Willam Leonard

Hey everyone, welcome back to the Atlanta StartUp podcast. My name is William Leonard and I’m so excited for today’s episode with Ashley Daramola of ArtzyBella. Ashley joins me to talk about the launch of her online platform and subscription box, which is empowering people to live creatively by providing an affordable artistic resource for increasing happiness and wellness. The subscription box is really cool. It includes a private social community, access to intimate group workshops, a dedicated wellness coach, art therapy sessions, and more. Throughout the conversation, Ashley also shares her experience of being the Valor 2021 Art of Inclusion Artists, and many of the motivations behind her brilliant works. So, I’m excited for this conversation, tune in and let’s dive in. Ashley, welcome to the podcast. Thank you for joining me.

Ashley Daramola

Good morning. Thanks for having me, William. I appreciate it.

William Leonard 

Awesome. I think this is a great episode to kick off the year. And for those of you who don’t know, Ashley was Valor’s 2021 Art of Inclusion Artist. We’ll kind of dive into what that means a little bit later in the podcast. But, Ashley, I would love for you to start off by kind of telling our listeners what ArtzyBella is and then maybe a little bit into the story about how you came to start ArtzyBella because I personally know your story is amazing, but our listeners would love context.

Ashley Daramola

Okay? All right. ArtzyBella is a company I started back in 2017, we were originally an art studio that did paint parties and art classes for people all around the state of Georgia. And then in 2019, we got an opportunity to participate in Georgia State’s Main Street cohort. They gave us a grant through a partnership with Billi and Bernie Marcus Foundation. We actually developed a new product for our company, we developed a subscription box. And the goal was to teach people how to use art therapeutically, we noticed from all of our customers that they kept coming back and having more paint parties but they kept saying that it was because of how the process was making them feel. When I started the company, I always wanted to figure out how to create a solution using art therapy, which is a discipline that I’m working towards licensure in and that I have a lot of passion about. But the grant allowed us to actually monetize and turn it into a monetizable product that we can not only make money with but help a lot of people with. We started with just the subscription box, but we realized that our customers still wanted that interaction, that guidance that we provided. What we did was develop an online platform where people can do 24 hours a day they can engage in art-making with wellness coaches, art therapists, and art instructors who are passionate about mental health and wellness. Where I started, I worked in mental health but I was always an artist, but it was not celebrated as something you could make a career in. Growing up, I actually tried to avoid going to college. I tried to not apply. One of my classmates told me and my art teacher called my mom and said, “Hey, she’s not going to school.” So we enrolled in Georgia State, which was one of the best decisions I ever made. But I ended up dropping out of college because I just wanted to be an artist. It wasn’t really supported. I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I dropped out of school so that I could figure out what else could I do with the things that I wanted to do. Being a business owner or being an artist wasn’t as viable. Then I started working in mental health because I had a big burden and passion for people specifically, in the black community where I’m from, in South Atlanta, wanted to really get involved in community work. I worked as a social worker with the state of Georgia. I worked with several nonprofits, and most of the work I did was I was like mental health support or a behavior support person that helped therapists with treatment plans, with individuals who were dealing with a lot of drug addiction or trauma, and just helping them to recover and improve their lives. I did a lot of work with sex trafficking survivors. I did that for about six years, as a coach, mentor, counselor, and social worker. Working with survivors, a lot of them had a lot of trauma, a lot of diagnosed mental illness, a lot of drug addiction. Traditional forms of therapy and prayer and all those go-to things we know to do with people who are in crisis just weren’t working. I remember how in my own personal life, how art in a lot of ways saved me with the things that I had to deal with. We tried it and it worked. It was one of the only things that we’re able to give them a healthy distraction or a way to express how they were feeling. The women that I worked with, told me I was wasting my talent and that what I was doing with them, a lot of other people could benefit from, so they encouraged me not to give up on it. I quit my job in 2016 and with my last $50 I started ArtzyBella and here we are.

William Leonard 

I think you know that that’s kind of the point that we always hear, you quit your job, took your last $50 to start ArtzyBella by buying the initial supplies. That is just such a risk, you left a seemingly stable career in the mental health field. You really went to the unknown as a full-time artist. What kind of went behind that decision? Obviously, it was passion. But how did you kind of tactically think about what if this doesn’t work out for me, you know?

