Jordan Williams recently published Breaking the System: Unlocking Your Limitless Potential.

Jordan Williams on Overcoming Challenges and Choosing Your Own Path

Jordan Williams, 21, is a senior at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. While sophomores in high school in Atlanta, Georgia, Williams and his friend founded the Young Moguls Brand, an urban clothing line that promotes entrepreneurship. Williams’ venture inspired his journey to Wharton, where he has learned so much about business, vulnerability, and his strength as a quiet leader.

Knowledge@Wharton High School: Hi, I’m Effie Zhou with the Wharton Global Youth Program. I’m excited to welcome Jordan Williams to the Knowledge@Wharton High School studio today. Jordan, a senior here at Wharton, has been on the move since he started his first business at age 10. In his high school in Atlanta, Georgia, he co-founded Young Moguls Brand, an urban clothing line that promotes entrepreneurship. Most recently, he published his third book, Breaking the System: Unlocking Your Limitless Potential. We’re going to talk all about this, and more. Thank you for joining us.

Jordan Williams: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

KWHS: Sure. I’d love to know more about the Young Moguls Brand. What motivated you to start the company, particularly with a connection to entrepreneurship? And did that influence your decision to come to Wharton to study business?

Williams: Absolutely. So initially, we started this brand — and when I say “we,” myself and my best friend from back home in Atlanta. His name is Brandon Iverson. He goes to Georgetown now. But we started this brand when we were in high school, actually, our sophomore year. And we really just wanted to create our own brand with our own designs, but we knew that we wanted it to promote a positive message, as well.

And for us, the message that we thought we had on our minds to share was a message that promoted entrepreneurship, that inspired our peers and our friends to identify whatever their passion was and find out how they could use that passion in their communities to provide value and also create opportunities for themselves.

So, we started it that year in high school, and we’ve been running it ever since. And I think that coming into my senior year of high school and looking for colleges, it definitely did influence my interest in Wharton. Because of my experience with running the clothing line, I knew I was very interested in entrepreneurship, and I was looking for a school where I felt like my academics would complement the work that I was doing outside of the classroom, as well. And I thought Wharton was a great place to learn and grow academically but also have the opportunity to pursue entrepreneurial stuff and push the business forward.

KWHS: Great. Bring us up to date. How successful is the brand today? Have you had any bumps in the road? What new knowledge have you used to sustain and grow your business?

Williams: Yes, so the business has been doing great since we started, and it has definitely grown a lot since our time in high school. Right before I came to Penn, actually, we had a really great opportunity to be featured on The Steve Harvey Show, and so that was a great opportunity that took the national awareness of the brand to a new level. We weren’t just getting orders from people in Georgia anymore, but getting orders from people in different states and getting to spread the message further.

And that’s been great, and there’s been a lot of growth along the way. There’s definitely been a lot of challenges. I think the biggest challenge is probably Brandon and I both going to schools in different areas. He goes to school in D.C., and I’m here in Philadelphia. I think it just calls for us to have to step up our level of communication, having to be more organized because we’re both on different schedules now at this point. But I think the thing I’m most proud of is that we haven’t let that challenge stop us, and we’ve still been able to put out some new projects and still do the thing that we’re passionate about. So, I’m excited to see where it goes in the future, as well.

“Don’t be afraid to go up to someone else and introduce yourself. Even though it might be awkward or it might be vulnerable…a lot of times great things and great relationships come from it.” — Jordan Williams

KWHS: Very cool. You’ve self-published the book Breaking the System: Unlocking Your Limitless Potential. What prompted you to write it?

Williams: This is a book I published pretty recently, actually — last semester, in the fall. And I think that the prompt to write the book was a lot from personal experience, mainly from my junior year here at Penn and at Wharton. I would say that my junior year was a year that was a little difficult for me. I was sort of trying to work out a lot of things as far as finding out where I wanted to take my career in the future, what types of things I was interested in, and trying to understand how to find my own unique path, whether or not that was the path that’s popular here at Wharton or at Penn.

