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Founder of GRAY wins Folio: Top Women in Media Honor

By GRAY Editors

It’s a banner day at GRAY—we are thrilled to announce that our founder and CEO, Shawn Williams, has been named Folio's 2018 Top Women in Media in the category of Entrepreneurs.

The award honors women in media who have stood out, taken risks, and pushed their teams to new heights. Folio’s list of Top Women in Media includes leaders from The Atlantic, Bloomberg, Harvard Business Review, Hearst, Meredith, Time, Vox Media, and more. Martha Stewart is the recipient of Folio’s 2018 Lifetime Empowerment & Achievement Award. Honorees will be celebrated in New York on June 7, 2018.

Below, we’ve shared our full nomination to let you know more about how GRAY started and what we stand for. See Folio’s list of winners here.


FOLIO: Why should Williams win this award? 

2011 was hardly a banner year for publishing. Mass-market paperback sales were falling, Borders bookstores had filed for bankruptcy, and the combined newsstand sales of 68 major U.S. magazines had declined by nearly half since 2001. All data seemed to sound the death knell for print as the enduring literary medium consumers had relied on for centuries. But Shawn Williams, the CEO / Founder + Publisher of GRAY Media, LLC, heeded this bell toll, not as a funerary dirge, but a call to arms.

Williams founded GRAY Media, LLC and launched GRAY magazine in print and digital in 2011 to provide a platform for the design industry in the Pacific Northwest affected by the U.S. recession. Determined to build an economically sustainable foundation, Williams self-funded the startup and grew the business within its means—she launched with a print run of 5,500 issues and over the next five years grew distribution more than 800% and revenue 1500%.

In addition to turning the eyes of 4 million consumers and trade toward the Northwest, GRAY aims to contribute meaningfully to the discourse around design through its thoughtful, intelligent writing and live events. GRAY also relies almost entirely on regional writers, photographers, and other contributors to tell the story of the area’s dynamic design culture. The company even prints its 300,000 annual issues in Portland, and it's custom publications in Vancouver, B.C., in keeping with Williams’ strong values around supporting local.

GRAY is now the leading design media and communications company for the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S. and Canada. It is comprised of diverse media and entertainment properties with a total brand reach of 4.4 million, including the bi-monthly GRAY magazine; the website; Design Minds (a series of panel discussions, live interviews, and debates); Hot New Next (a competition for design innovation); and GRAY Awards (, the first cross-disciplinary, Pacific Northwest-wide design awards competition, recognizing design leadership and excellence.

A self-described “rookie entrepreneur,” Williams was in the publishing industry for 19 years prior to founding GRAY, and at her new company, she initially took the helm of the entire operation, including editorial, graphic design, sales, circulation, business development, and more to get it off the ground (she now leads a team of 7 full-time staff, all women). Her leadership has successfully serviced the design industry and created dialogue about important topics in the region, from homelessness to the significance of heritage buildings to mass development and urban planning.

Today, GRAY is more than just a successful business model. Williams’ brainchild has evolved into a truly beloved brand that has contributed meaningfully to the local economy and—particularly through its circulation and strategic partnerships with key design events across North America—has shown the rest of the world the true richness and depth of Pacific Northwest design.

But if you ask Williams—a relentless visionary and passionate champion of this community and industry—she’ll tell you she’s only just getting started.

FOLIO: What are three examples of achievements that GRAY Media is most proud of?

1. GRAY Awards. Fulfilling Williams’ long-time vision of a region-wide, cross-disciplinary design awards program—the first of its kind in the area—the GRAY Awards program launched in 2017 and was designed to offer maximum exposure to designers and sponsoring partners. Williams also saw this as an opportunity to strengthen relationships with industry associations and raise the profile of other print and digital media companies through a cross-promotional exchange. The program exceeded every goal set for its inaugural year, with nearly 4 times the expected number of awards submissions, 30% higher attendance at the awards gala than anticipated, and a successful fundraising component that raised $13,000 for its charitable partner, the Block Project, an architect-run nonprofit organization fighting homelessness. Robust sponsor opportunities increased GRAY’s annual revenue by 8% and boosted brand reach for GRAY Awards alone to 2.9 million and counting.

