Alicia Williams is considered a highly respected voice in the marketing world. However, this wasn’t always the case.

Alicia’s early days as a startup founder were not quite as glamorous as one might assume. Our very own Grit Daily columnist Gene Swank sat down with Alicia to discuss life as a female entrepreneur and the road to launching her first company —all at the young age of 21, while still living at home with her parents.

Grit Daily: Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a little about how you got started? 

Alicia Williams: I was always fascinated with the word, “entrepreneur.” I remember seeing it under someone’s name and just fixating on it- but at that time I had no idea what it meant…I was 10.  I guess that word was always a part of me from my desire to plan events for the whole neighborhood to scouring library books on how to make money in the summer….I was 12!

I graduated as a communication major and naturally was eager to conquer the world- unfortunately, the economy had other plans and threw a recession party at the same time I walked across the stage and moved my tassel over to the other side.  But that didn’t stop me- neither did the 50 people that told me I was crazy or my idea would never work. I dove into the world of freelance and within a month I decided that applying to 20 jobs a day would never bring me happiness. I switched those efforts and energy towards building a business…I had no idea what I was doing but I drowned myself in books, webinars, conferences and basically anyone willing to share their journey.

Living at home, before you judge I was 21 and did my own laundry, I took ownership of my parent’s large laundry room and set myself up on a nice inspiring 12×12 desk.  I had a vision board of big office spaces, teams, and anything that showcased the Devil Wears Prada Business lifestyle. Over the last decade, I have learned some amazing stories, connected with inspiring individuals and pushed myself to learn and do and say things I am so proud of. I no longer aspire for a Devil Wears Prada lifestyle but instead wake up each day thinking, how do we offer clients something better, different and measurable- that is what drives me!

GD: As a female leader, you paved the way for the next generation of female executives.  What challenges did you encounter as a woman in this industry (specifically those just starting out)?

CW: Taking a step back I don’t think it is just a female obstacle that many of us have to overcome.  For me, it was my age. I was 21 and in the same pool of marketers that just lost their CMO positions all biting to get whatever opportunities were out there.  People looked at me as a kid, a wild 21 year old I had to act, look, project older and more professional than any 21 year old cares to be just to get the job.  And I did! I know I had to do that in order to build my business but today I can look back and feel really confident that I am 32, a female, a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a (fill in the blank) and I can run circles around most of my counterparts regardless of their age or sex.  Confidence is something that we must learn- you aren’t born with it and it takes multiple experiences to help mold that attitude into confidence rather than arrogance.

GD: What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur that’s struggling to make difficult decisions that can impact the future of their venture?

CW: Trust your gut and if you have a poor gut surround yourself with amazing mentors.  Know who your buyer is, what they need, what they life, what they can afford. You need to know everything about your business in order for you to make decisions that will grow it.  For me, I always had a strong pull towards where I felt the business needed to go BUT I shared those decisions with my mentors and allowed them to poke holes in my decisions. If I could defend that choice than I knew it was right- If I couldn’t make a solid case I knew I needed to walk away- and there were many of those “amazing ideas” that I needed to walk away from.

GD: If you could jump into a time machine, travel back in time and change just one aspect of your life, what would it be and why?

CW: I wouldn’t….Maybe I would eat more ice cream.  I am at a point in my life where I honestly can feel secure with what decisions I made, conversations I have had, people I met that it gives me peace in knowing that all of those instances are what brought me here today.  For example, the client that didn’t pay me for my work- taught me I better invest in a solid contract. The Client that mastered scope creep taught me to hold my ground and not to be afraid to say “stop”. Everything helped me become and build what I have today.

GD: Tell me about a time that you failed. I mean the sorta failure that feels like a punch straight to the gut. How did you convince yourself to keep going?

CW: What time do you want to know about?  I probably have one of those “the world is going to end and business is going to spiral down” moments at least twice a year.  Again, I surround myself with amazing mentors and support systems- they are the ones that talk me into seeing the reasoning of my emotions and push me to think logically into how the hell I am going to pull my business around.  When I first started my business I wanted to be an event planning- not a great endeavor in a rescission when all event budgets were cut. But I tried and pushed as hard as I could. My first year I made 20,000 and felt like I was rich…. Little did I know (remember I was still living at home aka no mortgage to pay).  I had numerous people tell me that it wouldn’t work and I should just get a 9-5 job. But my support system and mentors told me to put my head down, network and figure out a solution to make this business work- there couldn’t be a way to fail.

GD: It’s common knowledge that entrepreneurship takes grit, as the stress of staying afloat in a saturated market can be overwhelming. What ultimately drives you as an entrepreneur?

CW: Not ever having to work in a cubicle!  Creativity for me isn’t something I can channel on set hours.  Most days I am meeting with clients, prospects or networking- which leaves my nights to be reserved for my creative time.  I have always been a night owl so I love the flexibility I created for myself in my business. I’m fortunate enough to be present in my family and children’s lives and build a thriving business.  My work life balance is always something I am trying to fine tune but at least I am in control of that.

GD: Who is your hero?

CW: Trying not to be difficult on this one but I don’t have just one.  I think of a hero as someone who has saved me or helped me. My parents obviously are my forever mentors and hero’s, my siblings are my heroes because they helped me get through things I couldn’t tell my parents (yes I backed into dads car!) my husband is my hero because he grounds me and pushes me to do what I’m passionate about and my kids are my heroes ( I know that sounds corny) but they remind me to stop looking at my phone and just be present.  In today’s constantly connected world, I think the ability to have dinner with no phones around is truly heroic!

GD: How have you used your success to give back?

CW: I’m an avid supporter of young entrepreneurs and consistently devote my time and donations to organizations that support the creative growth of those minds.  I wish I had more people in my corner cheering me on and giving me advice on what worked and didn’t work for them- imagine where I would be now. My ability to talk with a student who is thinking about owning a  business and give them the real guts and glory behind it is fulfilling. If I can encourage/inspire someone to follow their passion that is the whole point!

GD:  If you could spend one day with any person (alive or not), who would it be any why?

CW: Ok so I am going to go with Richard Branson here.  Every interview I do they ask this question. My hope is that if I say it enough times he will finally agree to let me buy him a drink and learn about his business triumphs and not so inspiring moments.

GD:  What advice would you give to young women that want to follow in your footsteps?

CW: My father always told me that everyone, regardless of their title, puts their pants on the same way.  Always make the call, go to the networking event, send an email and put yourself out there. You must want it enough that the response of “no” is like someone yelling at a hockey game…you hear it but it’s all part of the experience and you aren’t going to let it ruin your night.  Get excited for the no’s because the yes is right around the corner.