The Joy of a Job Well Done

Kelli Richardson Lawson and Orlena Nwokah Blanchard met when their sons were infants back in 2002. They bonded over babies, motherhood and a dream to make a difference.

Their career paths diverged and intersected over the years until finally the longtime friends became business partners in JOY Collective, a company that helps elevate brands through marketing, digital/social media, events, civic engagement and more. Anything to do with building a brand, these women—and their team—can do, and they do so with joy.

The capital letters in their business name emphasize the importance they place on finding personal fulfillment while fulfilling clients’ wishes—a twin focus that came from shared pain.

Lawson recalls a difficult time after her father passed away in 2012. Two weeks after he passed, a girlfriend of Lawson’s shared that he had told her he didn’t see enough joy in his daughter’s home. He wanted the friend to help his daughter find that missing spark.

“There I was eating chips on my couch,” says Lawson. “But that was a turning point for me. I was an entrepreneur but was focusing on only one client, doing stuff I’d been doing for a long time. JOY Collective grew out of a desire to bring joy to ourselves and our families.”

Blanchard and Lawson became business partners in February 2014. “I had gotten very sick and, in 2012, didn’t know what the future was,” recalls Blanchard, who is married and has three children. “For me, JOY Collective was a bit of rebirth, a second chance. The rest of the life I had to live was for me to make a difference, to be meaningful, to leave a legacy.”

Making a connection
Both women left rigorous corporate lives to become entrepreneurs. Lawson was instrumental in BET (Black Entertainment Television) Network’s growth as a brand. She left there and went to Dell, then became a consultant for BET. Blanchard worked for TV One, a network dedicated to Black culture, and other organizations before becoming an entrepreneur.

“We both wanted a level of independence as wives and mothers, as well as the freedom to make decisions about the type of work we did and who we did it with and for,” says Blanchard. “We were reaching a point where so much of our contributions were for somebody else’s financial gain.”

JOY Collective’s goal is to create marketing ideas and movement that build brand love, as well as create programs that have social impact. The company doesn’t just help other companies sell products. It helps organizations and their brands find the connection points between cultural wants and needs and the business of selling products.

“Most companies look only at the data. We are less concerned with what customers do and more concerned about why they do it,” says Lawson, married and mother of two. “We look at the role that brand has in their lives. What does the buyer value? How do we help the company build a relationship with the buyer?”

JOY Collective has worked with the History Channel, BET Networks, the United States Naval Academy, Weight Watchers, Sprite, OWN (yes, they met Oprah), Unilever, Macy’s and more. The company has produced and participated in numerous events, including many for Dove, over the years. With a main office in Washington, D.C., the company has 35 full- and part-time employees, and satellite offices in New York City and Naples, Florida.

One recent campaign centered on SheaMoisture, helping the brand re-enter the market with a focus on paying tribute to Black women and the brand’s commitment to giving back to the Black community.

The JOY Collective also helped Dove continue its mission of inclusive beauty as well as participate in spearheading The Crown Act, a law offering protection against discrimination based on hairstyles. The company is also part of Dove Men+Care, a campaign launched in September 2020 with the National Basketball Players Association to change the way Black men are seen and treated in American society.

Accepting failure
The COVID-19 pandemic was hard, of course, with employees, including Blanchard and Lawson, having to work remotely and cut travel dramatically. “I like having a space to convene, being in person in some capacity,” says Blanchard. “And our building has a Cheesecake Factory in it. I missed the human connection.”

Lessons about working from home aren’t the only things these experienced brand experts have gleaned over the years. For Lawson, one of the early things she learned from Bob Johnson, founder of BET, was about how to figure things out on her own.

“If you have confidence in yourself, you can figure it out,” she says. “That lesson really worked for me. I have to remind myself that I’m able to take a blank piece of paper and figure it out pretty quickly, but many don’t operate like me and that’s OK.”

The larger lesson, she says, is that she tries to understand others’ perspectives and adapt to those differences to get the job done. This skill translates well to working with a variety of clients with a variety of needs.

Blanchard, too, has lessons learned from years in corporate America and at JOY Collective. Failure, she says of one big lesson, is part of the journey. “I had groomed myself in a quest for perfection, but as an entrepreneur you’ll fail,” she says. “I learned from Kelli that it’s OK to trip up. Accepting failure is part of the process. It’s tough, but necessary.”

Blanchard also speaks into the idea of worth, telling how a mentor once said to her, “Never give [your expertise] away for free.” Blanchard reflects: “I was so excited for people and business leaders to give me a seat at the table, but I didn’t value myself the right way.”

Now, she and Lawson “are much clearer about the value we offer as Black women leaders and business professionals, and are unapologetic about demanding the value we are worth,” says Blanchard. “If you don’t believe it, you can’t claim it.”

I was so excited for people and business leaders to give me a seat at the table, but I didn’t value myself the right way.


Trusting their instincts
Perhaps the hardest lesson Lawson has learned through the years is that not everyone can be trusted. She’s been burned a couple of times in her career, yet always starts “from a positive space” and gives the benefit of the doubt. Another huge lesson is “to trust my instincts,” she says. “We’ve avoided working with certain companies or clients, and we’ve walked away from a large company, because we just didn’t feel it was right. Yet, JOY Collective is growing exponentially.”

That growth doesn’t always make things easier, however. Now that they are the bosses, “it’s a different thing when people’s livelihoods are involved. When people come to work for JOY Collective, yes, they work for the company and what we do, but they really come to work for and with Kelli and me,” says Blanchard. “When we face challenges on staff, 99% of the time it’s our fault. We didn’t see an email or didn’t take the time to really listen.”

She adds, “All the things that didn’t feel good in corporate life for me, I’m now in a position to prevent those things from happening in others’ lives.”

Both women remember that when the company was small they had the time to talk with and teach their younger employees. Now they lament that they can’t offer that same level of guidance, both because they are larger and because the pandemic has kept people separated. Yet these accomplished entrepreneurs continue to “learn from people on our team and they from us,” says Blanchard. “Our team is our client as well.”

Lawson and Blanchard see only good things ahead. They see possibilities on the investor side of the business world, and more growth for JOY Collective. “Our asset is human capital,” says Lawson. “I see JOY representing lots of different types of work and businesses, lots of opportunities to touch different areas of society. The JOY umbrella may be bigger.”

Lawson also sees herself focusing more on The Sonrise Project, a safe place she helped create for parents of children who struggle with mental wellness, while Blanchard wants to travel to her parents’ homelands of Nigeria and England. Whatever the future holds for these strong women and entrepreneurs, there will be hope, forward progress, and love for family, friends, each other, and the work they do. All with a splash of joy.

Ann Byle is a writer for national and local magazines, and author or co-author of several books. She and her husband and her four adult children live in West Michigan.