A combination of racial justice movements in support of Black business and people exploring entrepreneurial ventures during COVID-19 lockdowns led to an uptick in Black-owned businesses in 2020. Over the last five years, women-owned businesses are similarly booming. However, breaking down both racial barriers and glass ceilings are monumental tasks made even more difficult with conservative and outdated beliefs in an area like rural Missouri. Tonia Wright, CEO of Grace Advertising and Consulting, Inc., emulates the Black female entrepreneur experience with strength, resiliency, and – of course – grace. With a lifelong passion for the written word and an impenetrable sense of self, she inserted for herself a seat at the table. When she was no longer welcome, she built her own table. Today, her company celebrates its 14-year anniversary.

Wright grew up in Kansas City, Missouri with two older siblings and a single mother who worked two jobs and ruled with an iron fist. Wright said she is thankful, now, for the strict upbringing. As the youngest, Wright became very introverted and found comfort in the words of Winnie the Pooh and inspiration from Maya Angelou as books became a safe escape that quickly developed into a love of creative writing.

Though she lived in a Black neighborhood, she attended a white Catholic school, attending Mass several days a week.  Her lived experience coalesced Black culture and a mainstream white culture that enabled her to float between two worlds. After transferring from Bishop O’Hara to predominantly Black Southwest High School in the mid ‘80s, she felt the full weight of the shock. “I felt like a novelty,” she said. “There were some cultural things I had missed.” Her “midwestern dialect” was also chastised, once again leaving her feeling alienated and turning to books for comfort.

As a high school junior at age 15, Wright got pregnant, a difficult pressure to carry as she was always the person in the family expected to excel. Her plans to receive a doctorate by age 25 were now put aside. Despite wanting to attend summer school to speed up graduation, she instead entered a school for pregnant girls for a semester which she recounts as an awful experience as, during this time, she also struggled with her confidence after developing pronounced patches of psoriasis on her face. “I felt so misplaced and uncomfortable.”

After giving birth to her son, she graduated high school at 16. He was six months old and dazzling in a two-piece baby-blue suit at her graduation ceremony. Wright worked multiple jobs and saved up money to move to Texas with her baby and a girlfriend. This move wasn’t the original plan, but she found an apartment, enrolled in Texas Southern University in Houston’s Third Ward, and finally realized her dream of going to college.

Buffered by grace

While excited to have a fresh start, Wright’s alienation throughout grade school did not prepare her for the social aspects of college life. She earnestly tried but eventually decided to reprioritize, moved back to Missouri, and enrolled in Lincoln University in Jefferson City. There, she was hyper-focused on her education, her son, and writing for the campus paper.

During her time at LU, she was approached about an internship in Baltimore, Maryland, writing for three trade publications – Black Professional Magazine, Hispanic Professional Magazine, and Hispanic Engineer Magazine. That summer, she went to Baltimore to intern as a contributing writer. The internship morphed into her first job as a journalist. Transferring from LU to Morgan State University, she witnessed a different world.

For the first time, Wright saw a level of privilege and wealth among her Black peers and their families – doctors, lawyers, and judges on yachts cruising down Georgetown’s waterfront in Washington, D.C. “It underscored for me, that even with baby in tow, I could be and do anything,” she said. Wright has a strong sense of pride about her experiences at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). “Attending HBCUs filled me with a sense of self, pride, and an unflappable belief in myself,” she said. “Anyone who knows me knows I will always bet on myself.”

Back in Kansas City, Wright wrote for three small newspapers.

Soon after, she started working for a large media company that had just launched a digital startup. It was the early ‘90s and the internet was changing how ad agencies did business. Wright’s role was to write articles, targeted to advertising executives, about how to marry the internet with traditional advertising.

Newly married, Wright’s success led to recruitment by an ad agency, Valentine Radford. One of the agency’s competitors offered her a generous salary to walk away and work for them. Wright declined. Despite her many contributions over the years and clear loyalty, when the company laid her off with a severance package, they left her with two biting remarks: “You’re dependable to a fault” and “you’ll land on your feet.” The first she, now regrettably, took as a compliment – something far too many women do. Black women especially are applauded for being dependable, reliable, always saving the day, or in Wright’s case, saving the account. Yet the second remark meant she’d have to figure out how to land softly after being unexpectedly pushed. The agency eventually folded.

Wright landed a position with another ad agency. However, nothing could have prepared her for the prominent barriers within the final agency she worked for before creating her own.

Not only was she the only Black person in the company, but the only woman, and immediately felt isolated within the fraternal corporate culture. Even though she was being flown all over the country to secure million-dollar deals, her long overdue request for a raise and a corner office was met with a resounding no. After working there for a few years, the no was the push she needed to resign. The ad agency eventually folded, and Wright spent time as a stay-at-home mom, what she calls “noble, selfless work,” but decided to create her own agency from the ground up, never again allowing her fate to be in the hands of corporate patriarchs.