Ashley Daramola

I think that what I realized is I’m really good at operating under pressure, right? I think where I’m from the environment, I come from a lot of the people if that was just kind of something that was there were always a lot of challenges. A lot of fires were always put out. I realized that under pressure, I do really well. But also just having dabbled in business here and there and followed and have been mentored by a lot of entrepreneurs, I knew that on the other side of really big risk comes a really big reward. I just put myself in a position where I’m just going to jump off this cliff and hope God catches me. Along the way, I’m going to put myself in a position where I don’t have a plan B, there’s no backup plan, so this has to work. I put pressure on myself where like, “You got to figure this out because everybody thinks you’re crazy.”

William Leonard 

Isn’t that the story of most entrepreneurs, you’re kind of doubted, but you have to be resilient?

Ashley Daramola

I think that I had someone tell me that you’re doing all this community work, and it’s great, but you’re broke, you’re barely taking care of yourself. I was coming up with all these great ideas and the organizations I work with, but then you have people take your ideas, you don’t get credit for it. I went and got a master’s degree to make more money in the field and then they didn’t pay me more money. I just realized that I was allowing someone else to control my quality of life, and to determine how much I was worth every year. The other thing that happened was that I realized that I don’t want to get to the end of my life. In those last moments, I’m looking back and regretting that there were things I didn’t try, because of something so trivial as fear, right? Because at that time, you can’t go back and undo it. I just said that I don’t want to live in any regret. I want to give it a shot and why not? If it doesn’t work, at least I can say that I tried.

William Leonard 

Yeah, why not? Exactly. I’m curious to hear, you started our ArtzyBella in 2017, right? What were those first like two or three years like everything off the ground? I kind of want to pivot after you answer that to the topic of brand building. Because when you look at your brand now, your brand is everything and your brand is everywhere. It’s so prominent, it’s the first thing you see when you google your name. I want to hear how the early infancy stages of building ArtzyBella went and then how you scaled your brand to where it is today.

Ashley Daramola

I remember I wanted to start the company at least two or three years before I actually did it. But those first few years, I was really scared like, “I can’t do this. This is silly. I can’t start this business. I have no money, no resources, I don’t have a blueprint. This would totally be crazy.” But I remember someone saying just start by coming up with a name. I just remember writing down all these different names. And then I thought about, why don’t I just think about something that reminds me of me? When I think of the word beauty and I think of beautiful things, it’s not so much just what’s very literal to us. But I think that people’s stories, the way we experience each other, love, our own interpretation of the things we feel that is beautiful. Our attempt to turn that into something that we can share with other people is beautiful. That kind of came into how I came up with the name. And then I thought about things that represented me and how I view art. I took a butterfly that represents transformation and freedom, which is what I felt that not only I experienced in my personal life, but that the women that I was serving and working with were that’s what they were coming to us for was to transform themselves. And then I also put a ladybug in my logo. I’m gonna be honest, I can’t remember how I came up about that ladybug, but I think I just remember it representing just wisdom, good fortune, and good luck. And so my first version of my logo was very detailed look very artistic. And then the colors I chose were ones that represented what I felt calm people down. And then the contrast of the orange represented what could just ignite energy and inspiration and people. I tried to think very intricately about every part of the brand. What I did is I said, “How can I spread the awareness of this brand, while start making some money, and figuring out how do I scale this?” We started doing the paint parties because we realize this will make money. Even when one person books the party, they bring 20 people, that’s 20 more people that now know about our brand. And if we do a good job, we were usually able to get two or three more parties out of guests that were in that group. But then it also gave us a chance to do discovery and ask questions, because we’re with the customers we want to serve. We’re asking them, what kind of art do you like to make? How does this make you feel? How can we improve? What would make you come back again? We just did that for two years and kept collecting that data, figuring it out, and fine-tuning the brand over time. When I did my first party with a big company, that’s when my best friend said, “Okay, so we need to polish this logo up a little bit.” So then I created a more minimal version of my logo, something that I felt would look great on a business card and a billboard. Something that felt very corporate-friendly, because I really liked the idea to continue working with corporations. But I also wanted a brand that felt very high-end and luxury, but still very accessible and affordable to everybody. Those are the things that I thought through and we changed the colors like the orange has changed a little bit over time. We’ve polished different things, the website has evolved over the last few years. And all of that is just based on the response we’re getting from our customers.

William Leonard 

I think that’s perfect advice. In the sense of being with your customer, getting immediate real-time feedback while they’re there in person.

