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Creativity and Authenticity, with Jess Williams

Creativity and Authenticity, with Jess Williams

Episode 17: Creativity and Authenticity, with Jess Williams

Jess Williams is the Founder of Communal Creative, but many will know her from her work at Birchbox and Thrillist where she lead the creative design and brand. Jess helps brands define who they are and create magical moments with their clients. In this episode, Jess shares her career journey, her best advice for someone who is thinking through the next steps in their career, and the importance of relationships and authenticity for success.

Episode Transcript

00:00 Rachel Griesinger: Welcome to the Ellevate Podcast: Conversations With Women Changing the Face of Business. And now your host, Kristy Wallace.


00:12 Kristy Wallace: Hi, everyone, and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. We're so excited to have you joining us for another episode, and thank you once again for your support. We really, really love hearing your feedback. We love receiving your likes and your shares and your reviews, so keep it up 'cause it means the world to us and it means the world to the success of the podcast. That's what keeps us going. I'm Kristy Wallace, I'm the president of Ellevate Network, and I am here with Maricella Herrera, who is Ellevate's Director of Membership. She is fantastic, if you haven't met her. And I'm excited that she is joining me on the podcast. So, welcome.

00:57 Maricella Herrera: Hi, Kristy. Thanks. It's great to be here in the podcast, and we're really happy about the response we've gotten. So, as you said before, keep sharing your feedback and likes. And if you have any suggestions for speakers, topics, etcetera, send them via Twitter or through social media to us.

01:14 KW: Oh, I like that, yes. Any speaker suggestions, topics, what do you wanna hear? Let us know. So, Maricella, you are looking quite relaxed right now.

01:24 MH: Yeah, I just came back from a very long awaited vacation in Puerto Rico, which was awesome, because all I did was lay on the beach and get really sunburnt, which wasn't great. But other than that [chuckle] it was awesome.

01:37 KW: Skincare? You know that the skin is the largest organ in your body.

01:43 MH: I know. Actually, the funny part is I got really sunburnt because I was using this new product my dermatologist gave me, and she did not say that it gave your skin sun sensitivity. I was red, like a lobster.

01:57 KW: Well, you look good now.

02:00 MH: Thanks.

02:00 KW: And you look very well-rested. But we're happy to have you back. And thanks for joining me today to talk about today's podcast, which is with Jess Williams.

02:08 MH: I love her. She's awesome.

02:10 KW: I know. I know. Jess did an event with Ellevate in New York City a few months ago; Founder Stories. And where we were interviewing founders and... Right? Was that the event?

02:21 MH: Yep.

02:22 KW: And she just had so much to share, and she's a great soul. And so, Jess is the founder and creative director at Communal Creative. But many will probably know her from her early days at Birchbox and Thrillist, where she really led the design and the brand around those two companies. So, she is just... She's amazing.

02:45 MH: She's amazing. When we first met through a person in common, who... There you go again, the power of networking.

02:49 KW: Michael Smith?

02:51 MH: Michael Smith.

02:51 KW: Through Michael Smith? And we're gonna give a shout out to Michael Smith at Ellevest. He's our big champion in the office, and he's great.

02:56 MH: He really is. So, he introduced us. And Jess and I had this long conversation about the importance of creativity in the workplace, which is kind of how then I was all over her being a speaker [03:07] ____ our podcast and wherever we can get her. She's great.

03:11 KW: So, I know, before we get to the podcast, we wanna share some of our data. We poll our members every single week around topics relevant to women in the workplace, current events, work-life balance. And we use this as an opportunity to really give our audience a voice, to understand what they're thinking, how they feel about certain topics. And then Ellevate that voice into a broader space. So, we're excited to share with you these stats every week. And this week, what are we talking about Maricella?