So, when I went home over break, I had a lot of different conversations with friends who were going through the same types of thought processes and were considering the same challenges. Going into that next semester for junior year, I approached Breaking the System as a way to use writing and journaling as a way to have a little bit of a therapeutic experience and work through some of the concepts. And it ended up being a project that was not only beneficial for me, but also something that I think could be a good resource for other people in a variety of different systems — whether it’s a school system or a corporate environment or a family system — just to help them really understand how they can find their unique passion and not be afraid to challenge systems in order to make it better eventually, as well. It has been a great experience.

KWHS: How can young people find their true passions and push against societal norms of success to make a change in the world?

Williams: I think that’s a great question. I think it’s a very difficult task, and I’ve been finding that as I’m in this stage of my life, where I’m in my senior year this year and looking for opportunities after graduation — and I think that coming to Penn and coming to Wharton, specifically — it was an experience where I sort of had to find my identity in a way and find my own unique interests. And at times, I think it was hard, because the first thought is to just go along with the crowd to do the same career interests that everyone says are the best or that pay the most money.

I think for me, I went along the path of just going along with what everybody said for a while, but I think the important thing is being able to be honest with yourself if you find out that it’s not for you. And also being fearless enough to try different things, as well — whether it’s trying different classes, trying different internships, or even just being willing to contact people to learn a little bit about what they do, if it’s different from the professions that you’re familiar with.

That’s what I’ve appreciated here at Wharton — that I’ve had the opportunity to try my hand at a lot of different things. And now I feel like I’m in a good place going forward, where I know what my interests are that I want to pursue in the future.

KWHS: So, what are you going to pursue in the future? You’re graduating this spring, right?

Williams: Yes.

KWHS: What’s next for you?

Williams: Yes, so I am graduating in May, and I’m going back home to Atlanta after graduation, which I’m very excited for. Actually, I just found out that I’ll be doing a private wealth management program at SunTrust Bank, which is now known as Truist Bank. So, I’ll be back in Atlanta doing that.

I’m also very excited to be continuing to grow entrepreneurial ventures like the Young Moguls Brand. I also work with a nonprofit called the Youth Entrepreneurs Diversity Corporation. We do a lot of different events for college students who are interested in entrepreneurship, to connect them with each other, to give them resources, and to connect them with mentors. I’m excited to continue working with that organization and put on some really great events this summer, as well.

KWHS: Very cool. I saw you described somewhere as a “quiet leader.” Would you agree with that description? Can you both be quiet and a leader?

Williams: I think I agree with that description in some ways. I think it depends on the environment I’m in, and I like to pride myself on being able to know the best way to respond in the environment I’m in. So sometimes if it’s an environment I’m very comfortable in with close friends, I might take a more vocal position if it’s something that I think I’m very familiar with or knowledgeable about. And in some other situations, I think it’s better to be a more — not necessarily “quiet,” but to be a better listener, to be more observant, and sometimes to even lead more by example, rather than just talking a lot and being more vocal. But I definitely put an emphasis more on being focused on results and actions, rather than just focused on being the loudest in the room.

KWHS: Aside from your published insights, what have you learned in your college journey that you think can help guide younger students as they plan their lives and careers?

Williams: I’ve learned a lot of lessons over the four years — some learned the easy way, some learned the hard way. But I think the biggest one has been not being afraid to be vulnerable and to get out of my comfort zone, especially with meeting new people on campus. And that was hard for me really the first three years of college, coming from outside of the state of Pennsylvania and not really knowing any people at Penn and not being very familiar with the territory. I think once I made a few friends, it was very easy for me to just want to hang around them all the time and to sort of stay in that same clique.

And now that I’m getting closer to graduation, I think as I’m getting more sentimental, I’ve realized how many talented people are actually on this campus, undergrad and on the graduate level. I think it’s a really unique experience to be able to tap into all of these different relationships and all of the unique experiences these people have had while you’re here and utilizing that before it’s too late.

My advice to other people would be to not be afraid to go up to someone else and introduce yourself. And even though it might be awkward or it might be vulnerable, I think that a lot of times great things and great relationships come from it when you’re just willing to put your ego aside for a little bit and get to know someone else who does something different than what you do.

KWHS: Jordan, thank you for joining us today.

Williams: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Conversation Starters

Why was junior year of college tough for Jordan Williams? How did he overcome it?

What is a quiet leader? Use the Related KWHS Articles tab to explore the concept further. What are some important qualities of quiet leadership?

