'I wanted to be part of the change': Jessica Walsh on her journey to founding &Walsh
&Walsh founder Jessica Walsh shares what drives her as an agency founder, why imposter syndrome is unavoidable, and her best advice for aspiring female founders.
Jessica Walsh is a force of nature in the creative world. Her roots working under Paula Scher and her impressive climb to partner at Stefan Sagmeister's studio by the time she was 25 branded her a designer to watch in the early days of her career. Walsh hasn't stopped drawing eyes to her work, her career trajectory, or her dogged determination to transform the design industry for the better ever since.
Four years ago, Walsh founded her own agency, &Walsh – a dream she's had since her teen years. Leading &Walsh, she works with brands ranging from New York establishments like Barneys and the NYT Magazine to startups like Pet Plate and Lex while also keeping up her leadership roles in the social impact platforms she pioneered: Ladies, Wine & Design and Let's Talk about Mental Health.
Walsh recently sat down with Creative Boom to share the insights she's gained since founding her agency and her hopes for a new generation of female founders in the creative industry.
When did you know you wanted to/what prompted you to establish your agency?
One of the reasons I started &Walsh is that only 0.1% of creative agencies are founded by women, and the numbers are even smaller for women and nonbinary folks of colour. There's an abysmal number of leadership opportunities available to women in this industry, and I wanted to be a part of the change I want to see.
How has founding a creative agency enriched your life?
Being the CEO and Creative Director of &Walsh has allowed me to do more with my platform and position within the industry. Pushing forward our creative work, building our diverse team, and growing our business drive my productivity and get me up in the morning.
You're also the founder of two non-profits - what's it like to balance those responsibilities with your agency leadership?
Our work through social impact initiatives, such as Ladies, Wine, & Design and Let's Talk About Mental Health, gives me a sense of purpose. Even when I have a lot of work on my plate, which is more often than not, I find the energy to keep going from connecting with other humans and trying to do some good in a sometimes dark world. I've also met and connected with many wonderful creatives who inspire me across different disciplines, including members of my own team and even our clients.
If you could go back to the beginning of your business, what advice would you give yourself?
There are a few things that come to mind. I would have loved to know early on that everyone experiences imposter syndrome. I now know that even creatives at the top of their fields go through waves of self-doubt, hate their work, or question what they're doing. It used to scare me, but now I think that feeling is great! It means you're challenging yourself and evolving. In fact, I seek out projects like this where some aspect of it is new. Whether it's a new medium or a client from a different culture with something new to learn, anxiety is a strong emotion that can work as a great motivator.
You should really be nervous when you get bored or overly confident with your work. That's when you risk creating mediocre work or making the same stuff over and over again. Instead of letting anxiety consume you, I advise channelling the energy into motivation to work even harder to develop a great idea.
I would have loved to know early on that everyone experiences imposter syndrome. I now know that even creatives at the top of their fields go through waves of self-doubt or hate their work. It used to scare me, but now I think that feeling is great.
What's the biggest challenge you've overcome in your founder journey?
Time is always the biggest challenge. I feel an obligation for any project we take on to give it 110%. Clients trust us with incredibly important projects, and we have to do the best job we can, which takes a lot of time.
But the clients are just one part of what I do. I am also overseeing the business, finances, recruiting, resourcing, our team, social media, new business, and social projects, and also trying to do personal projects or live outside work.
If I could pick any superpower, it'd be having more time to do all the things I want to do. Until then, I just have to be selective about what I take on or give energy to because if you say yes to everything, you'll drown and end up doing nothing good for anyone.
What's your advice for aspiring female founders today?
One of the most important things in business is to focus on the content or product. For building a brand, it means putting all your passion, love & energy into making a product, service or organisation that is truly great and unique. It should be something you really believe in, something the world needs, or a differentiator in the marketplace. If you're a creator, focus on your passion and craft. What can you bring to the craft that's uniquely your own?
The most successful people I've known prioritise the product, content, or work before fame and money. The people I know who set out to only be rich and famous never went too far.
Second, while you have to work incredibly hard to get to leadership positions, don't forget to enjoy the journey. So many of us get tied up in the end goal that we forget to take a step back and appreciate the process, our teams, and all the incredible people you meet along the way. I have been guilty of this in the past, and something I definitely want to focus on with this new chapter.