Women Working It: Ashlei Williams talks hustle, PR, and why she chose Memphis

["Women Working It" is an ongoing Q&A series hyping women entrepreneurs and business owners in Memphis.]
"What I didn't realize is the hustle and grind of Memphians. So many people have side hustles. You feel like you have no excuse, because whether people are teachers or doctors, they sell something in the hair salon on Saturdays or they are notaries or something on the side. So many people here have multiple jobs. And I think it also drove me."
— Ashlei Williams, founder & president, GJC Publicity

GJC Publicity founder Ashlei Williams has a life story familiar to many millennial Memphians — moving away for school, landing jobs in major metros, then bringing their talents back to Memphis with plenty of connections and business ideas in tow.

Williams’ Memphis-based firm helps clients with digital marketing, personal and corporate branding and communications, social media management, media relations, and copywriting.

Williams is a Ridgeway High School graduate who grew up in East Memphis and spent her childhood and teenage years involved in Jack and Jill of America, Inc., the NAACP, Modern Distinctive Ladies, and church choir.

“I was all over. Ripping and running the city,” she said.

Those activities and visits with extended family also took Williams to cities like San Diego, Washington D.C., and New York during summer vacations. But her family and social excursions did not mirror the honor student’s school experience. 

“My hobbies and things allowed me to be around Black people, but at school I was around white people. I was a minority in a majority population most of my school days. I knew for college I wanted to go to an HBCU and I wanted to leave Memphis.”

Away and Back
Williams graduated in 2010 from Spelman College in Atlanta with an English degree and moved to Chicago, where she earned a master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern University in 2012. 

The young journalist spent a few years as a social media coordinator, assistant editor, and editorial director before deciding to transition into public relations. 

“I was kind of getting disenchanted with journalism. This is 2012 to 2015 where everybody is like, 'Print is dying.' There was just a huge shift on top of coming out of the recession, and I'm not making any money," she said. "My creative side felt like I wanted more."

She started getting freelance PR offers and believed the projects were her sign to keep working independently. She launched her marketing and communications company in 2016.

"I just kept getting the freelance gigs and would turn those into clients, and I also took on part-time jobs to keep myself afloat,” said Williams. 

A year and a half later, Williams said the signs once again aligned. This time they pointed South to Memphis.

"This is around 2017. And that big New York Times piece has come out on Old Dominick [Distillery], and there's a lot of lists out about the city being good for entrepreneurs and small business owners, and then paired with that, a lot of my high school friends are moving back," she said.

By the end of the year, she was home and looking to grow her business on familiar ground. She now leads the company full time and works with a team of contract web designers, photographers, and other professionals. 

Williams sat down with High Ground to talk about her experiences scaling GJC Publicity in Memphis, hustling in a city full of hustlers, and being the employer she wishes she’d had.

The Q & A:
How was the move back to Memphis?
I lived with my parents. I knew the cost of living was going to be quite easier on me and the cost of growing a business. What I didn't realize is the hustle and grind of Memphians. So many people have side hustles. You feel like you have no excuse, because whether people are teachers or doctors, they sell something in the hair salon on Saturdays or they are notaries or something on the side. So many people here have multiple jobs. And I think it also drove me.

I did move out of my parents eventually, and I rented a cute house in the University District. And I say all that to people when I'm talking about being an entrepreneur in Memphis, because the cost of living, especially when you come from a major metropolitan market, it just makes so much of a difference. The things you don't have to stress about.

What does GJC stand for?
I'm very women-centric and women-forward. The G is for Gladys, which is my paternal grandmother. J is for Jacqueline, which is my maternal grandmother, and the C is for Cheryl, which is my mom.

When I decided to formally start my company, I was like, just straight up, it has to do something with women. I love my dad, but fight the patriarchy. It's basically an homage to women who affected me in my life.

Every business owner we’ve talked to for this series has been significantly impacted by the pandemic in some way. What changes did you see?
Towards the beginning, the first few months, we did have clients scale back on services just trying to save money in preparation. But the summer of 2020 was the busiest we've been to date. We had a huge surge in personal branding projects and social media projects and website projects. And there's a lot of research coming out just now about why certain marketing trends happened. A lot of people had a lot of time to sit with themselves, and a lot of little personal projects they didn't take seriously or didn't have time to do became important to people.

I think 2020 was the final seller to every client that we as digital marketers have been trying to pitch for the last decade — now they understand social media and websites and email are literally where you need to be.

Any other impacts to your business?
I really wanted to focus on my culture, building a team in 2020. I really had to figure out what does that look like. Also, I have all Black sub-contractors. When the social justice of that summer started and then things just kept recurring over the year, that allowed me to lean into that part of my team. I really had to figure out appropriate HR approaches and appropriate things to do. A lot of open-ended discussions, pulse checks, things that I felt like I needed at the time, I started doing for them.

It sounds like the well-being of your employees is important to you. 
Because we are in a creative world, mood and inspiration really determine our products and our output. I wanted to make sure I was leaving space for them to do that in terms of deadlines and timelines.

We did lean into virtual celebrations. I didn't want to overdo it because I am one of those people who is very millennial-minded and does not believe in meeting to death. Because I was in a full-time capacity, I was having to think as an employee, too. And I knew what it felt like to be an employee. That allowed me to look at how I wanted to be as an employer, and I’m grateful for that.

[Disclaimer: Ashlei Williams was a freelance writer for High Ground News from September 2018 to October 2020 and may write for High Ground again in the future.]
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Read more articles by Brandi Hunter.

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