Ashley Gaffney is a brand design and marketing professional in Denver who works with small businesses on branded materials and engaged couples on papergoods and invitation suites, along with other elements of design for weddings.
Liz: Can you tell us a bit about your background? What was growing up like for you?
Ashley: It was a grand childhood—I often think about that now as an adult. Looking back, I loved school, extracurricular activities, always had a good experience, and was a social butterfly, so it all formed fun memories. My mom was a single parent who held her own, raised us right, and taught me how to cook among many other things, so, despite the everyday absence of my father, I always had a "can do" mentality based on her example.
Liz: Your mom sounds lovely. What was your transition into adulthood like?
Ashley: It was a bit tougher! I think because I had this "beautiful" bubble that surrounded me, I thought adulthood would be similar in every way. I would have the same friends, make oodles of money at my corporate job, and be content! I think my biggest wake up call was when my student loans kicked in...man, oh, man. And then I realized corporate was not my thing, and then I realized even further...this life was my own.
Liz: Yes, oodles of money and contentment are two tricky things to obtain, especially at the same time!
Ashley: (laughs) Yes, and with that "can do" mentality, I thought I could have them at the same time, overnight! I never realized how much I looked to my mom to approve and validate the decisions I made. So, being an entrepreneur was the first time I felt "adult." Adulthood for me became about choice. Choosing who I connected myself to, who I loved, who I let affect me...all the little choices that build a life
Liz: So may I interrupt to ask about your college experience? What did you choose to study, and what was it like for you?
Ashley: Yes! I went to SCAD in Savannah, Georgia. I studied graphic design (after a quick "safe" two years at a liberal arts college to prove to my mom that design was what I was born to do). And that was amazing, as well! I got to study abroad in Hong Kong and spend my days in the Spanish moss and sunshine with a range of talented creatives.
Liz: That sounds ideal
Ashley: It was nice! Such an ideal experience for college years.
Liz: And did you work in the corporate world following school?
Ashley: Yes—I went straight in. I secured a full-time job in the middle of my senior year at SCAD, spent the summer watching every season of Grey's Anatomy, and then moved to KC that same fall.
Liz: And when did you realize you would start your own business?
Ashley: About two months in. (laughs) I just had this feeling that what I wanted to do was never going to be achieved in corporate. And if it did, it would take five times as long! I learned that I'm not a fan of asking 45 people if something can be done, I just want to do it! And I wanted to have control over my creative freedom and career. So, I started freelancing around that same 2-month mark and kept building until I quit my job and took to building my business full-time.
Liz: What is it that you want to do or achieve?
Ashley: Be the boss lady. Make decisions about who I work with and who works with me. Design out of the box solutions. Collaborate directly with partners and businesses to craft their authentic stories. Give all my lessons to help further someone else. Take my time! Build a nurturing and efficient design studio that adds value. Experience all avenues of my creative self and not feel like there are limits on what I can do. Go big or go home, every single time!
Liz: Yes. That all sounds very entrepreneurial! So what has it been like to run your own design studio?
Ashley: WORK! So much work. Not only are you balancing your internal business, but your clients' businesses, as well. I have to always remind myself to get out and meet new potential clientele and refine who I'm working with. Family and friendships, on top of that! Its a balancing act, it truly is. But, at the end of the day (and hopefully a prosperous, lucrative day down the road), I know I'll look back and be so proud of what I built.
Ashley: I also have to be reminded that it takes time. Life is about time, and (again) balancing what you have with work and experiences and hopefully doing that with the people closest to you.
Liz: Yes. So today is #wokewednesday. Do you identify as woke, feminist, or a social justice advocate? If so, what does it mean to you?
Ashley: Definitely "woke." To me that means using your common sense to read people, situations, and information, and apply that learning to increase your sphere of genuine love on the world and those around you. It means getting to know people. It means doing your research and not just taking what's given. It means questioning and formulating your opinion from there. Knowing it's okay to not be the same, and that in our differences we are all better and bigger! Being woke means not having to explain yourself.
Liz: I love it. It seems like you come to wokeness from a place of curiosity and investigation. How do you apply these values to your business?
Ashley: Yeah! I would definitely agree. I apply those values and curiosity everyday. And they either get me in trouble or lead to great working and personal relationships! (laughs) Seriously though, I try to apply those at every step of my client's process and experience. I have a high vetting process that involves those same attitudes.
Liz: Ha! How can it get you in trouble?
Ashley: I want to work with other conscious, present, curious clients!
Ashley: You know, it mostly comes from me speaking my mind or calling someone's bullshit.
Liz: Yep. Have you challenged clients in the past?
Ashley: Yes. And everyday I get more and more comfortable doing it. At first, I was meek and did what clients wanted. I would try and interject my opinion, but, it would get shut down, and I'd let it. Now I fight back. I tell them what they need, why that's purposed for their objective, and how I can do that. I don't back down as much and have begun to find my creative stride of confidence. I will also say, I think being able to challenge someone comes from a spirit of being "woke." You know yourself, you know your value, and you know how you're here to contribute.
Liz: I love that. When you speak of challenging clients, are you challenging them in specifically creative/design ways? Or are you willing to challenge client's assumptions around race, gender, sexuality, etc.?
Ashley: Yes. I'm constantly fighting the fight to change people's perspectives about people and how we approach them. Talk to them. Have a conversation with them. I speak of "target markets" in regards to connection points. They can be purple, gay, short, whatever...if a person connects to your message, it's because it's been crafted in authenticity, and their micro-qualities don't dictate generality. And the message part is indifferent...truly it's about authentic connections, no matter the person's make-up.
Liz: Awesome. Do you have any advice for other creatives who work with clients on how to run a woke business?
Ashley: I would say know yourself. Take time to formulate your thoughts, your "design beliefs" or "creative basis." That way it's a quick memory-call away when you need to defend yourself, a decision, or your business. I'm still learning! And as you grow, expect shifts or evolution in your thinking, but have a foundation from which to grow.
Liz: I love that and take it to heart.
Ashley: Yeaaaaa! Life is tricky. It's beautiful and tricky, but stay connected, and don't be afraid of growth.
Liz: Thank you so much, Ashley. Your perspective has been awesome.
Ashley: I'm gonna add that to my manifesto... "Run a woke business." I love it!