Ashley Daramola

We make this so difficult, right? We create these products and then we start forcing people to buy. Of course, we always start with our family and friends are like, “I need you to support me and buy this.” But they may not even be your customer. You’re forcing a sale but it doesn’t tell you if you really have a product-market fit yet, right? I realized that your customers are telling you exactly what they want. If you build what they want, they’re going to spend their money on it no matter what it is.

William Leonard 

Oh, yes, definitely. You’re getting that real-time feedback. And oftentimes, people will send post-purchase surveys and things like that, and oftentimes they just get thrown to the wayside. I think that’s important as well getting that real-time immediate capture and also incentivizing your customers to get that genuine feedback as well. That’s awesome, actually. Do you have any other kind of practical tips that you could provide maybe another young up-and-coming artist to essentially build their brand? Are there some things that you think they can take advantage of in this modern digital world today in 2022?

Ashley Daramola

I feel like the universe is kind of bending to the will of the creative right now, this is our opportunity to do something that we’ve never been able to do before, which is taking control over our careers, our brands, and our narratives, and tell the stories the way we want, but then sell it to whoever. We don’t have to wait for a buyer or a dealer to believe in us and want to put our work out like the middleman is no longer necessary. I always attribute that to technology. There are so many startups that I’ve seen right now that have created platforms, giving artists the ability to sell their work. I think one of the things that I noticed in a lot of artists is that we don’t all enjoy the business side of things, but I’m a numbers person. I love math and problem-solving. The business part is like my sport. I love it so much. But for creatives who just want to be in their creative zone, there are so many platforms and solutions to help you sell your work, monetize, and improve the market, that if you don’t want to do the business side, they’re things that’ll do it for you at very reasonable prices. The other thing is this, I know everyone is mad on the NFT wave, but if you just dive into it a little bit and just start learning what it is, and how you can make money on it, and spread awareness of your art, it is a great platform. It’s a great way for artists to not only make money and build a brand, but the cool thing is you have an opportunity to grow the value of your work and see that value while you’re still living. We don’t have to wait 200 years from now, to see the value of our work. I really think that NFTs are a very exciting thing that I’m even jumping into this year also.

William Leonard 

Obviously, I think when we talk about art and ownership, and kind of this new wave of really having that end-to-end view and ownership of your own work, NFTS is almost inevitable to talk about. Are you taking ArtzyBella in that direction this year? Is that something that you’ve been thinking about before?

Ashley Daramola

What I said I will do is start kind of throwing some N T’s out there, as an individual artist, and then ArtzyBella is trying to figure out how we want to be present in the digital space in the metaverse and in the virtual reality space, which is something that we want to do within our platform. We’re definitely talking about how we want to do it. So much like what we’re trying to decide is in a way where it’s going to be very pleasing and interesting to our customers. We really want that experience to tailor to that.

William Leonard 

I’m excited to see what you guys come up with because you think about the southeast and obviously Miami is kind of Web3 NFT headquarters for that. But I think Atlanta is really going to insert itself here over the next few months and a few years as somewhere where the world of digital ownership, NFTS, Web3 is going to be present here. I’d be excited to see you all kind of kick that off. I know there are some groups here in Atlanta, there’s one black NFT art, I believe. I think the ecosystem here is young right now but that’s the best.

Ashley Daramola

Great opportunity. Diddy used to say this years ago, where he said, “You find all of the solutions that are out there, you find where the holes are, where are those pockets where people haven’t found solutions for things yet?” And that’s where you start looking for where your niche might be or where you start thinking about what kind of solutions you could develop? Finding problems that don’t have solutions yet and those holes, right? I think that right now, because of the digital space, because Web3 and NFT are so young here in Atlanta, there’s a hole there that needs to be filled. I think artists have a great opportunity to be at the forefront of it if they were to jump on it now. 

William Leonard 

I can 100% agree with that. I think this topic of where you plan on taking the business is interesting. Where do you see ArtzyBella, maybe in three to five years from now, with this kind of incoming wave of technology, your passion, and your drive for scaling this business?

Ashley Daramola

In about three to five years, hopefully, we are on our way to becoming a public billion-dollar company. That’s what I would like. I think that what’s gonna get us there is our ability to continue to enhance the tech that’s in our platform and our app. We have a lot of features we’re wanting to implement, including virtual reality, augmented reality, really just taking that ability for people to not only create, but to create and allow it to help them deal with things like real emotions, real feelings, real balance issues that they’re having in their wellness, whether it’s at work or at home, but being able to do that and experience that right from their devices at home, or wherever they are. We’re really looking forward to seeing how we can scale with that. The clients we have right now we’re working with a really big health care organization. We just started building a relationship with a really big airline in Atlanta. We really see opportunities. There are so many different markets where we could go. We’re definitely, in some ways doing a slow bill. We’re not in a rush. But at the same time, we think that our ability to utilize a lot of the latest technology into our solution, and then being able to do that with more corporate teams and individuals is really going to help us scale this company and just present something that’s never been done before.

