Jules Lewis Gibson
President, FUSE media+
Founder, GRAVITAS Magazine
Media maven Jules Lewis Gibson is a passionate woman with an unmatched vision for success. Her life history to date has been an impressive one—from her days studying art history and photography in New Orleans to starting her own marketing company at 26, or residing in the south of France as well as owning one of the most popular nightclubs in Buckhead, Atlanta, and running an arts nonprofit while selling 30 million dollars in luxury real estate in two years. Gibson has worn many hats and with a great deal of style. With a power-packed background, the publisher and mom of two discusses her journey, her accomplishments and what it takes to be a successful woman in business.
Tell us about your early career.
My senior year at Tulane University, I dreamed of being a curator of a museum. During an internship at the Contemporary Arts Museum in New Orleans, I was placed in the public relations and marketing department, where I found my niche. The experience shifted my interest out of the museum industry. I realized that shuffling around the artwork of dead people wasn’t as exciting as I had imagined. So after graduation, I worked at an auction house in Atlanta which quickly led to a job as the director of a gallery with an interesting array of clients, from the Royal Family of Japan to Elton John.
That experience introduced me to the international art and antiquities world which, quite frankly, can be a high stakes gamble with some questionable characters. Billions of dollars are laundered through the art world, and at 23 years old, thankfully, I was smart enough to recognize the danger of being a pawn in the game. After about a year, I walked away from my glamorous life of traveling from New York to San Francisco and Paris to return to Atlanta and find a stable life and career.
My friends who were all starving waiting tables or in entry level cubes all day thought I was crazy to leave, but they didn’t realize how lonely and stressful my life really was behind the velvet rope. It was very isolating as a young woman traveling alone back then. It was the early 1990s. I couldn’t hang out at the bar of the hotel because I would get hit on relentlessly, or else people thought I was a high dollar hooker.
Men who were my clients had offered me exorbitant amounts of money to “sweeten the deal.” There were no 20-year-old billionaires running around buying million-dollar paintings. I dealt with much older, married men and sexual harassment, to put it mildly, was the norm. It was not a life I wanted at any price. So I walked away.
Back home in Atlanta, I applied for my dream job at the time, which was the director of marketing for one of the largest high-end furniture retailers in the country. I’ll never forget, on my interview, the owner of the company who was a woman said, “I know you’re not qualified for this job, but there’s something special about you. I might be wrong, I’ve been wrong before, but I’m going to give you a chance.” I was so grateful to her for believing in me, I was determined to prove her right.
The first thing I did was fire all the freelancers, which the previous director had loaded up on. That immediately freed up over sixty thousand dollars in the advertising budget. I taught myself the design programs and started creating all of the ads myself for television, radio and print. That was the fun part for me. I loved creating the campaigns. The owner gave me total freedom. I did unconventional ads at the time of moms on a soccer field talking about a sale at Flack’s Interiors, then peeling out of the parking lot. I cut the newspaper budget drastically, shifting it into magazines and direct mail. My efforts paid off—the company had over a 250% increase in sales in less than three years. I became the golden child in the owner’s eyes. It was wonderfully rewarding to prove her right.
Mrs. Flack then started a wholesale home accents company, sold through Drexel Heritage Furnishings. After I created a phenomenally successful advertising campaign for her launch, I had several retailers across the country asking for my assistance and some New York agency guys calling on me. I passed on the ticket to New York to start my own marketing and advertising agency specializing in the luxury home market. Within a couple of months, at the age of 26, I had clients from Boston to Palm Beach.
What motivates you?
I have an innate desire for change. It’s my desire to evolve that propels me forward. This might have been a problem in the past, especially for a woman, but in today’s world, it is an important trait to possess.
