Julie Bonner: Tucson’s Conduit for Creative Community

Julie Bonner: Tucson’s Conduit for Creative Community featured image
By Julia Henzerling | Published August 9, 2020

Photo by Fletcher and Co.

Julie Bonner is a creative entrepreneur in Tucson who will not sit still. Before the pandemic, she made sure to regularly close her laptop and get out of her chair to attend community events with Startup Tucson, Arizona Technology Council, Creative Mornings Tucson, and Local First Arizona. Now she tries to keep this mindset while attending these events virtually. In July she launched the podcast Old Pueblo, New Economy, with Aaron Eden and Nick Moran, hosting conversations with creatives in the region about their work—especially the business realities of entrepreneurship. Julie is an accomplished graphic designer who also earned her business degree at night. Throughout her career she has found the power of connecting positively to people—and, by doing so, forming that kernel of trust—which leads her to be “top of mind” when a creative project comes along.  It was with this mindset that Julie eventually connected with a scientist and an engineer from the University of Arizona who needed a Marketing Director for their tech startup. Through a Zoom window, we talked about her passion for supporting creatives, the need for connection in the community, and her work with FreeFall Aerospace and Freefall 5G.


Please tell me about your journey from William Penn’s woods to the Sonoran Desert. How did you end up in Tucson?

  I grew up in upstate New York and found graphic design in high school. I was a tennis athlete, so I chose Drexel University in Philadelphia because I earned a tennis scholarship and they also had an excellent graphic design program. I had a couple of internships in the city during school, and at our senior graphic design show, someone from a medical communications company noticed my work. I ended up being hired before I graduated. I worked for a few years as a designer in Philly, and came to Tucson initially because of a relationship, and stayed because I loved it so much. Even though the relationship ended, I got so busy: with a job as the Art Director for the national chain Mister Car Wash, earning my MBA in the evenings, and playing drums in an alternative rock band.


Your new podcast Old Pueblo, New Economy, as you describe, “showcases the diverse entrepreneurs and leaders driving growth in the desert we call home.” Tell me how this concept was engendered and how you and your colleagues Nick Moran and Aaron Eden were motivated to launch this project?

There is an undeniable creative vibe here. I have met so many graphic designers, artists, and musicians in Tucson. Aaron and Nick and I just sort of knew about each other from being involved in various startup activities around town. Nick has had the idea for the podcast for a while. There are three things that we have in common, and that feed our passion for this project: 1) we all love Arizona, 2) we want to stay here, and 3) we want to bring positive attention to the talent here—to form a legacy for our kids to ensure the continuing growth of this valuable, nurturing atmosphere. We really believe in the creative capital we have here and want to ensure we keep this heart beating by connecting and supporting people, through getting the word out about what people are doing. I feel that whatever we can do to focus on the great work, and the relationships that foster that great work, we will help our local community.

“We all love Tucson and Arizona, and want to stay here…we want to bring positive attention to the talent here.”

Desert Dwellers Flash Cards: Animated by Cori DiSimone


I think it is fascinating to bring attention to the creativity that thrives in the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert—just like the animals you feature on your Desert Dwellers Flash Cards, people thrive here in interesting ways. I understand this podcast is new—do you have a wish list of people in the area you hope to make your podcast victims?

  Nick,  Aaron and I focus on three different areas in Old Pueblo New Economy. I focus on creative entrepreneurs and my series is called “Creative Community.” Nick targets young professionals with his show “Rising Stars,” while Aaron hosts live mentoring sessions and investor deep dives. As far as other guests, I’ve got a bunch of interviews lined up. Coming soon, you will be able to listen to a film director, a photographer, and even a woman who owns a salon and has done some wonderful branding. We are trying to get a diverse collection of people—diverse both in their identity and the kind of creative work they do. The released episodes include a woman who runs an amazing shop on 4th Ave that features over 100  local artists, a singer/songwriter who put together an incredible full-length album, and last week I interviewed a hand-letterer/illustrator who takes our local restaurants to a whole different level.


Do you think there are some unique challenges that creatives face in this region?

