Ashley Bella.jpg

Making Your Next Job Your Last Job:

The Art of Following Your Dreams

Conversation with Ashley Bella 

I met Ashley Bella on a Sunday afternoon in the Spring. I was preparing to take some branding pictures to launch my new website and was looking for a colorful place to shoot. My photographer noticed an eye-catching mural near where we parked. I walked over and saw a young lady with paint materials and a few splatters of paint on her clothes. I asked, "did you paint this mural?" She said, "yes, I am the artist behind this wall." She looked to be no more than twenty-five years old. After asking a few questions about the beautiful and colorful masterpiece, which paid tribute to the community of College Park, GA, I learned she was a native of that same community. She recently quit her corporate job to become a full-time entrepreneur and pursue her passion for art, which inspired me to know more about Ashley Bella. I asked if it was okay to take a few pictures in front of her mural for my website. She responded, "of course! I would love for you to do that." Before leaving, we exchanged information and promised that we would be in touch for a possible interview. Months passed, and I received a newsletter from Georgia State University, our alma mater. The cover featured Ashley Bella and a story on how she won first place for an entrepreneur grant. Immediately, I reflected on our conversation in front of the mural and the glow in her eyes when she talked about taking a leap of faith to follow her dreams of being a full-time artist. I knew it was time to contact her and have an essential conversation about the importance of following your dreams and never giving up on your purpose in life. I sent Ashley an email, and without hesitation, she said, of course, I will speak to you! When it was time for the actual interview, Ashley greeted me like we had been long-time friends. I almost forgot that I was there to do a formal interview and did not press record on my device to capture the story for the first two questions. Ashley's passion for art and serving her community is something that is desperately needed, especially for young creatives who yearn for resources to express their full artistic selves.  She is a creative mastermind, and her mission is to guide other creatives, young or old, to tap into their gifts and show others how necessary any form of art is to the world. 

Please be inspired by the conversation between the Creative Ashely Bella and Dacia Roving Journalist.

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RJ: Please begin by telling me a little about yourself. Where did you grow up?

AB: I grew up right here in College Park/East Point, Georgia area. Not too far from my studio.

RJ: Tell me about some of your enjoyable moments growing up in Atlanta.

AB: Growing up in Atlanta was a lot of fun. I did a lot of stuff, like catching the train and going downtown to Five Points and going to the mall. My friends and I rode bikes, went to the movies, and did many community activities. I loved growing up in Atlanta. It was so much to do around the City.

RJ: Let's talk about your business, ArtzyBella. First, tell me how you came up with the name ArtzyBella.

AB: I pondered over many names before I came up with ArtzyBella. One day, as I played around with terms, Artsy came to mind, but I decided to spell it with a "Z." Then, Bella because the name Bella means Beautiful.

RJ: Tell me your driving force to become an entrepreneur and start your Art business.

AB:  I started to realize in my previous job when you work for an employer, and you sign their contract, anything you come up with belongs to them. So, I had ideas I believed could help the people we were serving, but nobody's listening to me. When I tried to present those ideas, they told me to get a master's degree, and they will give me a leadership role where I can use my concepts. When I got my master's in developmental psychology, they said, "oh, we're not accepting that specific master's anymore for leadership roles."

So now, I got this whole degree and accumulated all this student loan debt, and they still refuse to promote me to a new position.  I decided then that I was done with corporate America because they were dictating my quality of life.  As a social worker, I was making twenty-eight thousand dollars a year.  I was barely able to take care of myself. Then, to know that, hey, if I stay ten more years, maybe I'll only make forty thousand. Them deciding on how much I was worth and not being good enough for a promotion…I had a problem with that. So, I said to myself, my next job will be my last job.

I didn't leave my last job on bad terms. In the work that I was doing with sex trafficking survivors, the women would often tell me that I'm a talented artist. I would do art therapy with them, and they found a lot of value in it. Those women encouraged me to go out into the world and share my gift with other people. Those were the main things that pushed me into entrepreneurship.

RJ: What was your undergrad degree?

