Veronique James of The James Agency: “Autonomy”

Autonomy. The freedom to be able to control my own destiny, my time, my future, and the flexibility for me to raise a young family has been extraordinary. I have also been able to mentor and support young female leaders who seek guidance from those who have accomplished what they seek out to do is […]

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Autonomy. The freedom to be able to control my own destiny, my time, my future, and the flexibility for me to raise a young family has been extraordinary. I have also been able to mentor and support young female leaders who seek guidance from those who have accomplished what they seek out to do is also very rewarding. Being able to make a mark in my own way, as well as be an example for my daughter, helps me get through those tough days when I feel like I am on my own island.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Veronique James.

Veronique James founded The James Agency (TJA) in 2005 with the goal of creating an agency focused on open communication and transparency with clients and employees. Today, the award-winning, integrated agency specializes in consumer advertising, public relations and digital and continues to exemplify Veronique’s original vision. Veronique and her team collaborate to produce creatively-fueled, results-driven campaigns that help clients achieve their goals and positively impact their bottom line.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I went to the University of Arizona for a BFA in visual communications where I studied business and graphic design. From there, I worked at a small agency in Scottsdale where I had the privilege of working on small consumer brands in Phoenix like local restaurants and high-end boutique stores. It was a great experience because the agency was only five people, so the ability to wear several hats and learn the business like that was rare. From there, I was headhunted to a larger 50-year firm of 40 members that focused on four and five-star destination travel and hospitality. The environment was very corporate, and since it was a larger environment, I had a front-seat spectator row of what it was like to work in a more traditional hierarchy agency setting. The clients and budgets were amazing, but the culture was disruptive and toxic. Simultaneously, I was married early out of school, and just as quickly was going through a divorce less than a year later. Going through a major life change like that at such a young age made me question my days and what I really wanted to do with my life. Out of disparity, I started freelancing — working late nights and weekends as a graphic designer — to pay for my legal bills and dissolution of marriage. Very quickly my side hustle was providing more for me financially than my 9–5 corporate day job as an art director. It became very apparent to me that my future wasn’t to work for someone else, but to be able to create an environment where I loved what I did and who I worked with. Thus, the agency was born 16 years ago.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

There have been a lot of stories over the course of the years, some really good and some really bad. The most vivid is the year 2020. Being an agency owner that specialized in hospitality, F&B, destination travel and entertainment, it was like we drove 120 MPH directly into a brick wall. Literally overnight, nearly 50% of our clients canceled. I had to make a decision at that moment — let the majority of our staff go or keep everyone employed/busy/focused and try to beat this thing to its own punch. I can pridefully say that not only did we beat it, but we also kicked it square in the teeth.

That wasn’t my first opportunity where I was faced to adapt quickly. Early in my ownership journey, there were several times where I was forced to stay focused. Being a 16-year agency, we also navigated the housing crisis of 2007–2008. Similar to 2020, the agency at that time was heavily focused on one vertical, infill multi-family. At the time, the agency was only 11 people and we were very much in that infant stage. We saw the writing on the wall and knew we had to diversify quickly, otherwise, we would be a distant memory quickly. One Friday afternoon we piled into our small conference room and started to list every client and category we wanted to go after. We were specific and listed the brands and locations, rather than generalize. Less than four months later, we had successfully closed or contacted for over 50% of the list we have envisioned. Nonetheless, it was a testament to the saying “thought become things.” That experience gave us the confidence to know that we could face anything that came our way.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was a one-woman show during my first year of owning the agency, I wanted the perception to be that “I” was actually “we” and that I had a staff to support the work. It was also important to me that optically we looked like more of an established agency vs. a one-person start-up. That said, I thought it was a good idea to pretend that we had a receptionist when potential clients called. I would answer my home phone in a British accent and introduce myself as an alternate name, place the phone down on the desk as the caller was “on hold” waiting for me to answer, and then answer myself. Looking back, this was pretty ridiculous that I thought I would sound believable. Of course, a potential client called that was from London one day and caught me in the act!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I don’t have one person that I can tip my hat to, however, I was very grateful to be a part of a professional organization called EO (Entrepreneurs’ Organization) of which I am still a member 10 years later. EO is a global organization comprised of founders, co-founders, and majority controlling shareholders of businesses who achieve a minimum of 1M dollars in annual revenue. The Arizona chapter is the third-largest in the U.S. and I had the privilege of leading the organization as Chapter President during the 2017–2018 term. The cornerstone of EO is about sharing experiences about personal and business with other like-minded entrepreneurs in an effort that we can learn from each other. As a rookie business owner, this was crucial for me, as I did not go to school to run an agency, nor did I have a degree in management. Having access to 160 other predominant local business owners allowed me to gain the insights I needed to overcome the hurdles that naturally came with owning a business.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

