"I was always the one who wanted to go for it," says the actress-turned-entrepreneur. "I always had that drive"

By Jeff Truesdell
Updated June 27, 2015 02:55 AM

The youngest of seven children born to working-class parents in Queens, New York, Vera Moore vowed with her first job out of high school as a stenographer that she would make a difference for her family.

“The next floor you scrub,” she told her mom, who washed floors on her hands and knees as a domestic worker, “will be your own.”

Five years later, she bought her parents a house – and swept them along in her own success as an actress who had a 10-year run as Nurse Linda on the soap opera Another World.

“We didn’t have the money, but we had the moral support,” Moore, 70, tells PEOPLE, recalling the childhood inspiration of hearing her mother read her The Little Engine That Could. “Even though I was the youngest, I always was the one who wanted to do it, wanted to go for it. I always had that drive in me.”

Fame carried her to another career. As a singer and theater actress who moved into television, she was unhappy with the makeup then available to a performer of color.

“So I concocted my own,” she says. “But then, the lightbulb: You’re not the only one suffering from this. This is not just your personal dilemma, there is a dilemma. There is a need.”

In 1979 that realization launched Vera Moore Cosmetics, initially funded when she and her husband, Billy Helms, mortgaged their home and later opened a mall shop. Now, her line is marketed in 56 Duane Reade stores and Walgreens specialty-makeup “LOOK boutiques” across the country, plus Puerto Rico and China.

Emphasizing both makeup and skin care, the business grew from its initial target of black women – “because that’s where the void was” – to women of all cultures.

She also persevered while focusing on family illnesses and then the loss of her parents, her sister and four of her five brothers.

“It’s been rough,” she says, “but I think my priorities were where they were supposed to be.”

“I’ve had so many challenges,” she says. “How did I survive them, and come up smiling? I have to always go to a higher power, a higher being. I thank God every day.”

Reporting by JACKIE FIELDS

For more on Moore’s story, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now