AB: I majored in studio art. My family had an intervention with me and told me I needed to get a real major because I will not make any real money in that field.  So, I changed my major at least seven times. I was an African American studies major, film major, but I was always a theater minor. I did Theater my whole life up until college. And then I stopped. Theater helped me with my self-esteem, and It helped me learn how to talk to people. Also, in my personal life, I had some bad habits communicating with others. I'd be angry and aggressive. But Theater gave me an outlet and taught me different ways how to express my issues. So, I felt like it was personal for me why I did Theater. But as far as my majors, I was a business major and a business marketing major. I forget one or two others (laughs). I studied business the longest because it was very applicable to the things that I wanted to do. Suppose I decided to work in music or think of becoming a professional actor. Business just helped me understand money, numbers, and marketing. So, I took a break from school, then eventually re-enrolled. When I went back to school, the advisor told me I had many business and art studio credits. Since I had those credits, the school allowed me to make up my degree program. So, I completed my undergrad in art administration, which is a combination of art and business. I am using that now in my Art business.

RJ: That is amazing! That is what I call using your education to work for you. I, like yourself, am a Georgia state alumna.  So, I keep up with the university news and all the exciting things they are doing within the institution. I want to talk about the entrepreneur grant you won at Georgia State University. Tell me about the gift and how it made you feel when they announced you as the first-place winner.

AB: I found out about the program through George Greenidge, who runs the Launch GSU program at Georgia State University. Specifically, his program is called Greatest Minds.  He would often ask me to come to GSU and speak to the students. I will say, I don't know why this guy keeps asking me to talk to these students. They don't want to hear anything I have to say. Mostly, many people go to Georgia State for the business, law, or nursing program. I did not think they would be interested in hearing about art stuff. 

But it was a tremendous opportunity speaking to the students and letting them know that there are other options available to them. So, for many students, college might allow them to get their dream job, but college may also prepare them for entrepreneurship, which is what it did for me. After speaking to the students, he introduced me to the Entrepreneurship Innovation Institute through the Robinson College of Business that I didn't even know was there. And I asked, they got a program for entrepreneurs? Why was it not here when I was a student?   I said, I would never have dropped out and probably finished on time, and I would've started this company years ago! {laughs} But I'm a firm believer that things happen for a reason.

They told me that they just started a grant program in partnership with the Bernie Marcus Foundation. Bernie Marcus is one-half of the owners of Home Depot, along with Arthur Blank. So, his foundation gave the school a three hundred-thousand-dollar grant to support minority business owners. I believe 200 people applied. They narrowed the applicants down to a hundred by going through our submissions and following us on social media to see what we had going on with our businesses. Once they narrowed the applicants down to 50, they conducted interviews with the selected 50 applicants asking, if we were to give you this grant, what are you going to do with it? My initial plan was to franchise the studio, which I might do one day. But what they were saying is that you have to decide what kind of business owner you want to be. Do you want to have a lifestyle business, or do you want to have a scalable company?  Meaning, you could easily make one or two million a year with a lifestyle business. You can drive a nice car, travel, have a house somewhere else, and live a prosperous lifestyle. Right?

But, there's also the other option where you can build a multimillion-dollar company, potentially growing into having a billion-dollar revenue.  And I kind of like the latter of the two because I'm a community person at heart. I was like, I'm not going to keep working at community growth, and I cannot take care of myself. Also, the amount of time I spent working in mental health with people in need of dealing with trauma, I have definite ideas for helping them through art.

RJ: Tell me how you came up with your pitched to the committee.

AB: My team and I went through two to three different ideas I had for my company, and we picked the most scalable one. After choosing, I had to pitch the idea to become a finalist in the program. Although I practiced this pitch for a month, I was scared out of my mind. When I got in front of the panel, I ruined it. I BOMB it! I don't know if anybody else is telling the truth about their interview with this program, but I think I screwed up my pitch. But I had samples. I had like a prototype, and I was engaging.

What I did, and this is a trick for anybody who wants to take the fundraising route of just doing pitch competitions and getting grant money. A lot of times, you'll have to talk about your business. And if you screw up your presentation, there's always a question and answer session where you can come back and fix what you messed up. The Q&A session allowed me to slow down and address areas I forgot in the initial presentation. So, I think that's what saved me and got me into running. Also, it is the first time I felt real validation about the sacrifice that I made.  And, the reason I say that is, when I quit my job to start the business, I was supposed to leave with some money, and I didn't get it. So, I left the job broke and my family was like, what the hell are you thinking? They thought I had lost my mind. And, I looked foolish for about six to 12 months. I was sleeping on friend's couches; I had moved out of my apartment. My goal was to remove every expense that I had so that once I started making money doing art, all the money I made, I could reinvest it back into the business and keep growing it from there. One thing I learned about business over the years is that it takes money to make money. So, getting accepted in that program was the first time I felt like now, I did this for a reason and I'm going to build something with this. Finally, people will be able to see what I was doing this whole time, and I did have a plan.