William Leonard 

I love that. I love that vision. You were mentioning some of the recent mural projects that you all have worked on. I know in Buckhead and the King Center, talk to us about some of those projects and where did you get some of the inspiration for these individual projects and murals that you made?

Ashley Daramola

Wellspring Living is a nonprofit that I worked for where I did work with survivors. I think I worked there for about three years, I did the overnight shift, which was crazy. I was like a vampire for about three years. But during that time, I really got to sit with a lot of survivors. I think over my time, I probably interviewed like 400 or 500 women who had different ways that they insert what we call life. And so what happened is, Wellspring is celebrating the 20th anniversary of working in sex trafficking. They decided to do a mural series around Atlanta to celebrate that. The curator, her name is Cierra Fly Bobo contacted one of my close friends, Terence Lester, who has a nonprofit called Love Beyond Walls here in Atlanta, and told him, “Hey, I have the perfect artist for this.” She contacted me and I did the first mural. I did the first mural at Delta Airlines at their headquarters. I have a mural that sits in their training facility. And then after that mural, I submitted for the second one in the project, and they ended up selecting my design for the Buckhead Path 400 mural. And then the third one, the series that I’ve done, is the MLK. I’ve done three murals out of the six or seven that they’re planning to do in total. The Delta mural was interesting because Delta is a big advocate in sex trafficking in that issue. One of the things they do is they train all of the new hires on what to look for, there have been plenty of stories even in the news, where flight attendants have noticed signs and been able to get girls and women out of vulnerable situations because of that training. I thought it was a perfect place to put that piece of art. These murals gave me an opportunity to show one of the styles of art that I have, which is a lot of colors, a lot of detail. But my goal is to create things that are very vibrant, that force people to stop, and not only look at how pretty beautiful this is, but it gets you curious about why did she put these colors in these shapes? Why does the person have this facial expression? And it creates conversation and inspires people to continue to think about the work that we’re doing. Even at the mural, I did in Buckhead, I think that’s a crowd favorite, because it’s massive, and there’s just so much color in it. I got to put some butterflies in there which I’m very passionate about because of the symbolism of transformation. That project was probably that’s probably the hardest, biggest mural I’ve ever done tallest. It was a doozy, but it was great. When I got a chance to do the MLK mural, I think that that one might have been the most meaningful just because of the history that the King Center has to me. Having grown up in Atlanta, kids from the 80s and 90s, we learn about social justice and civil rights and the things that happen in black communities were something that they drilled into us. We were at the King Center all the time for field trips, almost to the point where we’re like, we’re gonna go to the King Center again? But to have the opportunity to put art on such a historical building with everything that it means to people all over the world, I think it’s still today saying for me how huge and historic that was to have this only existing art on that building and to be the first black female to even put art on their walls. It was an incredible honor and then to get to meet Dr. Bernice King and talk to her was absolutely incredible.

William Leonard 

Yeah, that’s awesome. I think being an artist is such a rich career to have. Because you are able to draw from an inspiration that you get through life and life experiences. I think that that instance of where you said how Delta is hyper-aware, and a huge advocate of preventing sex trafficking because of the presence that they have. I think that’s so interesting. I really appreciate your effort and passion for this, because it’s very well needed, especially here in the city of Atlanta, where we have such that rich culture, that history, that historical past. In Valor, we met you through the 2021 Art of inclusion program. That’s something we really spearheaded back in 2019 where we formalized as art commission, where we wanted to find innovative, inclusive, diverse artists here in the state of Georgia to really express and bring awareness to their talents, and their art. We’re excited to have you as our third artist, shout out to our two other artists, Nicole from 2019, Nicole Kutz from Nashville, and then Brandon Sadler from Atlanta in 2020. Now, you are in 2021. Talk to us a little bit about why you decided to apply for this program to be our commissioned artist, what the process looked like, and what you got out of this program.

