Leslie Josel describes 2002 as her “year of horribles.” Within 12 months, her husband lost his job at a law firm, her father died of heart disease, she had a double mastectomy, and her four-year-old son began exhibiting symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “It was enough to put anyone in the fetal position,” says Josel, now 48. “But when you have a child who needs a lunch made or a permission slip signed, you just get up.”
Two weeks after having her breasts removed, Josel returned to her longtime job as director of a nonprofit in Mamaroneck, New York. Four months later, the organization folded, and she had to find a way to make money when her severance pay ran out. “I love those stories where unemployed women create some luxury product missing from the market,” Josel says. “But for me, work was a ‘have to.’ I hadto find a way to help support my family. There were health issues I hadto deal with. And I had to take care of my son. I needed to figure out a life plan that would allow me to juggle everything I needed to juggle and still make money.”
Since childhood, Josel had used organizing skills as a way to deal with hardship. “My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was four years old,” Josel says. “She was seriously ill for 12 years and died when I was 16. My mother would be in the hospital for three weeks and out for two, then in for a month and out for two. When you live a childhood of not knowing if your mother is going to be in the house or the hospital, or dead or alive, you look for some type of control or order. So lists and systems spoke to me.”
To help her son negotiate his environment, Josel reorganized his room, taking the doors off his closet so he could see everything inside. She replaced his dresser with clear bins and coded everything in the house that belonged to him with the color blue. “I wanted him to have a sense of order,” she says. “I wanted to take the stress out of life for him.” His behavior and academic performance improved dramatically. One day a friend who is a therapist came over to visit. She looked around Josel’s put-together home and said, “I have a client you have to do this for.”
Josel reorganized that home without charge as a favor to her therapist friend; as she did it, she felt a connection with the client, whose kids both had ADHD. “It was organizing, but there was also something very meaningful to the work,” Josel says. Within weeks she received two more requests for help from people with attention disorders. “I turned to my husband and said, ‘I don’t even do this for a living,’ ” she recalls. “He said, ‘You do now!’ ”
Still, Josel hesitated to start her own business. The family needed health insurance, since her husband was now in a solo practice with no benefits. And she didn’t feel comfortable charging for her services without an education in the field. So while she continued interviewing for jobs at nonprofits, she apprenticed herself to experienced, licensed organizers and took classes with two professional groups: the National Association of Professional Organizers and the Institute for Challenging Disorganization.
In 2004 she officially launched her business, Order out of Chaos (orderoochaos.com). “It’s been a very personal mission for me,” she says. “Everyone always talks about business plans and strategies. How about, ‘We make it up as we go along.’ ” Today, Josel has two full-time employees, three contract workers and her first product: a student planner, which can be purchased on her website. She charges $95 to $150 an hour. TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alivehired her to be the expert on an episode, and she has appeared on the Cooking Channel’s Stuffed: Food Hoarders. At home, her son, now a teenager, still uses systems and tools that Josel develops for him; he also fences, plays guitar and earns good grades. Josel’s husband is again working at a law firm. “People always want to know my secret,” Josel says. “I tell them, Fear! It is an incredible motivator.”