Born and raised in one of the most impoverished areas of Milwaukee, WI, Alexis Hughes-Williams is no stranger to the importance of working hard and rallying around her community. In search of warmer weather and with a desire to be closer to family, she moved to Nashville for college, graduating from Tennessee State University in 2011 with a marketing degree. Since then, the successful dynamo has launched not one but two businesses, inspiring young entrepreneurs everywhere and paying it forward through her philanthropic efforts. You can find her yummy treats at local shops such as East Nashville’s International Tea and Coffee Company and the renowned Thistle Farms Café. At the same time, her nonprofit organization provides a platform that empowers women and girls to become the best version of themselves. Please welcome our newest FACE of Nashville, Something Sweet, LLC virtual and pop-up bakery owner, and Girl, unKnown, Inc. founder, Alexis Hughes-Williams.
How did your passion for baking come about?
I started baking with my great-grandmother when I was really little. She actually gave me the inspiration to start the bakery, so a lot of the recipes I use are hers. She would teach me how to make recipes, and then we would come down to Nashville for Thanksgiving, and I would end up making most of the food. Nobody realized it was me who was making it until she announced later on, “You all know the little baby did this, right?” I was about 8. She had me baking in the kitchen with her early because none of the other kids really took to it, and I was one of the only girls. So now, I’m one of the only people who knows how to make her recipes anymore.
What are some of your favorite recipes that have been passed down?
The banana bread recipe is a definite favorite — not even just in my family. Anybody who ever tries it is like, “I want the banana bread, please!” And then the chess pies, chocolate pies and caramel pound cake.
What sweet treats are you known for, and where can we find them?
International Tea and Coffee Company carries the banana bread and my brownies. Thistle Farms Café has the banana bread, my Cake Batter Krispie Treats, and my signature cookie, the “Everything” Cookie. It’s not too sweet — it has oatmeal, cranberries, chocolate chips, coconut and pecans. My grandmother can’t have a lot of sweets, so I made that cookie. It’s sweet because of its natural flavors, so it works. Some people call it the “breakfast” cookie! The Cake Batter Krispie Treat is pretty, sprinkle-covered, cake battery goodness. The kids love it, but the adults love it even more, which is completely hilarious.
My friend, Erin, owns Pomelo Grove, and I do her pancake mix. I do blueberry, chocolate chip, almond, and cake batter flavors for her. When you stay at Pomelo, you get free pancake mix, and you can make it in the morning while you’re there. It’s a glamping experience, and she has individual trailers. She’s revamped them, and they’re a really cute retro vibe. I fully recommend it for a girls’ trip! It’s on a farm in Smyrna, and it’s really nice out there. It’s a nice retreat space.
Tell us a little bit about the concept behind Girl, unKnown and what inspired you to start it.
I’m from the inner city in Milwaukee. It’s one of the worst ZIP codes in the country, but I was fortunate enough to go to some of the best schools in Milwaukee. I was always the minority in the room whenever I went somewhere or did anything, and I was always in the theater. It gave me a lot of confidence to do other things, but a lot of my friends didn’t have that much opportunity. So, I started Girl, unKnown in Milwaukee, working through Job Corps, to inspire and motivate some girls there. I had friends in the program who always asked, “Hey, Alexis, you got out and went to school and graduated. You have your degree in marketing. You’re married and have a kid. You’re super inspirational, and you’re doing all of these things. How do we do that, too?” So, it’s my way to give back.
I made seven pillars of empowerment — self-confidence, self-defense, mindfulness, entrepreneurship, health and fitness, mentorship, and lifelong learning. I’ve done the International Women’s Day celebration at the Parthenon for the last couple of years and hosted many events around Nashville. We’re also doing International Women’s Day 2021 [on March 8, 2021], which is going to be virtual. I’m really excited about it!
All of our programming is built around the Seven Pillars, such as bringing in self-defense [classes] because women should always know how to defend themselves. Eventually, I plan to take it nationwide. One of the perks of being a Girl, unKnown member is getting a free treat from Something Sweet for your birthday. A lot of the money that comes from Something Sweet actually goes back into Girl, unKnown programming and keeps membership costs low. That’s one of the goals because a lot of programs can get expensive, and that knocks a lot of people out of being able to utilize the services. It’s really my way of paying it forward to women and girls who don’t really have access to stuff like what I’ve seen and done and experienced. But then I’m also holding them accountable with the mentorship program. It’s for women and girls, from middle school to retiree, and everybody gets a mentor, but they also become mentors because there’s always room to grow. You always have an opportunity to teach somebody. You never know who you’re inspiring as you’re going through your life, so that’s an extra bit of accountability and support in helping people to understand that they are of value, no matter where they are in life.
How have your businesses had to adjust during COVID?
Something Sweet normally operates as a pop-up. I like to interact with people; I like to see that look on somebody’s face when they actually try something I’ve baked and don’t expect it to be that good. We did a lot of festivals and holiday shops, and there wasn’t so much emphasis on virtual. But [during COVID] there were no festivals and there weren’t a lot of holiday shops. I have a lot of people in my life who help me — it’s kind of a family business — and I have to be careful because they can’t go out in public like that. So, there has been a big shift to virtual.
With Girl, unKnown, we relied upon donations and sponsorships and stuff like that. A lot of people have pulled back and pulled out. It has been kind of slow going, but I get emails all the time saying, “Hey, we appreciate what you’re doing. We see what you’re doing; please don’t stop.” So, we’ve been getting people together, even if it’s through virtual means.
Do you have any advice for other young female entrepreneurs?
I have two pieces of advice I always tell people. One of my favorites is, “If service is beneath you, then true success is beyond you.” You learn your strengths and weaknesses by teaching other people, and you earn people’s trust by being supportive and being a kind human. The other thing I like to tell people is, “Just ask.” If you need help, ask somebody. The worst they can say is “no,” and nine times out of 10, even a “no” can be overturned.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
My mentor, Sherry Deutschmann of BrainTrust, tells me, “Just do it. What are you waiting for?”
Outside of faith, family and friends, what three things can you not live without?
A good book, a blanket, and my little corner. I have a little corner in our house that I sit in and read and curl up with my blanket. That’s my escape.
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