Grace Advertising and Consulting, Inc. is more than an agency. It serves as an extension of its CEO Tonia Wright, blending service, compassion, community, and professionalism while simultaneously breaking status quo standards and expectations. In recognition of Grace Advertising’s 15-year anniversary, friends, colleagues, and employees of Wright unanimously agree – she and her business are pillars in the community.
A One-Woman Operation
Throughout her robust career in the marketing industry, Wright often found herself isolated as the only Black woman in the room. Rather than continue tolerating the fraternal corporate culture and being refused a seat at their table, she eventually decided to build her own.
In its founding days, Grace Advertising was a one-woman show with Wright acting as CEO, strategist, accountant, and everything in between. “When Grace Advertising started 15 years ago, I literally started in a small room in my home,” Wright said. Her husband, who continues to be a confidant, strong supporter, and silent partner since day one, set her up with an office and what was called an e-machine to build her business.
Eager to get the ball rolling, Wright immediately set out to start getting clients. “My husband said, ‘Hon, I think you need to wait until you have your business cards, what if they ask you for a card, what are you going to do?’ I had to kind of cool my heels and sit back,” she said.
The day she finally landed her first client, a real estate company located in Odessa, Missouri, is one Wright views as a pivotal moment for herself and Grace Advertising. “I remember closing that deal, I remember receiving that first check, and I remember the dress I wore when my husband and I went to dinner to celebrate,” she said. “I will never, ever forget that day.”
The Paradigm Shift to Health Care
As she quickly established a glowing reputation in her community, she secured a partnership with HCC Network, after which business quickly snowballed, prompting an expansion of both her office and her team. Health care clients began rolling in one after another, and while Wright never intended to focus on health equity, she believes the issue is universal.
Wright’s personal dedication to advocacy is evident throughout Grace Advertising’s vast portfolio over the years. Whether working with nonprofits, health organizations, or other care entities, Grace Advertising focuses on serving the greater good. This allows the agency flexibility, tailoring services to accommodate the specific goals of each client. “The client’s mission becomes our mission,” Wright said. “We advocate for what they advocate for.”
With each client, despite the specific mission, Wright has one particular goal in mind: to empower and inform health care consumers to make decisions that better their health. Grace Advertising continuously highlights various issues in health care, discusses challenges and solutions with experts, and provides resources for further learning.
Serving clients such as HCC, the Missouri Rural Health Association (MRHA), Lafayette County Health Department, and more, Grace Advertising started out particularly focused on rural health. Across its networking and social media channels, as well as its rural health platform accessHealth News, content highlighted issues affecting rural communities and public health, aiming to inform health care consumers about services or solutions to help them meet a need.
Melissa Van Dyne, executive director of MRHA, considers Grace Advertising a “perfect partner” who consistently delivers products tailored to a client’s needs, while also taking that client’s vision to the next level. After being referred to Grace Advertising by a rural health care network, Van Dyne met with Wright to discuss her ideas and goals for MRHA’s future. Since then, she views Wright and Grace Advertising’s employees as a part of her own team, rather than a contractor.
“I consider Grace Advertising an extension of my association,” Van Dyne said. She refers Grace Advertising to other health care facilities, especially those looking for advertising and outreach services. “They think of things the client may not have thought of previously to make it even better. They go above and beyond to help with outreach and getting the word out to the people it needs to reach.”
Many pivotal moments in health care have proven crucial for Wright and the agency, such as the decade-long journey to pass Medicaid expansion in Missouri. Over a 10-year span, Grace Advertising consistently published information and updates about the positive impact expanded Medicaid would have in Missouri. This messaging continued through the eventual expansion of Medicaid in 2020, including the addition of a free-to-use social media toolkit to help spread awareness.
However, after the tragedy of George Floyd’s death in 2020 and the social uprising that followed, Wright decided to make a long-anticipated shift in Grace Advertising’s coverage. “Of all of the 15 years doing this at Grace Advertising, we were so singularly focused on rural health, there wasn’t a real opportunity to reach out to urban areas and speak to some of those issues, and that was a longing for me in my soul,” she said.
Though issues affecting the Black and Brown communities are undoubtedly present in rural areas, she felt a need to broaden her base to include the nearby metro areas and begin addressing racial justice specifically. She knew she could duplicate the mission and advocacy work to cover a broader range of issues and extend services to urban communities.
Wright created a second accessHealth News site to house content covering health issues affecting Black and Brown communities, matters of social and racial justice, and more. The Grace Advertising website now houses a number of free-to-use toolkits for both rural and urban health issues, including COVID-19 vaccination and HIV messaging.
