Atlanta native Felicia Parks graduated from Chamblee High School in 1982 and signed up for the Army right away, delaying college to satisfy what she calls ‘a need to serve.’ After basic training in Fort Jackson, she worked as a microwave systems repairer (26V) in the Panama Canal.
“At 18 years old, I was in charge of an on-call team of four specialists. Having that amount of responsibility at such a young age forced me to grow up quickly,” she said.
Following four years of service, she went on to get her bachelor and master’s degrees, and to have a long, successful career as a government employee, first as a Supervisory Loan Specialist at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, and now as a Branch Chief at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), managing HUD-owned properties in Florida, Georgia and the Caribbean.
But in the back of her mind, Parks had always dreamed of owning a small business, and three years ago, her sons encouraged her to follow her dreams and put her ‘spare change’ to work. Her niece suggested opening a Jimmy John’s franchise.
“I did some research on Jimmy John’s, and I liked the numbers, the way they treated their franchisees, and the product,” she said.
She had no experience in the quick service restaurant business, and at first, the process was daunting.
“Opening a business on my own as a single woman was tough – the loans, the permits, the construction – I wasn’t sure how to negotiate, I had a lot of anxiety, but with support from my sons and Jimmy John’s, it slowly got easier,” she said, opening her East Point Jimmy John’s in July 2015.
Another passion of Parks was having the opportunity to help young people. As a mother of two boys, she was acutely aware of some of the traps young African-American men could fall into.
The youth unemployment rate in Atlanta is higher than the national average, and African Americans are particularly affected: 22 percent are out of work, according to a 2015 report by the Annie E Casey Foundation, twice the city’s overall unemployment rate of 13 percent.
Since opening her store, Parks has employed 75 people – her youngest manager is just 19: “I wanted to work with kids, give them a positive atmosphere, show them what they can do other thank basketball, football and rap, like owning your own business. The rewards I get working with them have gone beyond what I could have imagined.”
To that end, she is partnering with a Asa Hillard elementary school to incentivize good behavior. The program involves giving students a voucher for a free Jimmy John’s sandwich when they do something good. And Parks says she’s speaking with administrators at Therrell High, Banneker High and Bunch Middle School to establish programs that help students with job seeking and interview skills.