03:40 MH: So, from your conversation with Jess, one thing that really shone or was very important, in what you guys were talking about was authenticity, and how that's really important both for brands and for business. For your brand, in a personal brand setting, which is interesting, because we had asked our members what they thought is the most important element for developing their personal brand. And their number one answer was framing yourself as a thought leader. The interesting part is we also asked them, "What is the most important thing to frame yourself as a thought leader?" The answer was authenticity. So, it comes full circle in that way, how important it is. And in another poll, we did ask them if they could be their authentic self at work. 33%, so a third, said yes, most of the time. 31% percent said, "I have to make a few tweaks here and there." And almost a quarter of them, so 24% said they have to fit a certain persona at work. Only 10% of the people said that they could be 100% themselves always, which I mean I guess it makes sense.

04:50 KW: Well, what category would you fall into?

04:54 MH: I don't know. I'm pretty much myself here. [chuckle]

04:56 KW: I was like, we put it all on the table. If anyone wants to hang out with us, you'll see. [chuckle] It's non-stop fun and action here. But, well, thanks for sharing that data and thanks again to all of you for joining us today. Here's my interview with Jess.


05:24 KW: Welcome. Happy to have you here.

05:25 Jess Williams: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

05:30 KW: Let's start off with a little bit about you. What's your story?

05:31 JW: Absolutely. So, I am a Midwest born and raised...

05:34 KW: Where in the Midwest?

05:35 JW: I am from Ohio, and I went to school in Wisconsin. And I always had the dream of living in New York. And so, after graduating college, moved here with my boyfriend, now husband, and kind of... We moved here without a job actually. And hit the pavement looking for kind of a niche spot for me in the design world. I got a fine art degree with a design concentration, and was really looking to kind of live the New York dream in the design industry. And so I joined an architecture firm as my first spot and really helped kinda bring their materials and all of their conversation topics to life visually. And I was in a very corporate setting and got the startup itch. And saw people in my life kind of really enjoy the startup land. And was lucky enough to join Thrillist pretty early on, about seven years ago. And I joined the team as the first creative team member and they were about 40 or 50 people at the time. And it was an amazing ride to be able to really bring their media to life in a visual way that they hadn't been able to do without a resource ahead of that. I was able to build a creative team, really sink my teeth in to the experience of the media world and was there during the JackThreads acquisition as well which is the physical e-commerce part of the business. So got my first taste into physical and digital branding and was hooked.

07:02 KW: Oh my gosh.

07:03 JW: It was an amazing time to kind of witness those worlds merging and I knew I wanted to be part of a similar experience in earlier stages which lead me to Birchbox.

07:14 KW: Wow, so there's... There's a lot there.

07:17 JW: It's a lot there.

07:18 KW: And you talk about a fine arts degree and I know in your career that that's been applied in many different ways. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

07:26 JW: Absolutely. I actually started as a journalism major. I loved the idea of just storytelling and I began with the written word of storytelling and learned to love the visual side more and soon transitioned to the art based background with a design concentration, really with the focus of telling those narrative stories with the visual language. And so for me, the design aspect has really been that storytelling. I was lucky enough to take lots of art classes, and painting, and drawing, and really rounding out the skillset, but the focus has always been how to pinpoint the uniqueness of a moment and then tell that story visually through design.

08:06 KW: And you see something you recognize that it's aesthetically beautiful and it's impactful and maybe if something visually doesn't work, that's when it sort of rings bells in your head and you're like, "Oh, what's that?" But when it works really well, it's almost just this seamless experience, but I feel like it's not always appreciated for how complex it can be.

08:25 JW: Absolutely. We call those, those magical moments where it kind of all comes together with that spark and brings that delight. And it's not as easy, I think, always to weave all the components together, but it's part of what's the constant drive, and challenge, and passion, is to find that "aha" moment in the experience.

08:44 KW: So I know you had spoken at an Ellevate event back a few months ago and it was fantastic. Thank you.

08:50 JW: Well, thank you for having me.

08:51 KW: And you talked, at that event, a little bit about the story around Birchbox and the coming to being of the box. Could you share that?

