Millennial entrepreneur lives photography dream without college degree

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Ashley Jensen was in middle school the first time she picked up her mother’s old camera.

Fascinated by the way the camera focused on an object and blurred out the rest of the frame, Jensen was hooked on photography. When the camera broke later that year, her parents bought her another one for Christmas. That’s when Jensen became a photographer.

Like most high school seniors, Jensen was asked where she would be attending school by almost every adult she talked to.

“I don’t feel like I really made a decision to go to school,” Jensen said. “I can’t say that I was forced to go either, but my parents and my community expected me to go … That’s what everyone did, so I did it too.”

Ashley Jensen poses in a selfie on her Instagram account. Jensen uses her account to build her business, becoming Insta-famous in the process.
Ashley Jensen posted a selfie on her Instagram account. Jensen uses her account to build her business and has become Insta-famous in the process. (Ashley Jensen)

After her first year at Utah Valley University, Jensen felt like she was wasting time. She was sick of working for someone else and wanted to make a name for herself, but she was skeptical of just dropping out. She was told by numerous professors that going to college was the only way to build her portfolio and impress future clients.

But Jensen already had clients, and she decided that pursuing a design degree wasn’t what she wanted to do.

She took the summer off school to focus on her business, Ashley Photography.

“I had enough money saved up to pay for rent and food for the rest of the summer, but it would barely be sufficient,” Jensen said.

Jensen’s summer consisted of free photo shoots with local musicians, small businesses, bloggers and couples in an attempt to build up her Utah portfolio. August came, and with it came a text from Jensen’s dad, asking when Jensen would be signing up for classes.

A week before the deadline, Jensen decided to sign up for the rest of her general classes so she could start focusing on her major. All four classes had waitlists of more than 100 people. At this point, Jensen decided she would take the semester off and really grow her business instead.

“I told everyone I was going back to school in the next semester because whenever I told someone I wasn’t going to school they looked at me like I was stupid or crazy,” Jensen said. “Then, of course, they asked if I was working and I responded with ‘Yes, I’m a photographer,’ and I got that same look.”

Fall semester passed, and business had improved significantly for Jensen. She was confident in her business and decided that instead of going back to school, she would continue to pursue it.

“As a creative person, sometimes … having the parameters put on you by classes and assignments, I think it can stunt your potential, and you can’t be as creative as you want to be,” said Tara Brooke, a fashion stylist who has collaborated often with Jensen. “Ashley and I talked a lot about the pros and cons of school, and she felt comfortable with her decision.”

Jensen did receive some backlash regarding her decision though.

“My parents were not very happy at the time, as you can only imagine, and I was defying everything society had taught me to do since childhood. I was taking a huge risk, especially since I still wasn’t making a ton of money,” Jensen said. “I dropped out of college to pursue my dream career.”

While Jensen’s parents might have been skeptical, Jensen’s lack of a degree hasn’t bothered her clients.

“It doesn’t bother me at all that she doesn’t have a degree,” said Shannon Moore, one of Jensen’s clients. “If anything I think it’s an advantage that she is learning by experience rather than just taking classes. Her photos are a working resume that show how great she is, and that means more than a college degree to me.”

Jensen felt confident in her decision to drop out of college and focus on her business because the business had already overcome so much. In photography, the only way to be successful is to build relationships with clients. After establishing her business in her childhood town of Liberty Lake, Washington, Jensen moved her business to Utah so she could attend UVU. Moving 700 miles across the country meant Jensen lost almost all of her clients.

“No one knew who I was because I had just moved,” Jensen said. “I was not getting any paid shoots. Eventually my business picked up and my following in Utah grew pretty drastically.”

A couple kisses while posing for their engagement photos. Ashley has a variety of clients and is willing to shoot almost anything; that's one of the reasons she's been so successful in her business without a college degree (Ashley Photography).
A couple kisses while posing for their engagement photos. Jensen has a variety of clients and is willing to shoot almost anything. (Ashley Photography)

Before moving to Utah, Jensen’s business account on Instagram had over 18,000 followers. By shooting for Insta-famous people with large followings on Instagram, and a lot of local businesses, Jensen was able to continue to grow her following in Utah.

“I love that (Jensen) is confident in who she is,” said 18-year-old Brooke Hagerty, one of Jensen’s clients. “She has her own style and she embraces it and she has made a business out of it. She’s not afraid to show that in her work or in her posts on Instagram.”

Instagram’s focus on beautiful photos and aesthetically pleasing profiles made it the perfect place for Jensen to showcase her work.

“You can see in (Jensen’s) Instagram feed that all of her images are consistent,” said Tara Brooke. “They show who she is as an artist.”

Now that Jensen’s business has taken off in Utah, she still faces some challenges, including competing with fellow photographers and an inconsistent income. Despite all the challenges, she is happy to be living her dream.

“Looking back on dropping out I don’t regret it one bit,” Jensen said. “Part of me wishes that I had just not gone to college in the first place because now I have all these student loans I have to pay back, but what can you do?”

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