RJ: The grant helped you to see your vision come to life. 

AB: Yes! They brought in experts in finance, taxes, and marketing. Anything you could think of that you need to know before going into business for yourself. At the end of the program, we had to present on a demo day. Demo day allows you to talk about where your business started and where it is by the end of the program. It is also an opportunity to meet and pitch your business to investors if you want to go that route, especially if you want a scalable business. 

I was so terrified and felt like I did not deserve to be in the room. I'm with all these rich people, predominately white men,  who run these million dollar companies, who bought and sold all these startups, and now, they are listening to me talk about how I am going to use the art to save the planet. I am thinking to myself, "this is crazy, right?" {laughs}

And when I was listening to the pitches of other companies, I said to myself, there's no way I'm going to beat out these people, because most had tech companies, and investors love tech because tech is sticky, it is repeatable, and it scales. It's been proven when you look at apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Airbnb. So, I ended up winning first place, which was crazy to everybody.  But I had a very cool display, and when I do stuff, the goal for me is, when you show up in a room, whatever you are doing, you outdo everybody. Like, I'm going to anticipate what everybody else in the room is probably going to do, and I'm going to do ten times more than that. That was one of the best lessons I ever learned when I worked in music.

Also, that win was important because it helped other creatives who are trying to turn their art into a business. Whether it's a visual artist, Theater, music, or dance, artists can be successful, just like any other industry.  It is vital to educate many people about how important artists are to the economy, communities, revitalization of neighborhoods, and keeping kids in the community occupied healthily. The world cannot turn without creatives.

RJ: How important was it for you to open a studio in your East Point community?

AB: It was imperative. When I was growing up here in this community, we didn't have many creatives resources for children like me. There were dance and stuff for kids involved in music, but for those who are visual artists and interested in Theater, outside of what they had in the school, there was nothing else for us to do. Or, you had to drive up to Buckhead or downtown to participate. My mom was working and going to school, trying to take care of us, so she did not have the time. And, on weekends, we weren't thinking about those things. I'd rather hang out at the mall with my friends. 

So, it was vital for me to be present in my neighborhood. Not only to help with the economy here but for the creative kids to have a resource. I want them to see that somebody who looks like them, from their same neighborhood and probably gone through some of the stuff they've gone through, can build something out of their creativity. Not only for motivation, but hopefully, as I keep going, I can create some paid opportunities for them.

RJ: You have a mural that you created in Historic College Park, where I first met you. Residents who live and work in that area rave about your art and call it a gift to the community. Tell me how that makes you feel that your art brings joy to people you don't even know.

AB:  Really? WOW! That's crazy. I didn't know that! And, the cool thing about that is, this has been a very long and challenging journey. There were a lot of times I wanted to quit and give up. People used to tell me that I was wasting my time. So, it is overwhelming to hear you say that. Everything I've written down that I wanted to accomplish by the end of this year, I somehow was able to do. Doing an outdoor mural was one of those things, and when I got the opportunity to do one, I did it in my neighborhood. 

Jesus, it is just… it's overwhelming to hear you say that. {slight pause} Because I have many friends from College Park and I have three friends from College Park who passed away over the last couple of years, who were big inspirations for me, who were very, very supportive of what I'm doing now. And to hear you say that, I'm like; they did not get a chance to see it. We were all building this stuff together. But I had them in my mind while painting that mural, and I made that in their honor. To know people appreciate it is great to hear. Thanks for telling me that, that's really cool.

RJ: Tell me some of the marketing tools you used to market ArtzyBella and which ones have been the most successful.

AB: The crazy thing is, we haven't done any serious marketing yet. Everything that our company has done has been word of mouth. In the first mural I did, a friend of mine who is a sexual wellness coach, and a therapist has a company.  She would tell me, "well, nobody's going to know you paint unless you paint something." So, she paid me one hundred fifty dollars, and I painted a mural on her wall, and then I posted it on Instagram. From there, somebody else asked me to do something.

My mom sent it to all her friends, and her friend, who works at a school, hired me to do a mural. After that, the business started to take off.  Also, I started doing paint parties. The very first one was at a Bakery in the neighborhood. I did it for free around Christmas time last year. I invited all my friends, took some pictures, and posted on Instagram to receive feedback. I live on Instagram, and over the years, it's helped tremendously.  With Instagram, you have to post consistently to build authentic relationships.