09:01 JW: Absolutely. So I was fortunate enough to... A friend of a friend who shared a link very early on when two women in business school were looking for beta members to give them a little bit of... To test the products, which was now Birchbox, and I was one of the people who clicked the link and gave them $10 to try this experience while they were in school. And was fortunate enough to then kind of follow their journey and once they launched a few months later, kept an eye on them, loved the business model in terms of this idea of bringing delight every month to a customer, as well as closing the loop in terms of adding value and product throughout their beauty and wellness and lifestyle experience. And for me, the... Beauty is such an interesting world, but it was really the passion around the in-home, that box unveiling, that consistent messaging and moment to connect with a customer that really was what was so engaging for me. And so the box was this special moment that people were excited about and customers anticipated and had so much feedback around and loved so much and to be part of that delight in their everyday, kind of on their doorstep on a Tuesday, was such a lovely, very prideful experience in terms of people inviting you into their home in something that you really spend a lot time creating. And the box is just a magical moment. And a composition of all of those things.

10:32 KW: Sure. So I have to ask, clearly you've worked for some cool companies so far, and we're gonna talk about where you are now 'cause that's really very exciting as well. But your journey, starting school, journalism, going to fine arts, and then working for some great companies and doing some really cool things. Any tips or advice for our listeners that might be figuring out their career path or their next step?

10:58 JW: Yes. It's a simple piece of advice that I think I've always lived by and people have told me constantly and is kinda the scariest piece of advice to follow, which is kinda trusting your gut and knowing when a moment feels right to leave, or when a moment feels right to stay, or when a moment feels right to push. And knowing that the values that... And skillsets that you have, whether it's creative or not, can really be a powerful moment in different unique experiences. And so I think the gut is something that's never really failed, but is the scariest thing to listen to.

11:32 KW: It is. It is. Change is hard. So I was recently at the launch of the Ellevate Chapter in Twin Cities and this woman spoke and she was great. And she said something that really resonated with me that, "Change is hard 'cause you view it as an ending, but the next step's always a new beginning." And so it's so important to think of it in that positive note that it's leading to the next phase, the next step, something else for you to kind of grow with and learn from.

12:00 JW: It's scary and it's sometimes you don't know what's on the other side and you don't know if it's gonna be fully baked. And I think something that's really helped me and something I love about the Ellevate Network, in general, is this idea of having people support you and knowing that if you try something and your gut was right but the moment was wrong, is something. And having people really support you in that kind of journey. And your successes and failures in something both professionally and personally, having those support systems has helped.

12:31 KW: So I know you recently started a company, Communal Creative, is that correct?

12:35 JW: Mm-hmm.

12:36 KW: Tell me a little bit about it, I'm excited to hear.

12:38 JW: Absolutely. It is born from the idea of bringing design greatness and branding innovation to the start up world. So really focusing on early stage and mid stage companies in helping bringing their vision and creativity and brand experience to life. Ranges from branding and visual identities includes like logo, color palette, typography, the really cornerstone and the framework foundational elements to build a brand and the personality behind an experience all the way through to the actual, tangible moments. From boxes to print collateral to unveiling moments that show products in new ways, to online digital experiences and unique product movements and interactions.

13:25 KW: What is that brand process? When you have a new client, what are some of the key questions you ask them? 'Cause I know as working with Ellevate and we went through a rebranding from 85 Broads a few years ago and it was really hard. It's hard to... You have to dig deep to really think about how do you wanna present your brand? What are the core tenants of it? What's your process look like?