I can’t speak to women-owned funded companies as I am self-funded, however, I do believe there is a significant shortage of support for women in business. Even in EO there, are only 17 women in the entire chapter (of 160 total). Personally, I feel that women should feel empowered to follow their dreams. I had several “no’s” thrown at me during my early years, but that didn’t stop me from finding a way. As I mentioned, I wasn’t well-capitalized by equity partners and when I started the business. I was more than 200,000 dollars in debt from my divorce. Not having access to capital doesn’t mean you can’t pursue your dreams, it just means you have to get creative about your means. I DIY’d everything or purchased second-hand furniture and equipment until the company could afford new. We weren’t able to secure our first credit card as a business until late 2010. Making it five years as a business growing 100% year-over-year without access to capital or credit was difficult, but set us up for success later.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

It would help if there was more awareness of capital opportunities for women business owners starting out. I also feel that the limitation of supporting organizations specific to female-led organizations is stifling. Had there been more avenues of education for me when I was in my 20’s and starting the business, I don’t think I would have had the challenges I was faced with.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Autonomy. The freedom to be able to control my own destiny, my time, my future, and the flexibility for me to raise a young family has been extraordinary. I have also been able to mentor and support young female leaders who seek guidance from those who have accomplished what they seek out to do is also very rewarding. Being able to make a mark in my own way, as well as be an example for my daughter, helps me get through those tough days when I feel like I am on my own island.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?

Myth #1: You make more money being an entrepreneur. For many of the early years of a business starting up, leaders eat last. Reinvesting in your business will pay off in the long run but in most cases it is necessary.

Myth #2: Founding a company is easier than working for someone else. In reality, it takes grit, confidence, the discipline of consistency and many long hours.

Myth #3: Being a founder or leader of a company gives you the right to act however you please. As the founder of a business, all eyes are on you. Leading by example couldn’t be more true when growing a business as your actions and words will make or break the ecosystem of your organization.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

Not everyone is cut out to be the founder of a business. When most want to quit or “call it a night,” that’s when you have to keep going. Not many have the endurance to be able to push through and the stamina to outrace your competition. Being a founder also requires repetition and consistency, as well as trust to delegate and let go. Delegation is sometimes harder than doing the job yourself since it requires meticulous oversight while still executing your own task of duties. I’ve seen many throws in the towel when it comes to leadership because they would rather do it themselves than take the time to train someone to understand the vision.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

#1. Read everything before you sign something. There have been a couple of times in my entrepreneurial career where I was rushed to sign a document or legal contract without thoroughly digesting it first. In all instances, it completely bit me in the bum. Had I taken the time to read, I could have saved myself from losing thousands of dollars and having difficult conversations.

#2. There are going to be days where you are going to want to give up. Don’t! That’s a sign that you are growing and so is your business. If it is uncomfortable, you are learning. The season of business ebbs and flows and there will be seasons of difficultly, but it does pass and that learning experience will shape you to be a stronger founder in the future.

#3. At the end of the day, your business is for you, not for your team. No matter all the benefits, cultural infinitives and bonus plans you have in place, remember that your staff has their own career goals and opportunities presented to them. No matter how bought into the business you think they are, you are still the founder and all of the good (and bad) is yours to own.

#4. Everything in business is negotiable. When I started off early in my 20’s, I took everyone’s offer in business as face value. I realized several years later that while I was paying full price for everything, everyone else was negotiating our fees to what worked for them. I don’t love playing hardball, but I do my best to ensure that every financial transaction I enter is now mutually beneficial.

#5. Be careful what you wish for (in a good way!) If you wish for a large business with lots of employees, make that happen! But be wary that large corporations don’t mean less work — they mean more people, more expenses and often more complexities. Some say “keep it small and keep it all,” while others reach for the stars and aspire to build the largest in their category. Either way, businesses of all sizes come with their unique challenges and opportunities, just be prepared for whatever reality you create.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I can’t say that I have made the world a better place, but I feel good knowing that I have created a place where people feel safe at work, and where I can provide for their livelihood to support themselves and their families. Reflecting on my early professional experience in corporate advertising, The James Agency is a place where we have fun, laugh, are creative every day and respect one another. It is a healthy environment that I confidently feel all of our team looks forward to coming to and I do not take that for granted. What’s more, we have the privilege of solving creative problems for our clients and helping them achieve their business goals. It is very rewarding.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Some of the most inspirational movements, even beyond politics, come from a local level. At The James Agency, I put a large focus on investing in top-tier talent and putting an emphasis on work-life balance, which leads to happier employees who are more productive. Burnout is real, especially during a pandemic when life’s stresses can accumulate quickly. I hope to lead the charge in changing the way my employees and other employers think about “work.”

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I don’t want to get too political, but see Kamala Harris in the White House is so inspiring. I would love to sit down with her for coffee and talk about her struggles, what her “why” was for pursuing her path of leadership, as well as how she feels now that she has achieved her ultimate goal. z

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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