Fans and foodies flocked to Waco, TX, for the opening of Chip Gaines and Joanna Gaines‘ new restaurant, Magnolia Table, on Feb. 26, and Joanna couldn’t be prouder. “When we started planning for the restaurant we were passionate about using locally grown produce,” she said. And inside the café, emblazoned on one wall, she’s stenciled the restaurant’s tagline that’s especially close to her heart — “Where everyone has a seat at the table.”

Joanna, 39 — who with her husband, Chip, 43, stars in HGTV’s hit renovation show Fixer Upper and runs a growing lifestyle empire — says she wasn’t always so sure of herself or her ability to succeed. “I don’t think confidence ever came naturally for me. It was really just the way I masked my insecurity,” she says. “I didn’t want people to get to know the real me.” Joanna, who’s expecting her fifth child this summer, says she was bullied in school and often felt alone with no one to sit with at lunch.

“I’d rather sit in the [bathroom] stall than get rejected,” she recalls. As she grew up and found her purpose, however, she also found her strength. Now those early experiences drive how she pursues her business. “I discovered my purpose was to help people who are insecure,” she says. “I would be able to help women who weren’t confident, who were looking for guidance or were lonely.”

Still, it took a while for her to find her path. The daughter of a Caucasian dad and a Korean mom, Joanna says, “Kids in kindergarten would make fun of me for being Asian. The way you take that is, ‘Who I am isn’t good enough.'” That feeling followed her through high school, and it wasn’t until she moved to New York during her last semester in college that, she says, “for six months I wrestled with my identity.” She came to the realization that no matter how insecure she felt, “that’s not who I am,” she says.

“And I knew from that place of pain there was going to be a place to reach others because I had felt that pain myself,” she adds. With her newfound self-knowledge spurring her forward, Joanna met Chip, and they married in 2003 and started their home renovation business. “I love what I do and I love that I get to create beauty,” she says. “I don’t want to hide that gift from the rest of the world. When you can use your strength to make other people confident, that’s when you start seeing growth.”

Her own growth, of course, can be seen in their booming business, which now includes a line of textiles and home products for Target, a magazine (Magnolia Journal), and soon a cookbook to go with the new restaurant. As she’s gained confidence, Joanna now “looks for the lonely, the sad, because that’s not where they’re supposed to stay,” she explains. It’s a lesson she’s also teaching her children, Drake, 12, Ella, 11, Duke, 9, and Emmie, 7, and will pass on to their new arrival.

“I always tell my kids to look for that kid on the playground who’s not playing with anybody,” she says, “to ask them their name, to look for the kid in the lunchroom who isn’t sitting by anybody. Be their friend.” After all, she credits her own “pain, and confusion, and loneliness” with helping her grow. “That gives me a heart for what it is I do now,” she says, which includes making sure everyone has a seat at the table. “We must know the importance and the value of who we are.”

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