Why does Jordan Williams urge us to put our ego aside? How does our ego interfere with learning and growing?

12 thoughts on “Jordan Williams on Overcoming Challenges and Choosing Your Own Path

  1. The quote made by Jordan Williams is something the majority of us face, and it is really challenging to get past the idea of our own self-image and dignity. At times you do have to put yourself in situtations were you don’t feel secure, but that is what allows for growth. There has been countless times where even myself would miss opportunties because I was scared of the discomfort, and that is something that intefered with my flourishment. In conclusion, Don’t let what unsettles you to hinder your future.

    1. This is so true, Jada! I can think of many examples in my own life where I have been willing to take a risk once, then twice, then a third time…and before I know it I have developed skills that make that experience much less scary and difficult to tackle. A few examples would be public speaking and traveling overseas. They have made me stronger in so many ways!

  2. Jordan’s strong message of finding a unique path for himself hit home for me and made me think about how much we let ourselves get consumed by what’s around us and go on autopilot, living life week by week. Jordan found a path for himself despite the hardship and how easy the other paths were. He was a “quiet leader” who “focused on results and actions,” who broke away from his routine by going out of his comfort zone. He hasn’t let the distance challenge with Brandon stop them and experienced “a lot of growth along the way”
    I find myself occasionally letting myself go to the flow of what’s around me, not being able to remember what I even did the day before. I decided to change my daily routine during the summer before junior year right before school was going to begin. I, like Jordan, realized that I was falling into the trap of going the easy route and spent my summer following routines every day. I broke away from this, suggesting to my family and my cousin’s family that we should all take a trip to Bear Mountain and enjoy ourselves. I frequently visited Bear Mountain with my school on the annual field day trip, but our itinerary was always strictly controlled and many things were barred from our access. Our activities were limited mainly to sitting in the field, walking around the lake, and climbing up the mountain, which I always shied away from. This trip was my first time not as a student going to Bear Mountain and I wanted to make it memorable.
    The trip started with a peaceful barbecue and an exhausting boat ride with my cousins and one of their girlfriends. My cousin wanted his family to go and scale the mountain. Tired, hungry, and not wanting to go out of my comfort zone, I was hesitant at first but stuck with him and we began on the path up. On our way, we saw two middle school kids who were climbing the steep mountain vertically through the brush. There was a clear, smooth, flattened path that was next to them but they chose the road less traveled, the smaller kid egging his friend on. I pointed them out to my cousin and suggested that we try that as well. My cousin’s family was wary but followed after I started up the near-vertical ascension.
    The path we took was difficult because no one was intended to scale the mountain that way. We quickly lost sight of the intended path and would not cross it again for a long time. We realized that we were very ill-equipped, us being a party of six with only half a bottle of water, which quickly ran out. We helped each other along the way, holding branches away for each other and hoisting each other up the rocks. We reached a clearing with a nice view of a lake and rejoiced at the thought of sitting and relaxing until we saw people walking down the mountain and realized we were only halfway up the mountain. We fought the exhaustion and continued the trek, occasionally seeing someone going down the mountain with bottles of water and looking with envy.
    When we reached the top, we were exhausted but greeted by a spectacular view of the hills. The experience felt fulfilling because of the journey it took to get to the top, not letting the daunting task stop us. It was made possible by all of us going out of our comfort zone and being vulnerable and connecting with each other, just as Jordan did with his peers at Wharton. We weren’t afraid to challenge the system, which is the message of Jordan’s book. We made our own unique path, and reaching the top felt earned. We overcame hardships, albeit hardships that were self-imposed but hardships nonetheless, to earn the drinks from the overpriced vending machines at the top.
    The effect of the experience carried over past just that summer. I, like Jordan, have tried to take more risks, go out of my comfort zone, and be vulnerable during the school year. I have tried to break away from my normally quiet personality and be a “quiet leader” like Jordan. I am taking my own initiative by looking for my own internship with a civil engineer my dad works with called Ryusei. Though I am not starting my own clothing line like Jordan, I grew from the experience I had over the summer and am still taking strides to make my own path up the Bear Mountain of my future.

