As the daughter of a struggling single mom, Chantel Waterbury had to fight for her education.
“My mom was a creative woman but struggled to hold a job due to health-related issues,” Waterbury, now 40, tells PEOPLE. “We were on and off welfare my entire childhood.” Still, she found herself in private school since her older half-brothers (whose father was wealthier) attended.
Eventually, it became clear to the school that Waterbury’s mother couldn t pay her way. “I started to realize that there were things – good grades, good deeds – that could keep you in school,” she says. She started cleaning classrooms and tutoring younger children to pay her tuition.
When she received a scholarship to a prestigious high school four hours away from her childhood home, she knew she had to find a way to go.
“I called the school and I asked them to put ‘Student Needs Housing’ in the church bulletin,” she says. A couple took her in for $285 a month for a year, which she paid for with help from her family. At 15, she made the “tough” decision to become emancipated from her mother, and her older brother became her legal guardian.
To attend college at Santa Clara University, Waterbury took out loans, but they weren t enough to cover costs. She supplemented what she had by selling $30,000 worth of CutCo knives door-to-door in around four months. After studying business, she spent 15 years rising in the ranks in corporate jewelry buying, working with mass-market brands like Old Navy and luxury designers like Cartier and Tiffany.
In 2010, Waterbury was offered her “dream job” working for one of her favorite designer labels – but she had another idea: to launch her own jewelry company that would give back to hard-working women like herself.
She had a 5-month-old son, so choosing a stable future over running her own start-up would ve been easier. But, Waterbury took a chance, thanks to an unlikely inspiration: her mother, who was losing her battle with breast cancer.
Waterbury remembers, “She said to me, ‘The daughter I know would never have been afraid to take this risk. You ve been talking about this your entire life, what are you waiting for?'”
In 2011, Chloe + Isabel, an e-commerce platform that helps women sell jewelry through their social media accounts, was born.
Waterbury has raised $32.5 million in venture capital to fund it. Last year, the company was valued at around $100 million by the Wall Street Journal.
Waterbury s merchandisers (who are primarily women under 35) are given extensive sales and marketing training and real-time analytics to track their progress.
“The confidence merchandisers gain from running their own business has allowed many to overcome very challenging circumstances,” she says. “I’ve seen people overcome addiction and abuse.”
Another success Waterbury is proud of? “We ve had babies born named Chloe and Isabel,” she says. “Because the money that they re making paid for IVF.”
Currently, more than 8,000 women are merchandisers for the site, and as many as 5,000 applications come in each month. Waterbury s goal is to help them all.
“I’ve spent my career learning how to do what I love, but when I wake up in the morning feeling a responsibility to help people,” she says. “That brings me true happiness.”
For more on Chantel Waterbury’s journey, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.