By Lem Satterfield, Zenger News
Ashley Butler was scarcely out of diapers when she began using her imagination to inspire people to feel better about themselves.
Three decades later, Butler has a website, Higher Level Greetings, which designs obituaries, business logos, cards and brochures, custom greeting cards, graduation invitations, wedding invitation suites, workbooks, nonfiction chapter books, and, soon, property listing brochures for real estate agents.
“One of the projects that I’ve done and which I’m most proud of is the wedding invitation suite that I did for the wedding of Mr. Tetteh and Mrs. Tana Nettey. I’m proud of that one because I challenged myself in the materials that I used,” said Butler. The couple celebrated their second anniversary on Nov. 16.
“I combined a variety of materials that were not conventional. I used wire ribbon, took flowers apart and put them back together to close the invitation folder. It turned out to be a little heavy as far as the weight when it came to mailing it. That was also the first time that I did table setting cards as well as a guest welcome board. I was happy to carry that design all the way through.”
Butler discusses with Zenger how her life and personal experiences help her to channel peace, altruism and compassion into her products for her clients.
Zenger: What is the origin of your business, and how did you come up with its name?
Butler: To be honest, I just thought Higher Level Greetings sounded nice in 2014. My life experiences and spiritual foundation have influenced my decision to become an entrepreneur.
Celebrate life because life is truly a gift — that is my motto. The journey began when a family member encouraged me to start charging for what I had been doing as a hobby for free, then they requested graduation invitations and became my first paid customer.
The first items I offered were miniature passport and magazine-style graduation invitations. The initial mission of my business was focused on celebrating inner city youth and sharing stories about their accomplishments through graduation invitations.
This idea stems from the fact that youth in general, and our African American men in particular, are not typically shown in the most positive light in mainstream media. This is a way of combating negativity with positivity.
Zenger: Can you describe what you do for your clients?
Butler: Overall, my goal is to help people celebrate life, and share hope, knowledge and family history. As a graphic designer, I help people package their treasure in printed form.
The treasure may be celebrating a life milestone, memorializing a loved one, or sharing knowledge and inspiration through nonfiction books, workbooks, journals, pamphlets and greeting cards.
I’ve learned so much about my family’s history through the obituaries of deceased family members. So, old family stories are important to me, and that is a reason why I aim to share stories through invitations that loved ones can look back on years from now.
Zenger: Are there any particular projects you are involved in that are or have been near and dear to your heart?
Butler: I designed an inspirational nonfiction 13-chapter book for an editor and a group of authors. This gave 13 authors, ranging in ages from late 20s to late 80s the opportunity to publish their stories for the first time.
At a celebration many of the authors came up to me and mentioned how the project inspired them and gave them the courage to write their own books.
In my business, I strive to assist authors in their pursuit of inspiring people and sharing hope in a world that needs hope. I encourage people to celebrate and appreciate the gift of life.
Zenger: What philanthropic endeavors are you involved in, and who are the beneficiaries?
Butler: In the near future, I plan to be involved in philanthropic endeavors that advocate for the presence of art in communities and the advancement of inner-city youth. These endeavors would support visual, performing, culinary and other art forms and benefit youth through job creation, education and wellness.
Zenger: Can you discuss how post-high school education and life experiences influenced your decision to become an entrepreneur?
Butler: I started out in architecture, but I worked long hours behind a computer screen and each day was a struggle to be there. I didn’t feel like I was serving a greater good or helping people. I would go to Starbucks for coffee every day before work to get me through the morning and I had to have music or a podcast to get through the rest of the day.
Then I went back to school for urban planning and to learn about the nonprofit world. I graduated from the University of Illinois-Chicago with a master of urban planning and policy degree and a [bachelor’s degree] in architectural studies. During this time, I studied in London for a summer and traveled internationally for the first time.
I hope to provide support to nonprofits through consulting. Currently, I manage energy efficiency projects in a full-time role while working on design projects. I am rebranding my graphic design and greetings business. I do not plan on returning to school for a formal degree anytime soon, but we’ll see what the future holds.
Zenger: Can you discuss how your childhood influences and inspirations shaped you into the person you are?
Butler: When I think about all that my mother, Connie, went through to have me, it makes me want to live each day on purpose, celebrating it and helping make life easier in some way for people.
A village prayed for me while I was in my mother’s womb, and a village prays for me today. I’m grateful for the health and abilities that I once took for granted. Quality time is invaluable, and it’s not something that you can buy or get back. I see issues that people face and I try to make life, or even their day, at least a tad bit easier or brighter.
My mother is my best friend and confidant. She does whatever she can for me and even if she can’t do it, she sure does try. I do the same for her. When she’s not OK, I’m not OK. She excels in everything that she puts her mind to and doesn’t quit or let supposed ‘limitations’ stop her.
She loves and cares for her family unconditionally and encourages everyone to come together. Since I’ve started on this journey my father, Gilbert Allen, will ask me from time to time, “how many millions did you make today?”
That’s really uplifting, inspiring and motivational for me. As a result, I’m determined to do what I need to do to overcome barriers and I take every opportunity possible to bring my family together.
Zenger: At what point in your early life did you begin to prosper creatively?
Butler: I grew up in a tight-knit family on the south side of Chicago and later in a southern suburb of Chicago. At age 3, I’d make my version of birthday and get-well-soon cards for loved ones, and it was my way of celebrating and showing love to them.
Imagination played a big part in my childhood. I’d play with shoes, line them up, give them names, and create characters out of them. I loved to draw and still do, and would create a story line about the people I drew. I drew clothes and shoes and created paper outfits for my toy dolls.
Growing up, I played basketball and volleyball for a school year in elementary school. Then I did more art-focused activities. I was a part of After School Matters, where I studied visual arts and was a part of youth art competitions.
But I’ve come to see that school does not really prepare you to be an entrepreneur as much as an employee — at least from my experience. As an employee, I can create, but it’s limited to standards set by a company. As an entrepreneur, I have more freedom to set the standard and create.
Zenger: Do you find that your business is therapeutic in any way?
Butler: My bout with social anxiety began when I was a child, and I’m still overcoming it. I was born with a visual impairment, where my right eye moves about involuntarily. My business is like therapy in the way that it helps me express myself, and it helps me to organize my thoughts.
This year has really been a tough year for me. Overall I was reminded about the importance of hope, gratitude, quality time and a praying village. I felt like things would be OK as long as I had hope and expected that the next day would be better than the one before.
When I had COVID earlier this year and was in quarantine, I’d have time for prayer, studying the Bible, sketching ideas, creating and socializing. God kept my mind, but sketching and these things helped me to control my thoughts. I feel that the ability to envision a finished product is a gift from God.
I don’t have any formal training on how to design books, invitations and graphics, but I use the computer programs that I learned in architecture school to help me carry out my visions. I know I was put on this earth for a reason, so I look to be a solution and pray that I am an answered prayer for someone.
Edited by Judith Isacoff and Kristen Butler