A Heart for Service
Though Grace Advertising’s mission and goals are widely shared, many would argue it’s not a typical business – because Wright is far from a typical business owner. REACH Healthcare Foundation’s Vice President of Programs, Carla Gibson, has been a colleague of Wright’s from very early in Grace’s 15-year journey and describes Wright as a servant leader. “She is very much a community person,” she said. “She’s very civic-minded, wants to give back to her community, wants to better her community, and makes herself available in service to those that she works with.”
The two met while serving together on a committee during a community meeting about oral health held by REACH. Gibson recalls Wright’s contribution to this meeting as an especially impactful moment as her presence and representation of the business voice proved important. Since then, the two have continued to work together for more than a decade.
Throughout her time working with Wright, she is most surprised by the amount of work Grace Advertising does for little to no profit. “When I’ve asked her to help a nonprofit that’s in need of something, she’s always been very willing to do that and be of service,” she said. “She gives it 100%. Whether it’s a $1,000 contract or a $15,000 contract, she’s going to give it her all and put out the best product.”
Wright’s personal dedication to helping others, as well as through the work that drives Grace Advertising’s mission, drives her decision to prioritize service over profit. “Our mission is altruistic in nature: we literally exist to serve the greater good,” Wright said. “You often hear people say, ‘I love this so much I would do it for free.’ We love this so much that we do it for free sometimes.”
Because of Wright’s commitment to excellence and service, Gibson recommends Grace Advertising to nonprofits – an honor she doesn’t give freely. “I have to really believe in what they do and know their work is going to be top-notch, and that their price is competitive,” she said. “I think Grace Advertising is all of those things. I know the organization will enjoy working with Tonia, she’s such a joy and she hires great people.”
The two recently put together an abstract for an upcoming conference to discuss their experiences as Black women in business and their successes and challenges over the years. Gibson says they consistently look for new ways to continue their partnership as well as uplift each other, elevate each other’s work and reciprocate support professionally and personally.
“She’s someone you want to get to know more,” Gibson said. “Over time, I’ve had the opportunity to do that, and consider her not just a colleague but a friend.” From her personal history of advocacy and volunteer work, through the services she and her team provide, Gibson said Grace Advertising is an extension of Wright. “It’s not just in her business – it’s who she is,” she said. “As a person, as a business owner, as a community member, I couldn’t think more of her than I do.”
Small but Mighty
Having faced both personal and professional challenges as a Black woman and CEO, Wright is committed to raising the bar for what a workplace should be – for both employers and employees. She is dedicated to creating a space for professional women to feel empowered, to grow personally and professionally, and to never have to choose between having a family and a career.
Shortly after taking on HCC as a client in its early days, Wright brought in her first employee to support the increasing workload. Marjorie Langas, Grace Advertising’s senior graphic designer, became introduced to the agency at her college career fair where Wright was representing women in the tech industry.
“What drew me into working for Grace Advertising was being part of a community that was female-driven and the empowerment behind that,” Langas said. At the time, her classmates and colleagues were predominantly male, and the company refreshingly proved dedicated to empowering and opening doors for women and minorities.
As the business continued to boom, Wright decided to broaden her own skill set to include design, while also continuing to nurture her love for writing. This is a core priority of Grace Advertising as a company – encouraging employees at all levels to infinitely expand their education and talents while providing opportunities for them to do so.
Wright believes what sets Grace Advertising apart from other businesses is the multi-faceted staff. Each employee is proficient in multiple skill sets such as writing, designing, translating, and strategizing, among other talents. She currently oversees a small but powerful team of 10 professionals well-versed in several disciplines. This allows Grace Advertising the scale to provide the tailored services of a much larger team.
“I think that’s important to our clients and prospective clients because we can be what they need us to be as long as our missions are compatible,” she said. “They also know that they’re being served by a company that truly cares about their mission and has a heart for this work.”
Throughout the agency’s 15-year journey, Wright has curated a diverse group of talented women with a similar heart for service to underscore the agency’s mission. The Grace Advertising team includes individuals from a wide array of backgrounds, including multiple bilingual employees, allowing each member to bring a unique perspective to the team.
Each multi-skilled staff member plays a vital role to ensure diverse voices are being not only heard but amplified.
Working for the Greater Good
According to Wright, finding staff members equally as passionate about equity and advocacy came naturally; no one had to be taught to empathize with the work being done. “Our staff is incredible because they understand this mission, they embrace this mission, they embody this mission, and you can see it in their work,” she said.
