Jolene Delisle is a force of nature. The founder and Head of Creative at the New York City-based branding and creative agency The Working Assembly has forged a formidable path in the face of obstacles met from a young age. From living in an orphanage in South Korea at six years old, to breaking the typical mold of an agency founder, Delisle’s ambition knows no bounds— and neither does her drive to give back.
Desisle founded The Working Assembly on the core tenant of supporting values-led and mission-driven companies, along with those with female founders. As the agency has grown and achieved great heights, it has stayed true to these foundational beliefs, and remains committed to working with humble brands and small businesses.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Delisle recently about her impressive journey, her work at The Working Assembly, and her driving mission to pay it forward.
(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)
I know your unique upbringing has fueled your passion for working with values-led organizations at The Working Assembly. Can you tell me a bit more about your background?
I lived with a single mother without a home in South Korea for a number of years. I was put in an orphanage when I was six years old. My mom tried to make a go of raising me, and it was a really difficult choice to not be able to do that anymore. But I was fortunate that I got into a really great circumstance where I was adopted and brought to this country.
I always loved art. I didn’t speak English until I was seven years old, so for me, art was always a way that I communicated with people when I couldn’t necessarily do so with English. I was adopted by parents who lived in New York and did not speak any Korean, so art and art therapy were always a big part of my life. Art was escapism. I loved graphic design even early on, making collages and pictures. It was a way for me to not only express myself, but it was really cathartic, so it became something that I used as an outlet. Art was always my default expression, but once I started learning words, I just couldn’t stop talking. I could merge both within storytelling and I thought that was super powerful.
I went to school originally for journalism because of that love for storytelling. But I wound up in design because I realized I actually love the visual storytelling piece even more. Working in advertising was a good blend of the two; it’s a place where storytellers naturally end up.
Eventually, I landed in the world of branding. I realized that branding was the foundation work. It’s where we’re able to really build up the story. I always equate it to home remodeling: you can build the house, but with advertising you’re stuck marketing and decorating that house— it is what it is. With branding, you can really build all of the pieces and the foundational elements the way you want.
Why did you decide to start your own agency? What was that path like?
I’m very fortunate that I was able to rise up within advertising in a very traditional career trajectory. But ultimately, I realized that where I was working and what I was doing didn’t necessarily have the long-term impact that I wanted.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, it felt like a pivotal moment for me where I could actually change course and the impact of my talent and my career. Lots of times, when people are pregnant, they latch onto projects and jobs because they want that safety and security, but for me, experiencing pregnancy woke me up. I was like, I need to do something different with my life. So I decided to make a go of starting my own company.
I started working freelance consulting in New York in 2016 with women and marginalized founders; people who were thinking about creating their own businesses. I realized how much branding and design and access and support would really help them take their business to the next level, so I decided to start doing that as the basis of the company that I want to create. I called it “Working Assembly” because I was working full-time, and then I would assemble to create these projects and do this work for them on the side.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I realized I wouldn’t be able to have a full-time job and do that consulting anymore, and the thing I cared about the least was that full-time position.
So you founded The Working Assembly with the primary mission of working with marginalized clients. How do you identify these sorts of organizations that you want to work with?
I want to be transparent: we don’t just do values-led projects, but it’s a huge part of what we do. We only take on bigger projects so that we’re able to do the other projects we really do care about. We have our traditional agency business, which works with brands of all different sizes— big corporations, well-funded startups. Then we have this other arm called TWA Labs, which is essentially an incubator. We take on one project per quarter where we work with a marginalized founder who is starting a brand from scratch. We probably get about 100 inquiries a week for the incubator, so that’s like 400 or 500 inquiries a month. We try to understand if there’s a market fit, a cultural fit, and if this idea is actually helping something in some way. We’ve done a total of eight projects now through TWA Labs.
We try to work with founders who don’t have traditional backgrounds in terms of education or credentials that would give them immediate access into a powerful network of high net worth individuals who can help them. A lot of the founders we work with didn’t go to college and are really starting from zero without much of a network to leverage. We also look for people who seem super motivated and have a really clear plan. We’re looking for someone who’s already proven to us in some way that they have the capacity to see a product all the way through launch.
For instance, two women came to us a year ago who were starting a brand called Harper Sage. They were like, “Listen, we both work in the fashion industry. We want to start our own line that’s inclusive for women and non-binary people of all sizes and doesn’t have the tropes of a big Kardashian brand.” And now after working with us, they’re in Madewell, and they have a retail location in Austin.
What other TWA Labs projects are you proudest of?