In business, forecasting into the future is crucial, but sometimes you have to just get through the day, then the week. I’m a big planner so I always have plan B and C in my purse and a hazy outline of D floating around in my head, but I constantly remind myself to live in the moment. If I feel overwhelmed, I remember Scarlett’s famous line from Gone with the Wind that my mother used to say when I was young, “Tomorrow is another day.” It sounds silly but it’s true. Most situations in life do look better after a good night’s sleep.
Who inspires you?
Actually Scarlett was one of my inspirations as a child. We have a lot in common, Scarlett and I. Atlanta is my hometown and I grew up in an Antebellum-style home that resembles Tara, complete with the white pillars and a curved staircase in the entry that I used to slide down as a child. But the most significant similarity is that we are survivors. Her spoiled brat nature aside, I can identify with her tenacity and ability to pull it together in a crisis. Growing up, her character’s strength, perseverance and dedication to the land and family really resonated with me. My family has similar long Southern roots and a history of strong women, so I really identified with the book and her character as a child.
One thing that is vastly different between me and Scarlett is that I would have been head over heels in love with Rhett Butler. I would have thought he was loads of fun, much more exciting than stuffy old Ashley. Rhett and I would have had a grand time spending his money and rebuilding Atlanta. We would have danced ’til dawn on the riverboats, turned Atlanta into the greatest city in the world and laughed all the way to the bank. Poor Scarlett, she missed all the fun pining over weak, pathetic Ashley. Men like Ashley never appealed to me. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Rhett Butlers of the world. Maybe one day I’ll meet a good one. A girl can dream. (Laughs)
But seriously, as far as modern role models, Sheryl Sandberg is one. After reading her book, Lean In, I felt compelled to create a publication that would speak to real women and the challenges we face at work and home. I believe it’s paramount for women today to have an attainable, realistic view of success.
As one of the few women in the country who actually owned a media company already producing magazines, I felt obligated to start GRAVITAS. Women are at the top of the masthead of many magazines, but the person at the top in the boardroom of a media company is still usually a man. And men in this industry are not in the mood to take a chance on changing up the women genre. They are perfectly happy to stay in the lane of fashion, beauty and celebrity. So I took a leap of faith.
Now, I’m inspired daily by the amazing women all around me. The best part of my job is getting to know these incredible women in our community. It’s such a joy to be able to shine the spotlight on these women who are changing the world—to give them a chance to tell their story.
In Western society, we are bombarded with stories about actresses and models, but we rarely hear the stories of the women really changing the world. And yet, those are exactly the women we should be honoring.
What kinds of things excite your creativity?
At heart, I’m a storyteller, so every aspect of my job excites me. Well, I have to be honest, the accounting side is not so much fun, I’m more of a words and pictures kind of girl.
New challenges excite me, which is why I enjoy the media business today. As the industry evolves into the digital era, the field opens up and new opportunities arise.
I had lunch with the owner of one of the largest media companies in Florida last year. We had never met and the first thing I said to him was, “Isn’t it an exciting time to be in media?”
He looked at me like I had two heads, and shrugged, “I guess.”
These are certainly not the glory days for him. Magazines as a whole have certainly suffered setbacks in the past few years; declining revenue and subscribers are common problems for most publications. While I agree the industry is changing and not everyone will be standing in 10 years or even 5, it is these types of disruptive times when new companies and new ideas succeed. I see the digital world as a phenomenal opportunity to expand the experience for magazines. Rather than hold onto yesterday’s glory, I see the horizon of a new day for the industry.
My enthusiasm did not go unnoticed. He offered to buy my company and give me a job before my salad was cleared. I thanked him for the compliment but told him, “We aren’t for sale.” That, of course, only interested him more.
How do you find balance in life and work?
As a divorced mother of two who runs a business while raising two sons, balance can be a challenge. I share custody with my ex-husband, so I find that that creates its own built-in balance. Sometimes I think I have it easier than married women, since 45% of the time my children are occupied. I’m fortunate that their dad is responsible, so I don’t worry about them when they are with him and during that time I work late or go to events or just sleep in and relax. In many ways, it has its advantages. I have more free time than any married mother I know.
