Lessons in Leadership with Powerhouse Julia Beardwood

By: Casha Doemland

"Unlike some people, I was 40 by the time I started my own business and I think there are different times when people feel ready to do that," says Julia Beardwood, founder of Beardwood & Co., a design and branding studio based in New York.

For Julia, the decision to move on from corporate America began as a lifestyle choice. With kids, age 10 and 14 at the time, she realized taking a step back and enjoying the time before they went off to college was important. So, she transitioned to the world of freelancing as a brand strategist working directly with clients.

She quickly learned that clients always need someone to execute the piece of strategy work – setting goals, determining the actions to achieve the goals and mobilizing the resources necessary those actions. Aware that she wasn’t capable of doing all the work by herself, Julia hired her first employee, creative director, and partner Sarah Williams. Today, Beardwood & Co. has 20 employees, working across a wide array of categories, from brand packaging to lifestyle and financial services.   

Yet, the journey to get there wasn't a walk in the park, especially as a woman breaking into the design world. "It’s kind of hard being a woman in the business world and it has changed dramatically over the 30 years that I have worked in this business,” shares Julia.

When she first broke into the industry, she and her friends sensed that the Mad Men era was coming to an end, with all of the men dominating leadership positions and all of the overt sexism that came with it.

If things are changing, it’s at a turtle’s pace because there’s still a layer of men at the top and sexism still runs rampant. Think about the #metoo movement and all the stories to arise from it. According to a study by Grant Thornton, women hold an average of 21% of senior management roles and a mere 9% of CEO jobs.

Fortunately, most of the companies and clients Beardwood & Co. work with just so happen to be progressive and savvy to the fact that women are talented and need to be supported. One of the largest clients Julia worked with upon creating her team back in 2006 was Bath & Body Works. Now, the company has a plethora of big-name clients expanding over multiple categories from S’well and Honest Tea to Sperry Top-Siders and Westin Hotels & Resorts.

But the question still stands, why aren't more women in positions of leadership and what are the challenges of getting there?


“When I talk with our team, I ask myself how do I demonstrate that authority, that right to be at the top?” Julia says, challenging herself. “Sometimes women, because we are physically smaller, have higher voices and apologize for things we shouldn't apologize for, find it challenging to present with that same level of authority. Again, that's something we're still working on at all levels and to be honest, these issues can be the same for male designers. I think this has, perhaps, been a hiccup for women.”

Does it have something to do with the fact that women are taught to be perfect, whereas boys are taught to be brave? Where women feel pressure to be people-pleasers and men feel the need to take risks?  Julia believes that while clients enjoy working with brand strategists who are going to please them, it's important to return work that's going to help the company grow beyond what they asked for.  It's going to require taking extra steps and running the risks. If your idea for a project is a little different than what the client originally asked for, create the concept and pitch it. The worse they can do is say no. If you have the time and energy to go above and beyond the call of duty, do it. Give the client something that will knock their socks off and have them coming back for more.


So, how does Julia empower fellow designers and women in the design world?


She starts off by hiring them. From there, she creates a diverse workforce of men and women to help push them forward. She encourages them to collaborate and present their work, in turn supplying coaching on what can be made better and what is great as is. "A lot of coaching is how we empower them," says Julia. "You have to give them opportunities and feedback on how they’re doing so they can adjust and grow."

If you're a woman looking to break into the world of design, or even business, Julia's got one piece of advice for everyone.

"Trust your gut," she says. "If it feels good, do it."

In the last 14 years, she's followed that motto and built an empire from the ground up.

She's won Ernst & Young's Winning Women, an award dedicated to a select group of high-potential women entrepreneurs who business show real promise to grow – and it has. She's empowered fellow women across all platforms and continues to do so on a weekly basis. Julia Beardwood is the definition of a phenomenal woman.