Driven by altruism

Wright and her husband moved the family to a small town in rural Missouri to sit still in a place where their “souls could be quiet.” She established Grace Advertising and Consulting, Inc., named as is because it is by God’s grace, she is able to do what she loves and would do it for free. Her desire to help deliver big messages for small companies also perfectly aligned with the name Grace, which is defined as an unmerited favor. “I knew that I wanted a company that catered to organizations with smaller budgets,” she said. At many ad agencies, getting a foot in the door or requesting services without a strong connection or a deep wallet is impossible. Wright wanted to do a lot with less, delivering her expertise at a fraction of the cost, stating that small companies deserve fabulous brands.

She also wanted to get rid of the cutthroat culture in advertising, recalling board room days of being complimented more on her suits than her good ideas, which were later used anyways without due credit. She dedicated herself to creating a company where every employee feels valued. She also prioritized seeking out female and nonbinary candidates for traditionally male-dominated roles, stating that while the predominantly male nature of the industry has changed, it has not changed enough.

Perhaps most importantly, she wanted to create a safe workplace for mothers. “I wanted a company where mothers could be moms and still have a career – even if that means working from home with a baby in their arms.” Wright recalled asking for maternity leave before giving birth to her daughter, Tempest. “The couple running the newspaper laughed so hard when I asked,” she said, “bent over, holding their stomachs, with tears streaming from their eye. Maternity leave was clearly a joke.”

With an empathetic understanding of navigating motherhood and pursuing a career, Wright remains dedicated to ensuring any potential parents at Grace are welcome and encouraged to do both.

Wright’s first goal for Grace was to have a reputation that precedes it – something she is all too familiar with being a Black female CEO in places where few people look like her. She frequently reminds herself she is the only Black person at the table, not allowing herself to forget because “other people don’t forget; and they have a special way of letting you know.”

Wright said sometimes invites to join a team means being relegated to the sidelines – yet still expected to score big. Those have been the toughest client-agency relationships, relationships that no longer have a place in her company. Making peace with years of marginalization, bias and unconscious bias, and blatant racism, she focuses on the positives, like the many incredible clients they’ve served throughout the years, the accomplishments a small ad agency, like Grace Advertising, has made in supporting access to care in communities that need it the most, a part of the agency’s altruistic mission.

Build your own tables and chairs

Wright vividly recalled the day in 2007 when she landed her first client – so much so, she remembers the dress she wore when she and her husband went to dinner that evening to celebrate. While Grace Advertising was never intended to focus on health care marketing, the company picked up the Health Care Collaborative (HCC) of Missouri as a client in November 2007 and other health-related nonprofits followed.

Grace Advertising later added the Missouri Rural Health Association (MRHA) to its roster, helping the nonprofit deepen its roots throughout rural Missouri. “Grace Advertising is more than just an advertising agency to MRHA, they are an integral part and extension of the MRHA family and team,” said Melissa Van Dyne, Executive Director of MRHA. “They have given the association a voice and a face while allowing us to express our individuality.  We could not have grown our reach without their expertise, support, and direction.”

Now, after 14 historic years of growing her business, her sight is set on returning to school to get her master’s degree in health policy, racial equity, and social justice while continuing to run Grace Advertising.  She plans to have a portion of the company work to impact how policies affect communities that have been left behind. “A lot of times, health policies are done [to] people left out of the power dynamic and not [for] them,” she said. “I want the company to support removing systemic racism from policies that are supposed to help those who need it most.”

Grace Advertising’s editorial platforms will grow and develop its journalistic roots and the marketing aspect will continue to support rural and urban nonprofits with public information campaigns to spread awareness and education about important topics like the COVID-19 vaccine. The company’s consistent messaging encouraging young people and people of color to not only vote but educate themselves on ballot measures supported passage of Medicaid expansion in Missouri in 2020. Wright’s daughter, Tempest, who has been creating content for Grace Advertising for 12 of its 14 years, is most proud of this accomplishment and credits her mother’s dedication. “We had been advocating for Medicaid expansion for nearly a decade,” Tempest said.

The shift from working for somebody else to working as a CEO was a natural fit for Wright, according to her daughter, who associates Grace Advertising with the image of her mother in a suit. “I was so used to seeing my mom work as hard as she did for agencies in Kansas City that it wasn’t much different to see her grow a business from scratch,” she said. “She’s always been a very determined professional so it’s natural to see her in that state.”

Wright’s creativity, resiliency, determination, and drive not only opened doors for other young women through the years, but its built-from-scratch legacy also shattered ceilings and expectations along the way. When asked the greatest lesson she’s learned about herself throughout her entrepreneurial journey, she answered, “There’s something in me that can’t quit, that is driven to make a contribution. Like many, I want to see an unadulterated cosmic shift in this country that fosters hope, dignity, equity, and healing in communities of color. From the justice system, to education, to financial institutions and corporate board rooms, people of color – Black people – have more than earned a seat at the table. But now the other shoe has dropped, and just merely taking a seat is not enough. Instead of waiting and hoping for an invite, we are building our own tables and chairs.”

Wright encourages women interested in pursuing or growing their own businesses to trust themselves above all else, but also affiliate with people who share the same values. She stresses the importance of finding a banker who sees you and believes in your business, creating a strong network, enlisting support from strong mentors, and ensuring that the people you hire are chosen intentionally. Become a consummate student of your craft and never stop learning. “It’s always okay to relearn what you think you know,” she said. Be fearless about failing because it takes nothing from you. “Your failures don’t define you; they gird you.”