    1. Great story, Edison! Your experience at Bear Mountain is truly a metaphor for life in so many ways: taking that first step, perseverance (even when you thought you already reached the peak), teamwork, adversity and triumph. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Stepping out of our comfort zones can be really challenging. Remember the first time when I attended a summer camp in the United States, I felt embarrassed with my English level and was afraid to communicate with local people; however, after a month of observation, I finally had the courage to talk to people. That was when I started meeting friends and having fun. This reminds me of the story of a frog in the well. It is only when the frog is out of the well will he realize how big the world is. Be courageous for once, and you will realize how much more knowledge you can earn from the experience.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Josephine.

      When people spend so much time inside their minds, they begin to lose sight of the light outside. They begin to forget what it means to live, and sometimes end up losing themselves to the darkness. However, if just once, they find the courage to push themselves to take a look outside, they’re already halfway on the other side. Often, people find it difficult to push themselves where they don’t feel safe, so they don’t move, they don’t change. When a knife is left alone for too long, it begins to rust, and in the end, it becomes ultimately useless.

      As Jack Ma, a Chinese billionaire businessman, once said, “If you put bananas and money in front of monkeys, monkeys will choose bananas because monkeys do not know that money can buy a lot of bananas.” By stepping outside, people are then able to see the light they weren’t able to before, and using this new light, they’re able to find so many new and amazing opportunities in which they would’ve missed otherwise.

      When I was in elementary school, I thought that my world was complete. I had absolutely no idea what more there was to discover, I even made these assumptions without ever experiencing anything different. I was very young, 10 years old and ready to grow up out of the fifth grade. I was living in my own world, blind to what others around me were able to see simply because I was too shy to speak my mind. Those I called my friends realized this while I didn’t, calling me names, treating me as if I were a spare- someone insignificant that just happens to be there. At this point, I was just existing, I was not living.

      However, I was stupid and naive, unable to realize what was happening to me, I had no opinions of my own, I didn’t even know myself. I felt prepared to take on middle school. How hard could it be? Just say goodbye to my friends, and move on to another journey.

      I was hit by an enormous wave of confusion, baffled by what was happening around me. There were so many smiling faces around me, faces of these foreign people who didn’t care about me. Why were they laughing so much? How could they talk so casually to each other, maybe they’re family? What am I missing, why am I so different? I sat in a different classroom every period with the same people, waiting for the teacher to give instructions. Should I try to make friends? No, maybe they’ll hate me. Should I look that way? No, don’t make eye contact. Don’t make anyone stare at me, they don’t matter. But maybe I should try to make friends? Look over there, those girls look nice, maybe? Maybe they’ll say yes. Just do it. But-. Just do it, just do it, just go for it and see what’ll happen, just try and you might end up with a new friend.

      “Hey, hi. Do you wanna be friends?”

      A new segment of my life had just begun, blossoming into a new life of friendship and excitement I had never imagined existed. From the two friends I had gained on that day of school, I had learned what it means to have a friend and to be one. I simply stepped outside my comfort zone and discovered “a really unique experience to be able to tap into all of these different relationships and all of the unique experiences these people have” (Williams). From that moment on, I had created something huge for myself to carry, though I was in no way tired of this new creation. I struggled and I cried and I laughed the whole way through, but through this entire process I had never realized how bright the Sun was outside my mind, what kind of potential I had tapped into. Humans like to believe that they have everything all figured out, but I had learned these past years that there is always room to walk outwards. I met new people and grew in many ways, learning to open my eyes to how blind I was in the past. Passing through that first door is only the first step to worlds we won’t be able to comprehend until we reach them.

      Even into high school, I am always learning, figuring out which words to say, where I go wrong and how to fix it, and more. Living with an open mind can still be a struggle, but in the end, the only one who can truly help you is you. After coming this far, I had come to realize that the world is filled with people, all walking at their own pace. Every person you pass on the street is a different story, each at different places under the Sun. When people learn to step outside of their comfort zone is when they learn to see the world and themselves.

      After reading your comment Josephine, I remembered those times I myself found new experiences because I challenged myself, as you did when you went to the United States. I believe this is a wonderful way to and see the world- to step outside, and realize how big it is.