RJ: Tell me how you define success?

AB: Maybe I could describe what success looks like for me.  Success for me was finally tapping into something bigger than myself and allowing that to guide me. Meaning, loaded within that is blind faith and the purest form of trusting something that you can't see or touch that I could perhaps understand. And I would always hear about trusting God and having this faith and I would say, what does that mean? But I feel like I tapped into a supernatural machine. As long as I wake up in a posture of just being willing to let that higher power guide me and rule my decisions in my thoughts, everything I touch will continue to grow because I am getting out of my way. I'm going to learn the lessons that I need, meet the people that I need, and I'm going to grow whether it be financially or just creating a culture around something.

RJ: Tell me your most satisfying moment in this business.

AB: I think I just had my most satisfying moment. When I first started, I was thinking about my wildest dreams and different things I wrote out on my list that I wanted to accomplish within the first five or six years. I've done all of them in the first three years. Well, God did it. I didn't do anything. I just showed up {laughs}.

To be in my old neighborhood and have a live / workspace and my own art studio, which I needed to become an art therapist to practice. Also, I have to have an identity as an artist, which means I have to create a body of work, and I've been able to do.

Also, I didn't think I'd be sitting here saying, Kaiser Permanente is one of my customers because they see the wellness and value in what I’m doing. They are authentically excited about being in business with me. It's unreal. To see what I was able to build, which came out of my friends who passed away while pursuing their creative dreams, and it was cut short. To think of the survivors who pushed me to do this, and the person who inspired me the most, Debbie Vance. Debbie passed away last year before I opened the studio. My goal is to always put her artwork up in my studio and help her sell it. Before she passed away, I told her if she keeps making art, I will find a way to sell it.  I'll open a studio so she can have a place to hang her work. So, to see that I finally opened my studio, I can keep the promises I made to my friends. I believe that is the most satisfying thing.

RJ: For my final question, tell me what motivates you?

AB: These future babies that I haven't had yet. I've been talking about children since I was like 20 years old. I feel that one day I'm going to have a daughter, and she's going to be in a position where she's trying to figure out what to do next in her life because we know life happens. I'm trying to create an effortless life for my future kids and my nephew, who's like my child.

 

I understand things will get hard, and hopefully, the child I may have one day doesn't have to deal with the hard stuff that I did. I want him or her to be able to see what I was able to accomplish, and no matter what happened in my life, I was still able to push through and build something. The struggle is not an excuse. To me, the battle is a reason why you can accomplish your goals. I want my nephew to go to the Ivy League school of his choice, and I want to pay for it in full. I want to spoil my family. And the opportunity to leave something behind that will help people even when I'm not here anymore. That's what motivates me.

RJ: That was my final question. Before we wrap up, do you have any advice you would like to share with someone who is thinking about becoming an entrepreneur or struggling to find their purpose?

AB: Sometimes, it is hard to advise because people are on such different paths. I would say this, especially to the creatives. When you see a few of us who make it and find a niche or figure something out, I think we all feel like we've got to take that same direction to have success, and it's not true. It's not that I've figured out the Holy Grail or the method to monetizing talent and building something out of it. I think what I did was, I thought about my most natural gift, and I think about what burdens me the most in this world, and I tapped into that. Then I learned the business. Of course, you know, I didn't come out of the womb knowing how to run a business; I learned from various experiences and people. And I just applied those lessons to my business.

 

If you feel stuck about how to make money off your talent and build something to support yourself, start with telling your story. Write your narrative so you can identify with yourself.  Then, look at your natural gift and what burdens you in this world and start building something around that. I always think that creating something around purpose can always scale a lot further than just coming up with an idea or just seeing what somebody else is doing and say, I'm just going to do that. Trust that your story is enough and more powerful than anyone else's.

RJ: Thank you so much. This conversation has been a delightful experience. Thank you for sharing your powerful story.

AB:  Thank you so much. I know I took a lot away from this myself. Sometimes I get so focused on the work, and moments like these are good for me to remember why I'm doing the work, you know, especially you asked what motivates me.

To learn more about Ashley Bella and the ArtzyBella Art Studio, please visit www.artzybella.com

Facebook: @ArtzyBella

Instagram: @ArtzyBella

Photo credit: Ashley Bella