Ashley Daramola

Two people that I’m involved with within the startup space Shyla Bernie and Brian Starner from Beyond The Game, both said the opportunity to me. And that is worth mentioning because it just shows how close-knit the startup community in Atlanta is becoming, were outside of me being a founder and pitching to investors all the time, and trying to convince them to buy into what we’re doing, we’ve created an ecosystem where we just genuinely support one another. And so when they sent the opportunity to me, I know that if it’s coming from them, it’s something I definitely should pay attention to. But I think that what those other murals did was give me something that I always dreamed of is how can I use my art almost as a weapon to tell important stories, to be a voice for people who don’t have one. Once I was able to do that with the previous murals, I knew that everything I want to do going forward is my opportunity for all of those years that I worked with vulnerable children and parents and women and men. Even just being from humble beginnings and being from Atlanta, being in the black community are just so many things that I can now have a voice to tell people using art and on a big stage. When I learned about Valor, I said this is another opportunity to do that, especially because the theme is talking about inclusion, which is something that resonates very close and hits home to me, as a black female founder in Atlanta. The interesting thing is, when I started the company, my biggest goal was to have a brick and mortar in my own neighborhood, so I could create jobs for artists. I didn’t even imagine just how big and massive I could build something. Not just for the bottom line of making money, but to really make an impact. I love that that’s also Valor’s mission. I felt like we have so much synergy between who I am and the kind of artist I want to be and what you are looking for. I was like, “I have to apply.” They just get it. I always want to align with people who get it. 

William Leonard 

I think that’s very well said and also simply put. You want to be aligned with people who have similar values, similar goals, similar work ethic, similar passion to you, and we’re super excited. We had our holiday party a few weeks ago, you were showing off your art and it was just incredible. Everybody was so excited. That was a really fun night. Ashley, I really appreciate you joining here. Would you recommend that any other artists in the region apply for this program? What can they get out of it? 

Ashley Daramola

You don’t always get an awful lot of opportunities to have creative control, right? When you’re trying to build a brand, as an artist, where you’re working full time, you’re doing a lot of commissions, people are telling you what to make. That’s exhausting. But I love that this program, you guys just gave me a theme and said, do whatever you want, right? And that is, one of the most powerful things you can do for an artist is give them an opportunity to just be and just create because they’ll be able to tell stories in their own unique way and not be stuck in a box. That’s the biggest thing is the freedom to be able to create, however you see fit. I think the other thing too, is that you’re working with a community of people and everybody I talked to, if they aren’t artists, they’re just very strong appreciators of art. They really understand us and what we require. You can tell that a lot of thought went into packaging, the whole process in a way that celebrates the artists in a very professional way, just from doing the limited edition prints, and at the whole process was just very well, intricately done by people who really get the art world. You have a lot of people who do these calls for artists, and we’re gonna have this art, but they don’t really get the process in what you’re doing. I think that the approach that you guys took, definitely helps artists, especially if you’re just getting started, to really get a good introduction to what it’s like to be a resident artist and to have a community that celebrates and supports what you need to be able to really thrive and build something beautiful.

William Leonard 

Ashley, that’s awesome. That’s when the most expressive, the most passionate art is created when a creator like yourself has the freedom to just do exactly what they want to do, have the time, have the support, the resources to just be that true visionary. We’re so appreciative of you, your time, your effort, your art, the talent, that you provided with us over the last few months. I think this has been a really awesome conversation. Ashley, I want to thank you for joining me, you are brilliant, thoughtful, creative. I’m confident you’re going to truly advance the art ecosystem here in Atlanta, and not only in Atlanta, but I think the region of the southeast US and also build a very successful business and platform with ArtzyBella. Valor’s excited to see you grow and will continuously support you with all your efforts. We appreciate you, Ashley, for coming.

Ashley Daramola

Well, thank you. First, let me thank you guys for just giving me the opportunity. I feel very seen, very heard, very supported, and loved. I’ve made my best work in environments like that and to just give me an opportunity as a founder to just tell so many people about what we’re building, being from Atlanta, I’m living the wildest dreams that I didn’t even dream of. I have the opportunity to build something that can make a really big impact like you said, not even just in my hometown, but in the region also using art. This was something people told me I never make money doing and we proved them all wrong. I’m very grateful to the whole team, to Jean Luc, Lisa, and everybody I’ve met. Valor has a phenomenal group of people who are very, very passionate. You hear people say, “We’re about inclusion. We’re about the community and doing the work.” But you guys are proving it and I see that just being around you all mean it and it’s genuine. I think Atlanta, the startup community, and especially minority founders are better because you guys are here and you bet the passion is real and we see it. Thank you to you guys also.

William Leonard 

Awesome. Thank you, Ashley. Have an amazing day.

Lisa

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