  Tucson is both supportive and challenging. I am hoping that creatives will benefit from being able to showcase what they are doing on our podcast and see what others are also doing. It is so important to know who is in your neighborhood—when you need to get something done that you cannot do yourself. The more we are educated about what someone else is doing, we can find how that connects to our own work. As creatives, we are all doing things that are naturally complementary. For example, I spoke to a painter who does commercial work, and she explained how she can do her work better if the client has already invested in good branding from the beginning. Her appreciation for another colleague’s specialization educates everyone to opportunities and considerations that make that feed more life into the project. It’s the kind of thing that fosters work and referrals, making it easy to see how you can “pass the baton” to people with diverse, complementary skills.


“It is so important to know who is in your neighborhood.”

Your involvement in the community is impressive and energetic. Can you think of a takeaway from your time working with Creative Mornings and Women in the Workforce in the Arizona Technology Council? Something you learned, something unexpected, something great, or something disappointing? Or all of the above…

  Creative Mornings is a staple for me. I help out monthly with this group, it is fun to plan but also to attend. When I leave one of these gatherings, I am so inspired, so jazzed and so ready to work—it’s like my kind of church. I don’t go to church but I go to Creative Mornings. We had Chris Walker from Freefall Aerospace speak last year, and he spoke about science and space. Lately, it has been challenging not being able to meet in person, especially for this group that is so much about networking. We’ve had some success and hit upon kind of a “magic formula” by breaking the Creative Mornings up into three ten-minute presentations on the same theme, with smaller breakout sessions for each speaker. This is working out pretty well lately. It seems to make it easier for the Q & A sessions to have smaller groups on Zoom.

Dr. Chris Walker of FreeFall Aerospace gave an engaging space-themed talk that dared us all to “wonder” at BRINK.

“I don’t go to church but I go to Creative Mornings.”

 Being involved in Women in the Workforce in the Arizona Technology Council has been a great help in my marketing for FreeFall Aerospace. It’s really important to help out and not just be a member, if you can. The payoff comes from being active. Contributing to the Women in the Workforce events has been a great experience: many of us are in male-dominated workspaces and this is a place for us to talk about the issues and programming that is interesting to us. This group really widened my network like crazy—these are not people I would normally find in my creative circle, and they are all intelligent and inspiring. So, it really gave me a more expansive sense of connection.


Friday, August 28, 9am
Julie Bonner will be talking with two other panelists about how creatives are handling stress and supporting each other
Register here


Women of the Arizona Technology Council. Julie Bonner, Leticia Santillan, Karissa Hagler, Krista McGarvey, Jamie Neilson


You have stated in other interviews how important it is to connect with the community, and that those connections bring work as a result of being “top of mind” because of those relationships. How did you get connected to Doug Stetson and become involved in FreeFall Aerospace? How did the interesting juxtaposition of a creative professional and a veteran NASA scientist create value? It sounds almost like the beginning of a joke: “A creative and a scientist walk into a bar…”

(LOL!!!) That really is kind of how it works…. Tech Launch Arizona is a conduit for getting people to move and shape their intellectual property so that it can be ready for the commercial sector. They provide mentoring and guidance. I had created marketing collateral for this group and am very involved in the startup community. So, it was within this forum that Dr. Chris Walker, an Astronomer, and Doug Stetson, an Engineer, and myself, a Marketing Director found each other.


In one podcast, you talked about imminent 5G networks, and the possibilities for creative marketing that will expand with this dramatically increased broadband. Virtual reality meets social media and what you imagine that could look like. You described a scenario in which potential customers can engage in virtual reality games to collect promotions or discounts—like catching virtual butterflies—can you tell me more about your thoughts and ideas around this? What creative tools do you find effective to market new technology concepts and why?

  When 5G hits, everyone will understand quickly that this kind of connectivity will be ten times faster, and that means a chance for more augmented reality, self-driving cars, there will be more screens and less latency, there will be holographic technology, etc. etc. Any sort of digital possibility is just going to expand. Will people be happy with even more advertising in their faces? Maybe not, but some of it may be more entertaining.


“Any sort of digital possibility is just going to expand [with 5G]. Will people be happy with even more advertising in their faces? Maybe not, but some of it may be more entertaining.”


One of the challenges creatives can face is marketing just a concept or just a prototype. I’ve found that animators are a huge help in this. Watching an animated video can be exponentially more informative than a talking head. Abbott Animation, located in Tucson, has been around for a while, and we have a great working relationship. What I really like is being collaborative with them: I can have a rough script and storyboard, and then sit down and talk to them, and they will amplify the story in ways that I would never think of. They also can really help shape the storytelling so that the budget is under control, because animation is not cheap. Good animators will know how to simplify the storyboard and at the same time amplify and illuminate the concepts.

