Cordia Harrington tells PEOPLE: "I never felt as poor as we were"

By Eileen Finan
Updated July 22, 2015 12:15 PM

Each year when she was a child, a box would arrive for Cordia Harrington filled with hand-me-downs from a wealthy cousin.

“I’m such a glass-full kind of girl,” she tells PEOPLE, “I wasn’t ashamed. I felt proud.”

And though money was tight, “I never felt as poor as we were,” she says.

Her dad was a salesman who cleaned floors at night to make ends meet, while her mom scrimped to buy Harrington and her two siblings one pair of new shoes each year. “But I knew I was loved,” she says. “My parents saw hope and potential in us.”

As early as the fifth grade, when she turned their St. Louis, Missouri, backyard into a neighborhood day care, charging a quarter per kid per week, she proved that faith was well-placed: “I was always driven,” she says.

Harrington, now 61, became the first in her family to graduate from college and soon launched her own real estate business using all $587 of her savings.

She eventually bought a string of McDonald’s restaurants and parlayed her relationship with the company into opening The Bun Companies, a $100 million annual business that bakes 7 million rolls, muffins, biscuits and buns a day to clients like McDonald’s, Pepperidge Farm and KFC.

There were dark days, however, before her success. After her marriage broke up in 1988, she was left in debt, raising her three sons under the age of 7. “I was in survival mode, scared to death,” she says. “Many mornings driving to work, tears would be streaming down my face as I watched the sun come up.”

Now Harrington, whose second husband works at her company, along with two of her three sons, finds joy in handing down her own riches. She’s funded 51 study abroad scholarships at two universities, pays for an annual island retreat for women “with a sparkle in their eye” to network and relax and donates more than $30,000 annually to Ronald McDonald House Charities.

“There’s no way I could have fathomed all the opportunities I’ve had,” she says. “The most rewarding thing is giving somebody else an opportunity to be their best self and do things they didn’t dream.”