her footsteps.
“My daughter goes to everything – all of my Confident Living sessions, and I’m pushing her toward entrepreneurship,” Austin said. “She has a couple of projects she is working on this year, including a t-shirt line that I am helping her with. I plan to help each of my children launch a business of their own.”
She believes in having candid and honest conversations with her children about important world issues, pushing them to make a difference, beginning with the surrounding community.
“My children have taught me that the strength of our community is vitally important for their future,” Austin said. “They’ve taught me to speak up and make every moment count.”