ANIMATION: FreeFall Aerospace Inflatable Cubesat by Abbott Animation


I enjoyed listening to you talk about the difference between marketing your flash cards and marketing for FreeFall, because there is a big difference in selling a concept as opposed to a widget. What are some ways you have to pivot your mindset in this way, in order to develop strategy and execute effective marketing for FreeFall?

  For the flash cards, I did each and every aspect of concept, design, production, marketing, and promotion. Once all that was done, then the focus really just falls on the selling. For FreeFall, it’s a totally different story. First of all, it is B2B, and the clients are decidedly not a one-size-fits-all. Antenna systems will be different for each depending on the requirements. Each pitch must be tailored in new ways. So right now, our marketing is very much about relationship building. While the technology keeps evolving to each new level, I am just continuing to build the brand by getting all of us involved and out there in front of people regularly. It’s about getting my boss in the room—getting him connected to the right person in order to start a discussion that leads them to be a client. I am currently an ambassador for the Arizona Technology Council, and I’ve had Doug and Chris speak on science panels. All these consistent, persistent efforts will keep us “top of mind” in this exciting sector of business.

FreeFall Aerospace demonstrated its high-efficiency inflatable antennas for small satellites in a test flight Aug. 17 2018 from Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The flight test was conducted with other experiments aboard NASA’s new, football-stadium-size, 60-million-cubic-foot stratospheric balloon at a record-breaking sustainable altitude of 159,000 feet.

You have stressed that balancing digital marketing efforts with being out in the community with real people is so important. You mention how unexpected synergies can be made with people, just by showing up and having a presence, and that sometimes this is just as effective as investing a lot of time and money in attending trade shows, for example. How do you decide, out of all the local events and trade conventions, how exactly to spend your time?

  It’s all about finding people and groups that are like-minded—they are doing something that inspires and energizes you to be a part of. When I get involved it has to be something that fills my cup in proportion to the work I pour out. But that’s not the only thing…it’s also about getting something done. There are so many great causes and great efforts, but it takes real effort and perseverance by the leadership of the group to push through and get things done. Sometimes people have great intentions but are stretched too thin and cannot delegate. So, you want to spend your time with people and projects who are able to follow through with action items, rather than meeting and being vague “Okay, see you later….” When I was board president of Ad2 Tucson of the American Advertising Federation, I learned that is exactly how you figure out who you want to work with in the future. It’s a good way to shop for trusted partners and vendors.

“I used to love to attend events after a workday, and now the last thing I want to do is to have yet another virtual meeting. However, I am rarely sorry when I do.”


We all need to balance our time at the computer with meeting real people and listening—and communicating that you care to understand them. This is the crucial building block of trust and is the difference from just passing out a business card at an event without making a connection—the “spam ya later” person you described in the podcast. This is a mindset that has helped you grow your businesses throughout your career. What are you going to do to keep that momentum and balance during the pandemic?

Yes, we all know that person at a conference who swoops in and asks to exchange business cards, without asking one question or showing any interest in who you are and what work you are doing, just so he or she can “spam ya later.” Yes, momentum and balance are compromised with the pandemic. Super challenging for me, is that I love breaking up my day and meeting people in person. It’s the balance that helps me. I’m attending virtual events, and it just means I am on my computer more than ever. I used to love to attend an event or meeting after a workday, and now the last thing I want to do is have yet another virtual meeting. However, I am rarely sorry when I do. I find that when I do connect, like here with you in this virtual situation, I still get that jolt of inspiration. So even though I am a hugger and I love to feel the energy of people, a virtual meetup is not a waste. Maybe it’s not as fun, but it is still very useful and rewarding to connect to people.


After virtually meeting with Julie Bonner, I completely agree—that “useful and rewarding” thing is for reals.


Old Pueblo, New Economy podcast: http://www.oldpuebloneweconomy.com/

Julie Originals: Art and Desert Dwellers Flash Cards: https://julieoriginals.com/

Julie Originals: Design and Illustration: http://juliebonnerdesign.com/

FreeFall Aerospace: https://www.freefallaerospace.com/

Mozart’s Sister “Smoke Signals” music video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZI2sJoOrTg