Before Sharon Reilly left for college, her father said to her, “Do something to make a difference in the lives of poor people.” The statement stuck with her throughout her career, leading her to the Women’s Lunch Place, a daytime shelter on Newbury Street where she’s now the executive director.

Growing up on a sharecropper’s farm in Mississippi, Reilly admits she realized very early on that she wanted something different for her life. Her family was “very, very poor,” and her dreams involved college—a cost they just couldn’t afford. So, she threw herself into her music and various student leadership initiatives, securing two scholarships and paying her way into Rust College and, later, the University of Mississippi.

Reilly landed a job in higher education, working in the space for 13 years before acknowledging the college president she worked for had antiquated views of the role of women in the workplace. “I knew I would never be promoted or get the raise men would,” Reilly says, admitting she was in the field “for too long” and should have been more proactive in taking a next step.

With her father’s words haunting her, Reilly later went on to become the regional director for the Minnesota-based National Marrow Donor Program, where she soared to number one in the recruitment and retention of donors of color. It didn’t take long, however, for her to meet the man who would become her husband and fall in love. She moved to Arkansas, and started working for a Fortune 500 company called Beverly Enterprises, which was later acquired by a family of healthcare companies Golden Living.

After her husband was appointed to the Massachusetts Office of Labor Relations, Reilly moved to Boston and started working with The Food Project. Yet, she soon found herself walking into the Women’s Lunch Place.

“I was shocked right away that the women were no different than me,” Reilly says. “They were college educated. They were mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters and friends.”

Reilly’s husband became ill after she started working at the Women’s Lunch Place. When he passed away in 2008, the visitors she saw at the shelter were what motivated her and kept her strong. “I don’t have family here; it’s very difficult to grieve in isolation,” Reilly says. “The support I got from the women—it changed my life forever.”

Over the past year, Reilly has helped the Women’s Lunch Place raise $3.2 million to renovate the space. Considering they’re currently serving up to 6,000 meals per month, the money was much needed, and there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. “The cost of food for everybody is expensive,” she admits. “And we feel the impact of that.” That impact will not slow her done, however.

Looking back on the journey she’s made thus far, Reilly admits one thing that’s held her back as an individual is that she spent too much time focusing on the “how” and not enough on the “what.” She says:

I should have been clear on what I wanted to do. I believe the universe takes care of the how. You’re on a train, you’re sitting next to someone, you have this one-off conversation about something. You read one story in the newspaper. … We think too much of how things get done. Focus on the “what” you want to do. Be very clear about the what and be open about how it will happen.

To hear more from Reilly herself, she’ll be speaking at the Massachusetts Conference for Women on December 6th at the Boston Convention Center. To register for the event, click here.

Photo Courtesy of the Women’s Lunch Place