13:46 JW: Yeah, we really focus on a holistic approach. Part of our offering is the idea of the customer and brand connection. And so never losing that kind of viewpoint in terms of who the customer is, who the brand wants to be in terms of the team and the founders behind it and what we... Kind of start the process with the idea of setting the groundwork and the foundation. So it's simply sometimes a Google Doc and other times it's more of a large form mood board and really kind of setting the tone both in words and in visuals for the strategy behind the brand. And so that helps really identify the audience, identify the key backbone principles for the brand that really set that foundation for the experience that we'll then roll into. So, kicking off with kind of classic questions as simple as, who do you want to be in five years as a brand? To, who are you speaking to? What is the story behind the product that you're launching? Really kind of coming up with those threads that are really unique differentiators and special to the customers they're speaking to.

14:48 JW: And then in tandem thinking about the customer they want to market to and where else is that customer living? What are they consuming? Where are they walking? What are they looking at? And making sure that it both fits into their life, but really is a star in that landscape and a spotlight in that kind of world that they live in. And so then our challenge is to take all of that information and really come up with solutions that marry all of those pieces together. And so then we roll into all of those creative elements from logos to the color palette and the mood and the visual and the art direction around every experience from if there is a box, an unveiling direct to consumer moment, to an online interactive experience.

15:34 KW: So working with a brand on that level has gotta be very emotional. I mean you really have to be tied to those relationships and finding the right relationships as a business owner and leader, of knowing who your ideal customer is and how you can best help them.

15:50 JW: Part of the challenge is not just the product fit for Communal, it's also the partners and the people behind it because we are going to become just as passionate as they are about their product. And it's something that we want to live and breathe it as they do and we are just as invested and want to create greatness with them. And so finding the relationship, both in terms of the partner and studio kind of connection, to also making sure that we know who their customer is and they feel confident in our abilities to translate visions into realities. And it's a fine balance and it's something that our offering really is about the personal relationships. We are in offices all the time. We connect in person. We are a team that believes in realities that are created together in collaboration. And we obviously have a lot of behind-the-scenes work from estimates and figuring out the best formats for items, but we also love a loose brainstorm that really brings in the marketing expert from their team and an engineer and how to bring all those great minds that care passionately about the product and their unique perspective and funneling it through the creative experience.

17:07 KW: So tell me how it is as a business owner. Right? I mean it's a lot of work.

17:13 JW: Coming from an in-house background, I've always had the support of the founders and the core team to really come up and help provide that vision and help support that. And now, on the other side of being part of that vision and thinking about the five-year plan on our side and knowing, for Communal, what we wanna be is something that keeps me driving and moving and really passionate, but it is an interesting... It's a new place to be in terms of the doing everything is in a whole different level. [chuckle] And...

17:44 KW: Yeah. Find out what you're not good at and outsource.

17:50 JW: So I think the biggest success for me, I know we talked earlier about the idea of that support system, I have an amazing partner who she is a brilliant creative thinker and is someone who supports in so many ways. As well as the team itself is such an amazing group of talented, creative women who believe in Communal, but also believe in the brands that we work with. And then of course the personal side, where you have your friends and your family who ask, and support, and want to help. Whether it's my parents are in the accounting world, they helped work through how to do books. Or my husband's in the engineering world, helping how to create a really robust website.

18:30 JW: And so really connecting with the people in your life who are willing to help you and then the people in your professional life, surrounding yourself and creating a team that drives you and motivates you, and wants to both laugh and talk about books, but also disagrees in a whiteboard and comes up with the best solution with all the great minds around. And so I think for me, it's a new kind of landmark in terms of experience in the professional world. And even though, there are really hard days of figuring out how to do payroll [chuckle] or whatever the pieces are, not just the creative, in the art board scenarios. Those low moments are still the most exciting moments because you're learning. Or, at least I'm learning, the team's learning, I'm growing and I know that it'll just make me better tomorrow.

19:23 KW: Was it scary going out on your own?