Williams had a specific concept for the program, envisioning a competition and awards gala, unlike anything the region has ever seen. Drawing on the collective creative prowess of her team, she challenged them to think big, and they delivered. First, they drew in a judging panel of international design legends, including Karim Rashid and Philippe Starck—who doesn’t get involved in first editions of anyone’s anything, according to his publicist… until he met GRAY. GRAY turned the awards gala format on its head, wowing attendees with one surprise after another, from glittering confetti raining down from cannons as winners were announced, to the legendary University of Washington Husky Marching Band parading into the room to celebrate the release of GRAY’s new Awards Issue. The event generated a ton of attention on social media, and even 3 months later, the community is still abuzz. Total brand reach exceeded 21 million in its first year.

2. GOOD COMMUNITY PARTNER The first issue of GRAY, released December 2011, featured a Seattle architect’s photo essay documenting homeless men and women. The portraits were stunning and dramatic and aimed to remove barriers of intimidation or hesitancy, allowing readers to truly see them—to study their eyes and warm smiles and imagine who they are and what their lives may be like. Characterizing it as an atypical piece for a design magazine, Williams’ mentors strongly advised against running the story—particularly in the inaugural issue. But Williams was moved by the photos and knew the magazine’s target demographic would be, too. And she saw it as an opportunity to establish, right from the start, the kind of depth this new magazine would have.

It was a perspicacious move. One reader, a general contractor, was so inspired by the story that he reached out to the architect to hire some of the men and women featured. The contractor’s wife, a political and community organizer, reached out to help the architect form the non-profit organization Facing Homelessness, which has since grown beyond Seattle with affiliate programs in 7 cities in the U.S. and Scotland.

While GRAY continues to support the work of Facing Homelessness, Williams’ company has also held fundraising events and made contributions to Habitat for Humanity, Mary’s Place, p:ear (providing artistic mentorship for homeless youth), Ronald McDonald House, St. Paul Mental Health Services, and Toys for Tots. In the coming year, GRAY is partnering with Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center on a large fundraising campaign and design event.

3. YEAR-OVER-YEAR GROWTH Print periodicals remain challenging in today’s media landscape, yet GRAY continues an upward trajectory, experiencing large gains in year over year growth across the board—in advertising revenue, ad pages, subscriptions, and newsstand sales. In 2017 alone, ad revenue climbed 24%, event sponsorship rose 255%, and newsstand distribution increased 32%. Keeping pace with increased demand, GRAY doubled its bimonthly print run in December 2016, from 25,000 to 50,000. GRAY magazine is sold at increasing numbers of bookstores throughout North America. Barnes & Noble placed GRAY in the top 50% nationally in the house and home category in its 2016 rank report; according to the same report, GRAY is ranked the 4th most profitable publication among all regional titles in the category.

FOLIO: What additional comments do you have about GRAY?

As a brand, GRAY stands out in the industry not only because it’s the only media company in its market doing what it does—representing the true breadth, depth, and sophistication of Pacific Northwest design—but for the company’s distinct culture and approach to engaging with its readers and the market.

Early on, Williams established a tone and personality for GRAY that very much reflects the region—it is intelligent and focused, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. GRAY stories don’t talk down to their audience or “dumb down” content—it makes the assumption that its readers are familiar with design and regional nomenclature, and so they speak knowingly to them, often with a sense of irreverence.

Within the walls of GRAY, “differentiate” is a word used constantly in editorial and market strategy meetings—whether discussing a storytelling approach or planning a blowout event, it is in GRAY’s DNA to set itself apart and challenge convention in everything it does. Doing something because it has always been done that way has never been an acceptable logic for Williams. She has created a culture of looking at things in new ways: taking ideas that work but never afraid to rethink what doesn’t.

As a leader, Williams provides a collaborative environment; she hires well, trusts her team, and empowers them to be leaders and thoughtful decision-makers. She provides opportunities for professional growth and celebrates her team’s successes. She has great intuition and is willing to take chances on people she knows will contribute to a positive team culture.

For example, Rachel Gallaher was an editorial intern who quickly rose through the ranks at GRAY. She is now GRAY’s senior editor, and in 2015 was named Folio’s “30 Under 30,” recognized as a rising star of the media industry.

With its distinct personality, distinct authority on design, and distinct closeness to the market, GRAY is a one-of-a-kind media company that authentically reflects its founder’s dedication, vision, integrity, creativity, and drive at every touchpoint in the marketplace. It’s a company with heart and soul, making a real difference in its community every day.


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