For more than 60 years, Glamour has honored exceptional college women across the U.S. This year, we turned our focus to students enrolled in community college. Meet Tiffany-Autumn D. Bell, a disabled army vet who is studying entrepreneurship and who already has started two small businesses.
In 2020 the pandemic turned the world of small businesses upside down as entrepreneurs scaled back or shut down. This wasn’t true for Stephon Sanders, the 14-year-old owner of a mobile gaming business. The enterprising teen’s story even made it to the local news.
He didn’t do it all alone. Stephon’s mother, Tiffany-Autumn D. Bell—a powerhouse student and disabled veteran—is also a budding business mastermind. Long before Bell became a mother, she had big entrepreneurial dreams. “I wanted to attend college and be a business lawyer,” says Bell, a self-proclaimed army brat.
As a high school student on the brink of graduation, the last thing she wanted to do was follow in the footsteps of her mother, father, and stepdad, all of whom were in the military. Then at 18 she got pregnant and gave birth to Stephon.
“At first I said, ‘I have a plan: I’m going to college, I’m going to raise my son and do everything.’ Then I realized…kids are expensive,” she says with a laugh.
Bell was headstrong and independent. She wanted to create a stable home for her son, and at that point in her life, she felt joining the service was her only option.
“I shocked everyone when I told them I was joining the military,” she says. Though her parents wanted her to choose a different path, they were willing to help. But they were also on active duty: her mother was deployed to Iraq, her father worked in D.C., and her stepdad was in Virginia.
Although Bell had a support system while she was pregnant, college wasn’t an option for the financial independence she wanted. “The military gave me an out in order to be able to still take care of my son and do everything I needed to do and not depend on my parents,” she says.
For the span of her decade-long military career, she carried a picture of her son. This was especially true when she spent 29 straight months in Afghanistan, an experience she prefers to not elaborate on. “My son is what kept me going through duty station after duty station,” Bell says.
She was also determined to prove haters—and anyone who felt she wasn’t strong enough—wrong. “There was always someone like, ‘Okay, she’s going to give up now. Or this is going to be too hard or she’s going to come back home,’ and I didn’t want that,” she says.
The experience took its toll. As Bell explains, the wear and tear of the military, both physical and mental, wore her down. “I am 100% disabled,” says the 34-year-old, also choosing not to elaborate. Inserting herself back into civilian life starting in 2013 was also a challenge. She had to pick up where her former teenage self had left off. “I had to learn how to be an adult. Until that point, somebody always told me what to do, how to be, what to wear, even how I should feel,” she says.
Not to mention a lot had happened in that decade, the majority of which she didn’t have time to process. She had gotten married and divorced. She was also pregnant, then she lost her child. “When you get out, you don’t realize how abnormal it was and how you didn’t deal with a lot of things.”
Despite those hard days, Bell built an ironclad sisterhood with other women in the military and has no regrets. She’s proud of herself for making a living and being able to support her family.
Now, a few years later and on the heels of graduating from Hillsborough Community College in Brandon, Florida, she’s set to earn a degree in business development and entrepreneurship. And she’s already gotten a head start on running a business, thanks to her son.
After Bell returned home from Afghanistan, she asked her then 13-year-old son what he wanted for his birthday. His response? To have his own business. Specifically, he wanted to create and own a game truck. Bell thought he’d forget like any normal teenager. “I thought that if I gave him a couple of weeks, the idea would die off, but he was committed,” she says. Eventually, Stephon picked up yard work in the neighborhood, sold candy, and launched a GoFundMe to raise money for his startup.