  4. This article has taught me not to let what hinders you stop you from accomplishing your passion. In life, innovation and self-actualization are needed. According to Maslow’s theory of needs, when basic needs are met, people will want higher-level needs to advance. When higher-level needs are not met, people will be in a state of depression that may make them lose passion for life, like walking dead. On the contrary, getting out of the comfort zone, even if there are many difficulties to overcome, can open up a lot of opportunities — opportunities to challenge yourself, to explore the world, and to make an impossible thing impossible.
    It is often quite difficult for people to get out of their inherent comfort zone. Like Jordan saw on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, there are many people who are as talented as you but might have different views and insights on the same topic. We should put our egos to the side and be unafraid to introduce yourself to someone who you can learn something new from and become friends with. When we are in a new environment that we are not familiar with, we can be more observant rather than being a leader at first, but that doesn’t stop us from getting to know someone and learning ideas from them. As Jordan experienced, starting a new brand is very difficult, but it becomes more doable when you go out to meet new people and learn from others to improve on the brand. Everyone has challenges in life, but they cannot stop us from reaching our dreams to become more successful. It takes some force to push yourself out of the comfort zone. Only after you step out of the comfort zone can you make your life circle bigger and shape yourself into a better person.
    There are many first times in life where we have to encounter unknowns. When I first arrived in the U.S. in third grade, there was a line drawn between me and my friends due to language barriers. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to push myself out of the comfort zone to make new friends, I just didn’t understand what they were trying to say to me, even though I knew that they were just trying to be friends. In order to catch up with them, I asked my parents to sign me up for an English class where I started from scratch. Thanks to my outgoing personality and an open mind, I quickly built up a deep connection to my surroundings. I was able to improve my speaking through my daily interactions with my friends. Moreover, in order to make ends meet, my parents had to work long hours. I learned to take care of myself independently while helping my parents with housework. Before, I had not been someone who would necessarily want to face the unknown or test my strength, but this experience was unique to me. I felt so much power stepping out of my comfort zone, meeting new people, and learning a new language that I have never come in contact with before.
    From a third-grader who didn’t even know the alphabet to a sophomore in my dream high school, I have come so far. Even when I had to struggle with English from time to time in fifth grade, I was able to quickly pass through the pain of learning Spanish and have a productive way to study for all my classes. I am very grateful for my parents who always support my dreams. They keep on reminding me that success will come through hard work and a great amount of effort. The confidence they give me will push me to move forward!

    1. Despite growing up in Kansas for the majority of my life, the universalizing situation of struggle Jordan describes accurately describes the sense of relatability I feel towards your story. The concept of being a “quiet leader” revolves around adapting accordingly to the environment that you are in. It does not necessarily have to be business-related. This is analogous to a classroom environment, where a student listens attentively to the instructor and later on, applies the knowledge to classroom discussions or assessments. Your combating the initial language barrier and then assimilating into an unknown place is an application of this. Knowing how to utilize this skill effectively into one’s professional career is essential to prosper and grow as an entrepreneur.
      As a member of the Boy Scout Association, I feel that this applies to my scouting experience as well. When I was learning the ropes, I was quiet and attentive, just as you were when you were forming connections to your surroundings. It felt similar to learning a new subject or learning a new language. However, as time passed and learned more about scouting, I progressively became more active and vocal and began to take positions of leadership within the troop. One way I did this was to voice my opinions about how to benefit the troop as a whole, and I would partake in most troop activities. I took whatever position they gave me and executed my orders to the best of my ability. Over time, older scouts began to view me as an upcoming leader and entrusted me in positions of power. I was able to form meaningful positions this way, and now have a significant role within the troop. In a way, our situations are parallels to each other. We both had that initial sense of absorbing the information surrounding us — and over time, we slowly developed our skills in our respective studies.

  5. What makes Jordan’s insight so touching is the universality of his struggle. At some point, we have all undoubtedly grappled between abiding by the status quo and pursuing personal passions, only to succumb to social norms due to fear of monetary loss or social rejection. Especially for members of such a goal-oriented, money-focused society, it is tempting to play the “follow-the-leader” game. Hearing Jordan’s humble story of finding honesty in vulnerability and self-fulfillment in individuality is an inspiration; his quiet resilience and growth is an exemplar model to all, whether they be student or professional, who feel disoriented by personal restraints.

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