Delores Epps has always been a people person, someone who treasured relationships and looked for ways to build benefit for others. This passion began at a young age, grew through an assortment of careers and experiences around the globe, and eventually exploded into an extraordinarily successful business. Now 71 and retired, she turns her experience and passion for people to volunteerism and community involvement.
Born and raised in segregated Huntsville, Alabama, Delores was surrounded by family from the beginning. She, herself, was the oldest of six, and her parents had 14 brothers and sisters between them. Plus, both her parents were Huntsville natives, so she always had cousins, extended family, and plenty of friends around.
Shortly after the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, she became the first in her family to register to vote, and cast her first presidential vote at age 21. She also took her mother to register, and Delores and her sister, Gwen, drove their mom to the poll place every year thereafter. She attended Alabama A. & M. University in Huntsville for three years, majoring in chemistry, and took advantage of the co-op program to get in some important and highly atypical experience at the Redstone Arsenal. In fact, she spent most of her college years working in a lab – testing rocket fuel!
In 1968, she moved to Atlanta to take a job with DuPont. For the next few years she specialized in something quite different but just as characteristic of the times: dyes for shag carpeting. But she quickly realized that working alone in a lab all day was not for her. She really wanted to do something that allowed both more social interaction and an opportunity to help others. So, she took her math minor to Trust Co. of Georgia and went to work in their factoring department. While better, this position still wasn’t quite what she was looking for. In 1971, the same year she and Craig married, she earned her real estate license and began working part-time for Harold Dawson, a well-known name in Atlanta real estate and the first African American to serve on the Georgia Real Estate Commission as well as the first and thus-far only African American president of the National Association of Real Estate License Law Officials.
A few years later, Craig’s job transferred the couple to Oklahoma, the first of several such transfers over the course of a decade. In Oklahoma, Delores went to work setting up and running a psychologist’s office in what had been an African American school building before desegregation. When they moved to Texas, she went to work for a temp agency as a way to meet people, and discovered how valuable temp work could be, both for companies and for folks looking for work. She joined agencies again when they moved to California and then to Seattle, Washington. Then Craig was transferred to Indonesia and everything Delores knew about finding a community went out the window.
For one thing, Indonesia was hotter and more humid than anything Delores had experienced. She distinctly remembers going to her first embassy lunch and wondering how the other wives managed to look so cool and put-together when she felt like she was melting into a puddle.
“It really felt like me and my husband against the world at first,” she says. “Everything was damp. All the time. But we grew to love it and we had such incredible opportunities to meet people from around the world and to travel during that time!”
Another difference that surprised Delores was that ex-patriot wives in Indonesia do not work, and are instead expected to hire and manage a staff of household servants. This sounded horrifically boring to Delores, but it didn’t take her long to find a way to fill her time with meaningful work – while helping others. With a few other ex-pat wives, she set up an agency to connect Indonesian workers with ex-pat families looking for household staff. As part of the program, they taught the workers about Western expectations of hygiene and communication, and offered advice about obtaining references and interviewing for positions.
In 1980, the couple returned to the States – and found a much different country than the one they had left.
“When we left a few years before, we sold our home for $27,000,” Delores recalls. “In 1980, comparable homes were going for $100,000. Gas had doubled, the interest rate was through the roof. Financially speaking, everything was different.”
Delores and her husband settled in Cincinnati and adopted their daughter, Quinn, two years later. Meanwhile, Delores combined her years of corporate experience with the knowledge gained during her Indonesia adventure, and started her early businesses.
“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial nature,” she confides. “I started out sewing custom soft goods – draperies, bedspreads, etc. – when Quinn was little because I could work at night and when she was napping. Then a friend came to me with the idea of starting an executive search firm of our own, so we tried that out. It was incredibly successful, but grueling. You work all the time. So, I ended up letting her buy me out in 1987 so I could start yet another business, providing packaging services for manufacturing companies.”
That business, Quality Associates Inc., turned out to be exactly what Delores was looking for. She started out with just a few clients and a lot of connections, and by the time she moved to Georgia in 2006, Quality Associates was a thriving concern with eight production locations across the country.
“It just kept growing and growing… and growing,” Delores says. “And I had so much fun with it. It was hard work, but very rewarding. We always provided top quality for our clients and we were able to employ so many people.”
Even Delores’ move to Georgia was atypical. She and her husband began looking at houses in 2005 in anticipation of his retirement the next year. Almost immediately, they found a neighborhood and a home plan they loved, and signed a contract en route to Hilton Head. Back in Cincinnati, they had second thoughts and cancelled the contract – only to sign it again on another visit six months later!
“I wanted to go by the house to see how construction was going,” Delores recalls. “My husband thought I was nuts, but I just wanted to see. We fell in love with it all over again, but it was under contract. And then, just days later, the agent called and told us the contract had fallen through. Turns out she’d never destroyed our original contract because she’d always felt we were meant to live in that home. Now we do and we are very happy to be here!”
Delores continued to travel between offices for almost ten years before finally selling her business in 2016. She now serves as vice chair of the board at Promise Place and Christian City, and is on the board of her church, Fellowship of Love. She joined The Turning Leaf Book Club when she moved to Fayetteville in 2006 and still belongs, and has taken up bridge again, a game she thoroughly enjoyed during her time in Indonesia. She’s an avid reader who loves to travel, and is looking forward to trips to New Orleans and the Panama Canal in coming months, Her dream destination? Scandinavia.
“I see my life in quarters,” she explains. “I’m in the fourth quarter now and I want it to be the best yet. And I want people to come along and enjoy it with me, to celebrate every moment. I’m going to wear out, not rust out, and I hope other people do too.”