The divorce must have been difficult.
Absolutely, the most difficult time of my life. Of course, I would have loved to have had a happy marriage and family life for my children, but that was not in the cards. So I found another rainbow for us.
We all have dark, cloudy days. No matter how glorious someone’s life looks from the outside, everyone has tragic, down on your knees moments. But you have to pick yourself up at some point, brush yourself off, put on a nice dress, fix your makeup, do your hair, take a good long look in the mirror and tell yourself, “I got this.” Head back out into the world and find another rainbow. That’s the thing about rainbows, they don’t show up at your door holding a pizza box. Rainbows are out there, but you have to go outside and look around.
What do you find are some of the obstacles women face in the corporate world?
I fear that many barriers, even unconscious ones, will continue for some time in corporate America. I think the greatest news I’ve heard recently is the exponential rise in women entrepreneurs. Starting a small business, even a home-based one, has been the path to financial and personal freedom for women for many generations. Some of the most successful women started in their homes, even Martha Stewart. I think women may even have a slight advantage with small businesses due to our innate ability to multi-task. It’s truly built into our DNA. For centuries, survival depended on a woman’s ability to care for children, prepare food, clean quarters, tend to animals. Today, it’s clean the house, do laundry, care for children, prepare meals, check email, follow the news, feed the dog, exercise, dress well, work on a job…and that’s just before 9 am.
Do you feel men still have substantial advantages in business?
In business, men can be tough and they are admired. When women get tough, they are often labelled a bitch. Women are still judged by a different standard.
Men have had innumerable advantages, forever. Although women have made staggering advances in the past few decades, there are still built-in barriers that no one even acknowledges. For instance, many deals are made nowhere near a boardroom. Some of the biggest deals are made on the golf course, the hunting trip, the fishing expedition, even the strip club. Women may have a seat at the board table, but they are usually left out of the extracurricular activities where deals and careers are often made.
What are some of your long-term goals for your company?
I would love to grow GRAVITAS to other cities and online through digital platforms. I firmly believe in growing regionally rather than nationally in order to showcase women in the local community. When publications go national, the content ends up in the world of celebrity for name recognition. Women need to know what success looks like in their own neighborhood. We need role models we can relate to, and examples of attainable success.
It’s paramount that someone shows what true beauty really looks like in this “photoshopped” society we live in today. We need to see regular women who don’t have live-in chefs, full-time trainers and an entourage of assistants and graphic artists to make them appear flawless. When a society has teenagers saving their babysitting money for plastic surgery, you know you have a problem.
How do you view getting older?
One of the best parts about getting older is the ability to see your life with a bit of perspective. My life has been packed with amazing experiences as I searched for myself, but it is only now in my mid-40s that I’ve found her.
Life doesn’t look anything like I imagined. There have been heartbreaks and disappointments along the way, but I am exceptionally fortunate for my health, my children, my family and friends. While I am in an ever-changing cycle of adjustment, I’ve come to realize that that is what life is. Regardless of how much we plan, the only thing we truly control is now.
As far as the physical aspect of aging, well, I’ve been blessed with great genes, so I haven’t felt the need to do anything…yet. I can’t say that I never will, but I hope to grow old gracefully.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
If I had the opportunity, I would like to be involved with the advancement of women globally. I am a firm believer that the only way to fundamentally change the world is through the education and equality of women. The statistics are staggering when a culture truly values and invests in women—poverty rates plummet, productivity rises, life expectancy increases, domestic violence decreases and quality of life surges. I would like to play a small role in advancing that climate for future generations.
What advice would you give a woman just starting out in business?
Follow your passion and remain open to new opportunities, even if they don’t follow a predictable career path. I think it is extremely important to have a diverse skill set and a broad range of experiences. The more you bring to the table, the better chance you’ll earn a good seat.