Cathy Merrill Williams

Small Business Owner

Location: Washington, DC

"So I banished the thought of what my father would do and chose instead to trust my gut, to take a look with fresh eyes and to make my own mistakes without his shadow hanging over me."

On the very day I brought my son home from the hospital, my father passed away. It was an especially emotional and difficult time. It also meant that after 12 years of working for large Fortune 500 companies, I would take over our family business and run the iconic brand of Washingtonian magazine.

The thought of sitting in my father’s chair and managing people I’d known since I was a small child was scary. It was also not lost on me that I would take over during a time of seismic industry change in the media world. The waters were rough.

I walked through the doors of Washingtonian on May 16, 2007, into an office I had been visiting since I was eight years old and where I used to color with crayons on the coffee table. I wanted to make my family and our employees proud. I hadn’t worked in media, however, and had no idea what I was doing.

My first instinct was to ask myself, “What would my father do?” As I sat in his chair for the first time, I remembered some advice he had given me long ago, in the form of a Latin phrase meaning “hand from the grave”—a warning that people who try to do the wishes of those gone will always fail.

So I banished the thought of what my father would do and chose instead to trust my gut, to take a look with fresh eyes and to make my own mistakes without his shadow hanging over me. Every time someone said to me “your father never would have done that” – whether in reference to a new product launch, how I handled an employee situation or changing our corporate name from Washingtonian Magazine to Washingtonian Media – I would just gently smile to myself, knowing it didn’t matter.

Over the past six years, I have been able to expand the business from a single magazine to a media company. We now not only have multiple magazines but large web traffic, an iPad edition, an events division and a custom media unit. There are plenty of days I say a little prayer for success but no days that I look back and try to figure out what someone else would have done.  Instead, I trust my gut and lean in as we plunge into a new media world.