Women Working It: Dr. Adriane Johnson-Williams helps leaders understand what Memphis needs

["Women Working It" is an ongoing Q&A series hyping women entrepreneurs and business owners in Memphis.]

Dr. Adriane Johnson-Williams declared she would never “ever, ever, ever” come back to Memphis.

“I spent almost 25 years saying that I was never coming back,” said the South Memphis native who spent high school, college, and the early part of her career on the east coast and traveling abroad.

“When I told my mom I was coming back, she said, ‘Really? Are you really?’”

She got the idea to move away from her hometown from “The Facts of Life,” the 1980s sitcom about a group of young women attending a private boarding school. 

“I loved the idea that you could go away to school,” she said of her 10-year-old self's epiphany. “I really wanted to go and live with my friends, and study, and be away all the time.”

Johnson-Williams began researching schools and convinced her guidance counselor to help get her mom on board with the idea. She left Memphis at 14 years old to attend high school at Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia.

“It was life-changing. I got access to things that I would never have gotten access to. My sophomore year, my trip abroad was to the Soviet Union.”

Johnson-Williams' educational and professional careers would take her to Massachusetts, France, and Washington, D.C. before she made her way back to Memphis. She's since worked in the nonprofit, philanthropic, and higher education fields before setting out on her own. 

Johnson-Williams founded her Memphis-based management consulting firm, Standpoint Consulting, in 2019 and went full time in January 2020. The firm works in part to bridge gaps between decision makers and the people affected by those decisions.

"It's my experience that the people who are living challenges have some of the best perspectives and best ideas for how to solve those things."

Johnson-Williams talked to High Ground about why she decided to come back to the city and how her company is helping organizations understand that representation matters.
Dr. Adriane Johnson-Williams returned to Memphis and started a management consulting firm to bridge the gap between decision makers and the people affected by the decisions. (Submitted)The Road Home
After high school, Johnson-Williams' learning and traveling continued at Wellesley College in Massachusetts then Aix-Marseille University in France.

At George Washington University in Washington, D.C., she landed an internship with the Council of the Great City Schools and completed a graduate program in education policy studies. Her work focused on federal policy research and operational improvements for urban schools.

The work in education and social policy and brief teaching stints at Foxcroft and as a college professor led Johnson-Williams back home at a time when the education system in Memphis was undergoing significant transition as a result of the 2013 Shelby County and Memphis City school districts merger. The suburban communities of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland, and Millington founded their own school districts to avoid merging.

Johnson-Williams initially put her knowledge to use as a consultant advising organizations across the country on how to redevelop programs and policies that impact education for underserved children and young adults.

Eventually, she landed a job in Memphis as a founding staff person at the youth-focused nonprofit Seeding Success.

Johnson-Williams knew she wanted to launch a full-time consulting business, even as she transitioned to managing grantee partners at Pyramid Peak Foundation followed by a role in strategy and planning support for former LeMoyne-Owen College President Andrea Miller.

“About a year into the work at Lemoyne-Owen, I realized that really wasn't for me either. And so it was time. It was time for me to really do my own thing."

The Q&A
Why did you decide to come back to Memphis?
It was really one of those fork in the road moments. Do I go back to D.C. and get back into federal policy work in education or do I go home? Home was an option, in part, because there was all of this stuff around the school merger and the de-merger process going on at the time.

I thought, "I know a lot about this. I can go home and find a way to be useful in that space." And so the idea of going home really just settled well.

Did you start Standpoint Consulting as soon as you got back or did it take some time?
No, it took time. Oddly enough, I did do consulting when I first moved home because I didn't know anybody. I had no relationships here outside of my family, and my family isn't really integrated into the world that I ultimately became a part of. I had to build my own network.

Part of your work is bridging the gap between the people who make the decisions and the people they serve.
That’s part of our company ethos in that if you are a person in power and you're in an organization where you're making decisions that have impact on other people's lives, you really need to think about how you make those decisions in the context of those people's lives.

Whenever we're in a room with people who are struggling to solve problems, we have to raise questions like, "Have you talked to the people who are experiencing these issues? How do you know what they think a good solution would be? Is there any way we could pull together a group to help inform you?"

Do you think the lack of representation is an issue in Memphis?
I think it's a problem everywhere. But I think in Memphis there is a really significant challenge of what our governing boards look like in the nonprofit sector and in the for profit sector.

Frankly, I know that in corporations boards really struggle with any sort of diversity at all, let alone the voices of employees. Nonprofit boards are largely white and male still in the Memphis area, in a city that is majority Black and where Black women are the plurality. Black women are the largest subgroup in the city, and we're not significantly serving on the most well-resourced of the boards for the most well-resourced organizations.
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Read more articles by Brandi Hunter.

Brandi is a freelance journalist, brand writer and tech strategist based in Memphis, TN.