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Claudia Contreras

At 23, Claudia Contreras has not only built a successful business from the ground up, she’s already secured major clients, like the Pikes Peak Center and The Broadmoor World Arena. 

In a conversation with the Business Journal, the entrepreneur reflects on her past — and her time in psychiatric facilities, youth detention centers and prison. “I thought I would always be there,” says Contreras. “I didn’t have the life skills. I didn’t know how to cook. I didn’t know how to budget. I didn’t know how to keep a job. I didn’t really know anything besides being in there and repeating the same toxic behaviors.” Today, her cleaning company employs several women.

Contreras’ story can’t be reduced to a platitude. (“You can do anything you set your mind to.” “With hard work, anything is possible.”) Because the truth is that, again and again, she found strength during impossible times — first, as a child in a toxic household; then, as a teenager struggling with addiction, sexual abuse and depression; and later, as a young woman with a criminal record, in a world quick to reject her.

“Not everyone’s going to be understanding, and not everyone’s going to like me or what I do or what I have to say,” says Contreras, “but I’m at a point my life where I’m not here for me ... I’m just hoping that I can save someone else’s life out there.” 

Tell us about your childhood.

My first charge was for assault when I was 13 years old. I had too much to drink. I was surrounding myself with the wrong people. I assaulted a girl, got arrested the next day and was on probation. Once I got the taste of what it was like to be in juvie, it felt a lot safer to be in there than out here. I never liked to be home just because of a lot of abuse I dealt with emotionally, mentally and physically.

My parents were drug dealers. And there was a lot of abuse coming from my father, and my mom did go through a lot. ... I guess you can say life raised me — my parents didn’t really, since they weren’t really around or home due to, you know, trying their best to provide for us [through drug dealing]. I was sexually molested [by an extended family member], bullied at school, and so it was just like one thing after another.

I just thought that the streets were like my family. The people that I met were my family, and in that moment, I didn’t recognize that you are what you attract. And one thing led to another. I started using — cocaine, marijuana, [alcohol], meth.

We moved to Colorado in 2015. And then, same thing. Met some people, just started getting myself into trouble again. I went into a psych ward. I was over-medicated. They diagnosed me with all kinds of things. It was the craziest high I’ve ever felt, and [once they took the pills away], I just did whatever I could to feel that high again. But after that, things escalated really badly. I was in and out of psych wards.

In July of 2015, I tried my first attempt at suicide, and I was on life support. After that, I just tried to kill myself over and over and over. It got to the point where people were just like, ‘You know what, whatever, leave her alone, she’s only doing it for attention.’ I just felt so lost and alone. And people didn’t realize, it’s not that I was trying to do it for attention. I was trying to kill whatever was inside of me that I was battling with. I was my worst enemy. I just hated myself. I just didn’t understand why I was here. What was my purpose? Why am I alive? 

How did Colorado Cleansing LLC come about?

I [reoffended] and then that’s when it finally hit me, seeing all these older people in there. I was just like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ That’s when I knew I needed to do something with myself, that I’m the problem. ... And so I got out — and at first it was tough, you know, because nobody wants to talk about shame and the guilt. Healing’s an ugly journey. And I knew this time things were going to be a lot tougher because of my three felonies.

I got tired of working fast food restaurants, especially with living costs and everything going up. I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m gonna make it out here,’ and I had the choice either to make it or go back home with my family, and I did not want to go back to what broke me in the first place.

And so, I was just kind of curious about how you start a business. I got on Google, and I was like, ‘How do you start a business?’ I decided that maybe I should start cleaning houses. ... I [had been] working at a temp agency, helping at Servpro. ... They saw my work ethic, and they saw that I was bringing people in at that time  — that’s when they were having a lot of fires in Colorado, so they were very short-handed. They asked me if I wanted to start my business, and that they would subcontract me, so I was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ ... That lasted two months ... but from there, it was very tough. I had to start from the bottom. I just started posting on Facebook: $25 an hour, let me clean your house. And thankfully, people were giving me the chance to go in and clean their houses. And to me, the fact that these people trusted me inside their homes is kind of what kept me going. ...

Now I teach the women that work for me how to budget, how to create a personal relationship with their food, like if they’re low on serotonin, or [struggling with] anxiety. I also teach them how to create [better] relationships with themselves and their purpose, and help them transition to where they want to get to.

Your company offers eviction, construction and residential cleaning services. How do you find clients?

Where I’m at now is, I don’t go out looking for the clients — they actually find me. Our clients are very impressed and happy with our work, and it’s a win-win. I don’t overcharge nor do I undercharge. I want it to be reasonable. ... I explain to them what I do and what my goal is. A lot of these women were being paid really low and working seven days a week, and some of them didn’t have time for their kids. They would explain to me, ‘My parents didn’t have time for me, and I kind of started wandering off and doing whatever I wanted, and I don’t want that to happen to my kids.’ And so my goal is to make sure that they have weekends off, unless it’s worth the money, then I’ll ask them if they want to join. If they don’t, they’re not obligated to work. I just try to make it very lenient.

What motivates you? Who do you look up to?

I would say my parents, in spite of everything they’ve done. It took a lot of courage for them to come from Mexico to here and not speak any English. And they did the best they could. And my father — even though we don’t have the greatest relationship right now, I just feel bad for him, because I know it’s his inner child that he hasn’t worked on, and he went through a lot as a kid. ...

When I started my business, I realized I had some habits that I picked up from my parents. And so, I’m trying to unlearn them. I try to be very open-minded, patient, loving, more respectful. ... I asked myself, ‘Who do I want to be now?’ I want to be an elegant woman. What is an elegant woman? She dresses well. She respects herself. She volunteers her time. She’s kind. She’s smart. That’s the type of person that I’m trying to become now.