The moment belonged to Sei-Ondra Williams. As she strode into 2 on the Roof Saturday night – her dress looking like a shimmering pool of diamonds, her smile outshining her clothes, and her fiancé, Derrick Owens, Sr., at her side – everything stopped, and everyone turned to look at her. Williams stepped up to the microphone, where a moment ago a singer had been performing with a live band, and tried to contain her emotions.
It didn’t work.
Williams, a Realtor with Keller Williams, raised a hand to her heart and teared up as she thanked her clients, colleagues, family members, and friends for making the evening possible. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you,” she said.
Williams was fashionably late to her own party – a ten-year anniversary celebration of her becoming a Realtor. Earlier in the day, in the lobby of the DoubleTree hotel downtown, where family from out of town was staying, she said the event might seem extravagant, but she was making good on a promise she made to herself several years ago, when the market was tough: If she survived the downturn, she was going to celebrate big.
“I had a vision that if I made it in this business, I was going to do something nice,” she said. “When things hit rock bottom, a lot of agents fell away. They had to choose between staying in real estate and getting a job. I said if I get to ten, I’m going to celebrate. With God’s help, I persevered.”
Williams didn’t just celebrate; she threw a party to remember. Live music, a DJ for between sets, and dancing created a festive, high-energy atmosphere. Guests piled their plates high with meats, cheeses, fruits, and catered treats, and wine from the free bar flowed like water over Niagara Falls. Warranty Title, one of the companies with which Williams works, set up casino tables for poker, blackjack, and roulettes. Guests received “Sei-Ondra money” as they came in, and the winner received $3,000 in local gift cards at the end of the evening.
Williams wanted everyone to enjoy themselves, but she also hoped to use the event to do something positive. So, she asked guests to donate to Stop the Madness, a local nonprofit that helps inner-city youth find a positive way to live. It’s run by Dr. Ternae Jordan, Sr., senior pastor at Mt. Canaan Baptist Church, where Williams is a member. Williams set a minimum donation of $1,000, meaning she planned to pitch in whatever she didn’t raise.
“I didn’t want the night to be all about me,” she said that morning, “so I decided to give to charity.”
Williams didn’t come from money, but her parents labored hard and instilled a strong work ethic in her as they raised her in the Avondale neighborhood in East Chattanooga. Before becoming a Realtor, Williams held down two jobs at once – an accounts receivable position at NK Lawn & Garden and a sales spot at Rhodes Furniture. When both places closed at the same time in 2005, she didn’t know what she was going to do.
On Sunday, Williams’ pastor preached about soaring like an eagle. “I was all doom and gloom, and he said you can either soar like an eagle or scurry around in the chicken coop,” she said. “The next morning, I signed up for real estate school.”
After passing the test and earning her license on the first try, Williams joined Keller Williams Realty Chattanooga on Premiere Drive. “I chose them because their priorities are God, then family, and then business,” Williams said. “Those are my priorities, too.”
Williams said adjusting to earning commission instead of a paycheck was hard, but by 2007, she and the market were soaring like the eagle her pastor had mentioned. Then, in 2009, the market took a nosedive, and Williams found herself struggling to stay in the business. But as more and more agents dropped out, she resolved to make it through the slump.
Williams said Keller Williams’ BOLD (Business Objective, Life by Design) class reignited the spark in her. She not only pulled through the downturn, she increased her transactions from 12 to 38 a year, and is on track to do 50 in 2016.
As Williams experienced greater and greater success, her heart for those who were less fortunate grew. She therefore wastes no opportunity to share her story about buying her first home, as she hopes it will inspire someone to do as she did.
“I lived in a two-bedroom duplex in Avondale until I was 20, and as an adult, I was working hard but throwing my money away on rent,” she said. “When the light finally came on and I bought a house, I decided more people needed to hear about how easy it is.”
Williams steers people toward organizations that can help, such as the Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA) and Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE), and is seeing people who have never purchased a home – and whose parents and grandparents never owned a home – buying their first place.
“A lot of people feel like they can’t buy a house. But I want them to know they can, so I try to remold their minds so they can see home ownership is where it’s at,” she said.
Once Williams has people on the path to homeownership, she holds their hand through the entire process. “I sit down with my clients, go over what they can expect from me, and tell them what I expect from them,” she said. “Then I give them a road map of what’s to come, and tell them if we follow it, they’ll have the keys to their house at the end of it.”
Williams says she loves being a Realtor, partly because she gets to help others, but also because each day offers something new. “There’s nothing better than giving someone their keys, whether it’s an investor who’s going to renovate a place, a first-time homebuyer, or empty nesters who are transitioning to a townhouse – there are so many facets to this business, which keeps it interesting.”
Williams is still thankful for her fiancé, as he gives her an outlet when she needs one. “Being a Realtor is like being a traffic cop. You have to point people in the right direction and keep them from making bad decisions,” she said. “Not only that, but you’re the person who deals with the title company and the lender, and who acts as a liaison with the home inspector. So you’re like a traffic cop who’s saying, ‘Hold on! Wait a minute. OK! Come on!’ So I appreciate the support Derek gives me.”
Williams and Owens have one son, Derrick Owens, Jr., 28.
Williams also lets off steam by traveling, and says Las Vegas is her favorite vacation spot. She’s also a fan of fine dining.
As Williams looked ahead to the party, she admitted to an occasional bout of shyness. It’s a holdover from her old self, before she transformed into an eagle and learned how to fly. “I came out of my cocoon and became a social butterfly,” she said. “Now I’m the girl who never meets a stranger, who’s friends with everyone, who rarely gets upset, and who doesn’t hold grudges. I just like to keep things moving. That’s who I am.”
Williams flashed a bright smile and left to make final preparations for the event. The evening would belong to her – as it should – but she wanted to make sure her guests felt like it belonged to them, too.
To see more photos, pick up a copy of this week's Hamilton County Herald.