19:26 JW: It was a very bizarre moment when I realized how easy it was to go from having an idea to doing it, in terms of the timing. It wasn't easy in terms of mental energy or emotional energy, but the idea of all the check marks that you have to do to kind of start. Cause in the design world, what's nice is that you can do this in coffee shops. You can kind of have those meetings and connections with people at very informal settings and then if you have the tools that you need, whether it's your laptop or a Pantone swatch book, you can really get a lot completed. And so lucky enough to be able to kick off something with those foundational elements in terms of design experiences. And it was a surprise to me how quickly that was able to happen and then, the most kind of positive experience when we first launched was all of the support from the professional people and networks that we've worked with and all the emails that we sent when we launched that said, "We're Communal, we'd love to work with you. Not sure if you need design services or branding, but we'd love to just have a coffee and talk." And the percentage and outreach of support was... I think if you just put yourself out there and tell people what you're doing and doing it in a genuine way, and they know you're not being salesy, they know you're not doing something that you don't believe in and that also helped really catapult us in a very quick way.

20:55 KW: Clearly you're a big networker, a very good networker. Because it's great to hear that you had so much support at the onset.

21:02 JW: Yeah, it really just makes you sit up straighter, knowing that there are people behind you who will answer your emails and help support you and connect you to the person next in their line that they think would be a connection and help for you. I think something that... We have a team have had a lot of conversations around the trend around authenticity and the genuine quality. I think the word authentic is kind of thrown around sometimes in a way that might feel [chuckle] inauthentic. And I think for us, it's been really focusing on that and knowing how we add value and connecting with people that we know we can add the most value to, in a way that is genuine and in a way that our eyes will sparkle about their vision as much as theirs will because we're excited to come up with a new form for a box or a new site design or an amazing identity and logo. It's exciting to know that the network and connections out there allow you to do that.

21:55 KW: This is a personal question, from me, this is one quick question. How do you go from business mind to creative mind? What is your process? 'Cause I find myself, I'll sit there and look at my day and say, "Okay, I need to do our monthly financials and write an article." [chuckle] And it's hard to switch from one to the other.

22:14 JW: Absolutely, it is. I think for me, the years in startup worlds, I've gotten used to a to-do list that isn't connected to each other and knowing that the things on the list are all for the same goal, but in very different buckets of my mind. And so jumping around is something I've kind of grown accustomed to in growing these businesses very early on from the creative side at Thrillist and Birchbox, and multitasking, but doing it in a way that feels real and is doable is an important way to find a rhythm. And to be honest, I don't have a secret sauce to it. I'm a huge fan of Post-Its, and as archaic as they may seem it does help to get the therapeutic cross the list. Cross it off or even as we do at Communal, we like to crumple Post-Its. It's very satisfying.

23:07 KW: Yes, oh, I can... Yes, that sounds satisfying. [chuckle]

23:10 JW: It is. And it's something that you just kind of go into the day, at an early stage company, with goals to hit for the day, knowing that they're going to change. And being flexible and knowing that maybe that night is crack open a bottle of wine and finish the things you thought you were gonna do in the morning and finish them later that night. Or you just re-prioritize because the business demanded it.

23:34 KW: And we tried to here. We do a stand up in the morning, quick meeting of the team, "What are you doing today?" And it's very much... When we first started, everyone was like, "Here's everything on my to-do list." Which is just not attainable. Right? You're setting yourself up for failure, if you think you're gonna accomplish all these things. And so, it was really about what, realistically, can you get behind today? And it may be one thing and that's okay, that's not a bad... It could be a very impactful one thing, but what are the... What are you setting out to do? And then, you have that accomplishment that you've gotten it done, you crumple up that Post-It.

24:05 JW: [chuckle] Yes.

24:06 KW: And then, yeah, if you have to kick it off with a bottle of wine at the end of the night there's nothing wrong with that.

24:11 JW: You wrap it up, yeah, I think we...

24:12 KW: Big fans of wine here. [chuckle]

24:14 JW: Yes. The sound advice similarly was choose two things and have your long list of secondary things. But the two things that if you finish them that day, you'll feel like you moved forward. And so I think that focus has always helped as well.


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