She Quit Her Job to Ask Strangers about Pay. the Payoff Has Been Huge.

Courtesy of Hannah Williams
Hannah Williams quit her job as a data analyst to ask strangers about their pay.

Maybe you have seen Hannah Williams standing on the street.

Maybe you have stopped to talk with her, and she has convinced you to step in front of her microphone.

Maybe you have found yourself sharing with her – and her millions of online followers – what you don’t normally share with strangers.

For the past year and a half, Williams has been getting people in the Washington region and across the country to talk publicly about what people traditionally keep private: their pay.

The videos that the Northern Virginia resident posts on Instagram, TikTok and other social media platforms, under the name Salary Transparent Street, all follow the same general format. They show the 27-year-old asking strangers to share what they do for a living and how much they earn, followed by those strangers divulging what their cubicle neighbors might not even know.

“I’m a recruiting consultant at a media company in the D.C. area,” a man tells Williams in one video. “I make upward of $120,000-plus.”

“I’m a travel nurse,” a woman in Arlington, Va., says in another video. “Last year, I made $150,000 and this year, I should hit $240,000.”

“Roofer,” a man in Richmond says. His earnings? “About $70,000 a year.”

In the last year, Williams has spoken to a dog groomer in Atlanta who makes $90,000 a year; a tattoo artist in Miami who makes $250,000 a year; and a software engineer in Portland, Ore., who makes between $400,000 and $500,000 a year.

But one of her most recent videos to go viral doesn’t show her interviewing anyone. It shows her turning the lens toward her own job. In that video, Williams shares how much Salary Transparent Street earned last year and, in doing so, offers a revealing glimpse at how content creators make money.

In the video, Williams shares that Salary Transparent Street brought in more than $1 million in 2023.

She notes that the amount is gross revenue. She also explains that she and her 31-year-old husband, James Daniels, a videographer, received salaries of $125,000 and $65,000 respectively. (Williams said they intentionally decided to take salaries, so they could invest in their work with the remaining funds after expenses.)

In a follow-up video, which the couple made in response to the many questions people sent, the two break down the numbers even further. They explain that the bulk of the money they earned was through brand partnerships, which is content that brands compensate them to make and which they label to make that clear. They also made about $30,000 through ad revenue.

“The reason that we decided to share how much we made is because we can’t just talk the talk, we have to walk the walk,” Williams told me on a recent morning. “One of the most common questions we get from our community in the comments section is, ‘How much do you make?’ And I think that’s a fair question.”

Williams said she also wanted to let people who are considering becoming content creators know what to expect.

“Having a viral video doesn’t make you a millionaire,” she said. “We learned that very quickly. But having the passion and the idea of building a business behind a social media page will generate a lot of revenue from brand deals.”

When I first told you about Williams in a column that ran in April 2022, she was working as a data analyst for a government contractor, earning $115,000 a year. She had just started Salary Transparent Street. At the time, she had posted six videos featuring workers in the Washington region and she hoped to travel to other places to talk to people.

What has happened since then offers a lesson on taking career risks and saying aloud what employers would prefer to keep quiet.

The success that Williams has seen, monetarily and in other ways, shows that she has tapped into a conversation that people are eager to have and that we as a country need to have if we are serious about eliminating pay disparities. Women still on average earn less than men, and those gaps look even more stark when those women are Black, Hispanic or Native American. Wide pay gaps also exist for people who identify as LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities.

Not long after I wrote that column about Williams, she quit her job to focus full time on Salary Transparent Street. Then Daniels quit his.

“He was supposed to quit with me, but we were a little hesitant,” Williams confessed. “It really was such a drastic change, so we were like, ‘Let’s wait a little longer.’ Then a few weeks after that, it was a no-brainer. We loved what we were doing. We wanted to do more of it.”

Since then, the two have posted hundreds of videos that have received nearly a billion views, and the social media pages that feature those videos have drawn about 2.7 million followers.

The couple also hired a website development team, and the result is a website that features a database of what people in different fields earn and offers resources for job seekers. Those resources include a free market research guide and a free salary negotiation guide.

“We have to look at this like as a business but also consider impact,” Williams said. “It’s really not just about viral videos. It’s what can we do with this information to make sure it’s not just lost in the interwebs? How do we have impact?”

This month, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) signed wage transparency legislation that requires employers to disclose pay ranges in job postings. As lawmakers considered the issue, Williams spoke at a hearing and submitted written testimony that contained real examples of how pay transparency has helped people in the Washington region.

One example she gave: After a government contractor in Arlington talked about making $125,000 in a video, his colleague realized he was underpaid. That colleague found another job that paid him $25,000 more.

Another example she offered: A woman in D.C. wanted to encourage conversations about pay transparency at her work, so she brought up the videos in a team meeting. After a colleague realized she was underpaid, the team worked together to help her ask for a raise. Management then implemented a companywide transparent salary structure.

“We hear similar stories like this on a daily basis,” Williams wrote in her testimony, “and I can’t stress enough how much of an impact these pay bumps have on the lives of everyday workers in America.”

If Williams were to offer testimony on the issue now, she could add another person to the list of local people who have benefited from pay transparency: herself.

After posting the video about her earnings, Williams heard from other content creators. She learned that people with smaller followings were charging twice as much as her for brand partnerships. She was being underpaid and didn’t realize it – until she talked openly about her pay.