One that we’re well-known for is Sanzo, which is an Asian sparkling water company. We incubated that brand and created it from the ground up with the founder. He’s had tremendous success having a brand that was already designed, so he was able to go to market with it. It gave him a shorthand to raise money to get into stores; it just gives you a huge advantage.
We just did another brand called Bawi, which is an agua fresca brand with a Mexican founder. He’s from Mexico City and wanted to create agua fresca that incorporated Mexican influence with Austin roots. Imagine you have this idea, and you try to create a brand with Fiverr, or whatever online resources you can find, or even a friend— it just doesn’t necessarily have that same polish. It’s very difficult to then go from that to a product in a store. It really helps to have that access and be able to work with a company who can help you take that next step.
In addition to TWA Labs, I know you also have an initiative called Local Works within The Working Assembly that focuses on helping local small businesses in New York. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
I know firsthand how tough it can be to launch a small business, especially for those who are self-funded or underrepresented. There are also so many unique challenges you face as a business owner when launching in NYC. That’s why we’ve made it a core pillar of our culture to consistently allocate our team’s time to allow us to give back to the local community the best way we know how: through professional design support, ranging from branding, content, and beyond.
Most recently, we’ve been working with the incredible local organization Think!Chinatown, whose mission is to support and strengthen the vibrant immigrant neighborhood of NYC. We just helped with the launch of their 2022 Night Market. A few other favorite projects via our Local Works initiative have been a brewery in Astoria and a chocolatier on the Lower East Side.
It must be so rewarding for you to see these brands you work with through TWA Labs and Local Works succeed, especially as someone who hasn’t always had typical support systems yourself. You’re paying it forward.
100%. It’s the most rewarding part of my day to day. It’s something I wish I could do all the time. We have amazing VC-funded brands who help retain all of our salaries and our team of 30 people. But I think why these bigger brands hire us is because we’re also these really passionate people who want to build and drive businesses forward at all levels.
I think this work is a big part of how we attract team members too. People want to work here because they’re really excited to be able to help companies that most people wouldn’t take on because they don’t necessarily have the money, or other resources.
Diversity in the workplace has almost become trendy, particularly over the last couple of years. It often can feel like a tokenistic checking of diversity boxes, but there’s a refreshing authenticity to the way diversity is baked into your founding and your client work.
I feel conflicted sometimes, if I’m being honest with you, about promoting the work that we do, because it does, to your point, almost feel like it’s just contributing to that conversation. I don’t want to trivialize our work with values-led organizations and diverse founders in a way that gets caught up in what everyone else is doing. It’s difficult to be able to strike that balance. I don’t want to take advantage of this moment, but this type of work is genuinely a big part of what we do.
We really do think that design has the power to change conversations. The way that you create brands, the way that you design for people and for a company can really shift any kind of narrative. It’s super important to us to make sure that we’re positively adding to the diversity conversation. A lot of brands that we work with are geared toward Gen Z and Millennials, and there’s this expectation that those companies are inherently, already thinking about diversity, so we have to make sure that we’re doing it in a way that doesn’t feel like tokenizing, or just showing the same portrayals of diversity. We have to make sure that the brand work that we do feels genuine. You see a sameness in design trends, and sometimes that’s also happening in the diversity part too.
It’s like there’s been a homogenization of diversity. The irony! How has it been for you as a woman of color breaking into the white male-dominated world of design, branding, and agency life?
When I worked at an agency, all of my bosses were men. Most of the creative department I was in were also male-led and majority men. But for the most part, I was very fortunate that a lot of those men were my allies. They really valued me and helped build me up. I wish I had a little bit of a template or a couple of female mentors who could have helped me along the way. I’ve had some amazing male ones, but haven’t really had that experience of working for a woman.
There’s a lot of celebration around female-led and women-owned agencies right now, and as much as I appreciate that, I also want to make sure people understand that not only are we diverse and female-led at TWA, but we also do incredible work, and do great design, and have valid skills that we’re bringing to the table.
Have you been able to be that female mentor for others who look up to you?
I hope so! I think sometimes as women, we’re our harshest critics. We have really high standards for ourselves. I’ll meet with older women who have had hugely successful careers that I admire, and they’re like, “Well, you have to figure it out because I had to figure it out for myself.” And on the other side, younger women sometimes build you up so much. We expect so much from women—we expect them to be motherly, friendly, empathetic, and also harsh, but not too harsh. It’s difficult!
There’s this culture, which I’ve seen from a lot of the clients we’ve worked with who have female founders, where they’re awarded and lauded, but then people love to vilify them. I’m so cautious of that. As women, we also need to just give each other breaks. We’re trying the best we can! We’re trying to figure it out without much of a role model or a template to do that. And you hardly ever see that type of exposé on men at the top.