Whether staff members came into working for Grace with a history of activism or had never thought twice about some of the issues covered doesn’t matter. Each employee has since discovered, re-awakened, or focused their advocacy through their own unique work at the agency.
Having grown up in a small conservative town, Proofreader Heidi Koger had little prior exposure to some of the content coming across her desk after joining the team. “It’s opened my eyes to the role that race plays in so many facets of American society,” she said. “I am a white woman and the work Grace Advertising has done, and my part in that, has opened my eyes to the daily struggles I never imagined still existed. It’s made me more of an advocate.”
After joining Grace Advertising nearly halfway through its 15 years, Koger has since been an integral part of the team. Through her work, she utilizes her love of language for a greater purpose – a mission she shares with Wright. “Tonia cares about the local community and broader American society,” she said. “I think her intent is always to make a better place where we live through the power of the pen.” Quoting Maya Angelou, “When you know better, do better.”
Langas grew up in a military family with consistent access to health care even into adulthood, and similar to Koger, certain access barriers and inequities weren’t apparent to her until she started working for Grace Advertising. “It’s definitely been eye-opening for me,” said Langas, who continues to serve as the agency’s senior graphic designer today. “Grace Advertising has done an amazing job bringing issues to light and making sure they’re not just informative but have a changing impact on the community, ensuring you’re getting the resources you need and you know you’re not alone in whatever journey you’re going through.”
Though she’s only been with the company a few months, Grace Advertising’s Multimedia Manager Taylor Schley also feels Wright and the company have pushed her to grow creatively, professionally, and personally. Schley sought out Grace Advertising after seeing a posting for a media position with a Black female-owned business serving health facilities and nonprofits. Having previously worked for the City of Topeka, in Kansas, Schley felt Grace Advertising would allow her to combine her creative skills with her passion for advocacy.
“I felt like it was a good fit, and I was excited and felt passionate about a lot of things that Grace Advertising stands for,” Schley said. “We get to work with a lot of clients that do really important work and have really important messaging that needs to get out and that’s something I’ve always been passionate about, so that drew me in. I get to make a difference with the work that I do.”
In a “serendipitous” moment, Staff Writer and Marketing Manager Elena Cleaves joined the Grace Advertising team shortly after the George Floyd tragedy and social justice movement of 2020. The wave of uprisings motivated her to become more active in her advocacy, looking for productive ways to support various causes and simultaneously further educate herself on racial and social issues.
Finding it difficult to focus on one means of activism, feeling that small individual actions would never be enough, Grace Advertising provided an outlet. “I had been struggling with finding a way to be an advocate, but in a way that I felt like I could make an impact,” she said. “Tonia found me at the perfect time.”
Along with the mission and the work, Grace Advertising’s employees also agree that the company culture stands out. Wright’s compassion for others is evident in the professional and personal support she provides. Having previously worked in other media and marketing positions, Schley and Cleaves believe that Wright sets the agency apart by encouraging honest discussion and a work-life balance.
Especially throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Wright is dedicated to checking in on employees and adjusting workloads as needed. She facilitates a culture where employees are encouraged to invest in their own wellbeing with the understanding that they can only help others after helping themselves. Because each member of the staff possesses multiple skills, the agency is positioned to be extremely sensitive to staff needs without productivity taking a hit. Employees have no problem picking up slack for their team members, knowing they’ll receive the same support in return.
Throughout Grace Advertising’s 15-year journey, Wright has experienced a number of moments that remind her why she chose to do this work, despite the challenges. She recalls the time a woman in the community approached her with a copy of accessHealth in her hand, requesting more information about the Affordable Care Act. Wright was able to connect the woman and her husband with resources that allowed them to receive the care they needed. “If that wasn’t a physical testimony of our work and how it impacts people, I don’t know what is,” she said. “I will never forget her face and I will never forget that moment because it underscores what we do.”
Looking toward the future, Wright refuses to become complacent. Her goals for Grace Advertising include creating opportunities for the staff to elevate, expanding the company’s impact and reach, and making certain the company’s culture remains healthy and well cared for. She also wants the agency to continually find creative avenues to advocate for health and racial equity in a way that touches hearts, provides ample space for diverse lived experiences, and invites more allies into the fray to mend systemic fractures in health care, the justice system, education, housing, and employment.
Tonia Wright was recently named one of Ingram’s 2022 Heroes in Healthcare by Ingram’s Magazine, a recognition honoring a commitment to health and wellness. The Heroes in Healthcare program began in 2004 to recognize extraordinary people within the healthcare industry who are dedicated to the organizations and people they serve.