Jefferson Ellison has worked in the fashion industry since he was sixteen years old. By the time he graduated from college, his resume included experience at HGTV, InStyle Magazine, and TLC Network.
At 23, he purchased streetwear label JAWBREAKING, turning it into the millennial-focused media company JAWBREAKINGXYZ, which now includes the streetwear brand, a creative agency, and content division. Jefferson's blog shares his unique perspectives as a young, successful, Black creative living and working in the south.
Jefferson has been featured in a series of VirtualJobShadow.com Life Skills videos, including“Pursue Progress Over Perfection" and “Passion Alone Won’t Pay the Bills.”
VJS: Jefferson, you've got an incredible voice and write about such critical social topics on your blog. Did you always know you wanted to make a difference?
JE: No, and I didn't always care either. I always knew I wanted to have a voice, though. My background is in fashion, which is all about relevancy. As I grew, my voice became more specific, and I realized how niche my voice was and became more interested in using it.
VJS: You self-identify as a Black, queer man. Does your identity mean having to confront issues your peers may not?
JE: As a Black queer man in America, I deal with things most of my coworkers don’t deal with, which means my imposter syndrome shows up a lot.
I recently had my first webinar on anti-racist marketing practices. I am an educated marketing professional who’s been working in this industry for 11 years. I’m completely qualified to talk about what it means to be Black and engaging in marketing materials. Yet before the webinar, I found myself crying in my office, overwhelmed because of the huge turnout, and afraid I’d mess something up and ruin my business.
The reason I’m having this experience is that there are not many people who are Black, queer, and under the age of 45 doing what I do, representing what I represent. So, there’s no permission structure on how to do that. The way the world is structured is unfortunately not conducive to my success. And that goes back to representation—if I saw more people doing what I do, I’d feel more comfortable doing it.
VJS: Why is representation so important?
JE: I'm going to answer the question, then point out the issue with the question.
Representation matters because the world is not one thing, so it is important that people see the world as it is and not as it could be or as it comes to you in a specific plane.
And a lot of times, people ask the question, "why does representation matter?" and they don't realize how reductive it is because in what world does visibility not matter? I don't need to justify my existence. I exist. If I exist, then you should know that I exist, and so, therefore, I shouldn't have to tell you why you knowing I exist is important. I exist. I am a fact, so it's important that you know the facts.
VJS: Thanks for clarifying that! You are not afraid to push boundaries, speak truth to power, or engage people in tough conversations, especially in your writing, which we admire. Have you ever worried that being so outspoken would negatively affect your career?
JE: No, that has never come up for me. I think that is because I try to speak on things that I can be sure about. I was very much raised in a household where my dad said if you can't be 100% positive, just don't speak because you need to be right.
When I'm passionate or outspoken about something, I tend to speak on my experience. I cannot be wrong about my experiences and how I perceive the world, and I tend to speak on facts. And so, I cannot be wrong about a fact if I know it's a fact. Then it's a fact and not an opinion.
I don't think students should be worried about being so outspoken that it negatively affects their career or their career pathways or how they show up in the world. I think people should be clear that they are speaking about something they can stand by. I would never speak on your experience because I'm not you. That would be me taking liberties. I think students should speak on their experiences and what they know to be true.
VJS: Speaking of identity, should it play a part in your ability to get a job?
JE: In a perfect world, no. In this world, yes. I don't think anyone is owed a job over how they look or identify. Everyone should have the acumen to do the job they've elected. I think the world we live in was created with the idea that how you identify determines what you could do for work. To fix that, we must swing in the opposite direction. We should emphasize women, people of color, and non-native English speakers because for so long, they weren't allowed to work.
VJS: We appreciate your time and would like to end this chat by asking a question we ask many young professionals: how do you get people to take you seriously as a young entrepreneur?
JE: Be right.
I think the best thing I've done in my career to let people know I'm serious and gain their respect is to be good at my job. I don't overpromise. And I don't underdeliver. If I'm going to be late, I'm going to tell you I'm going to be late. And if I can't do something, I'm not going to tell you I can because I don't want to be wrong. It's not a secret there's somebody out there with more experience than me, but that's not the point. I don't need to be in business for 30 years to know how to buy an ad or drive traffic...or have a conversation. You're hiring me for my perspective and what I can bring to the table. I just try to be honest and straightforward.