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Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
What do Gloria Steinem, Issa Rae, Jen Gotch and Rebecca Minkoff have in common? They’ve all been a part of Create & Cultivate – the conference series for modern women in the working world.
What was once a side passion project for CEO Jaclyn Johnson rapidly turned into a business, and the marketing firm Create & Cultivate has expanded into a digital platform in addition to its three conferences each year. The conferences themselves, which take place all over the country, have more than 800 attendees each who want to hear from powerful women in the workplace speaking on topics like branding, asking for raises, marketing, and financing.
Jaclyn Johnson herself is one busy lady. Between downing iced Americanos and hopping on flights, the CEO and founder of Create & Cultivate never stops moving. USA TODAY caught up with Johnson to talk about things like layoffs, starting your own company and Kendrick Lamar.
What is your coffee order?
Large iced Americano with almond milk. Just straight to the espresso … No messing around.
Who’s been your biggest mentor?
For me, it’s my actual entrepreneurial peers that are my mentors. I started my first company at 24 (which I sold last year). I really didn’t have anyone to turn to because I only had a few years of corporate work experience. So for me, I really turned to women who were also running their businesses. I was like, “Hey, how do you do this? Who do you know here? How does this work?” So, for me, my mentors are really like my colleagues in that sense.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done?
Hands down, meet Gloria Steinem. She was our keynote speaker for our New York conference, and I got to meet her and hang out with her. It was really amazing. She’s been an idol and an icon for me for a really long time. I never thought in a million years that I would get to see her speak, let alone get to meet her and interact with her and have her be a part of the Create & Cultivate community. It was just an awe-inspiring moment.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Most people think it’s super glamorous, but I am a true CEO of a company. We have 11 people on our team and every day is a typical office day – we come in, we have our meetings, we have calls, all that stuff. Where it really gets interesting is around the conferences, because it’s craziness leading up to each event. We work crazy hours, but we also rent team houses, we have team dinners, and it’s really just almost like an awesome summer camp getaway when we’re producing the conferences. We travel a lot for work and we do a lot of events all over the country, so we’re able to break that cubicle mindset.
What are three of your go-to songs or podcasts for a busy day?
I really like Kendrick Lamar’s Humble – that’s always a really good one. That’s the one that we had Issa Rae walk out to in Seattle – she was one of our speakers – and it’s definitely one of our anthems when we’re working really hard. I love 2 Dope Queens, which I feel like is hilarious, an awesome podcast. Obviously, anything by Beyoncé is always a win in my book.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Your reputation is your resume. You can have the most impressive resume of all time — but if you’re not a pleasure to work with, and if you don’t have those recommendations from clients or colleagues or whoever, it really is hard to get where you want to get going. I really took that to heart. I feel like I’ve built a really strong reputation in my industry that I work really hard, that I give 100% to anything that I’m working on. You can’t put a price tag on that, and you can’t really put any award or accolade on that, because I think it really is that word-of-mouth recognition that is more powerful than anything else you would need.
What does your career path look like, from college to now?
I went to NYU, was living in New York City, and was on the corporate track pretty successfully in my early 20s. I was working at different marketing agencies and then landed at InterActiveCorp. I had a pretty sweet job as a director of social media, which was a pretty new job back in 2008, 2007. I got transferred to Los Angeles to work on a different company and then was let go, which was devastating. Not only had I moved to a new city where I had no relationships and no friends, I was also let go from a job that my whole identity had been aligned and associated with. I was the career gal and all of a sudden all those notions were shot to hell.
So, essentially, it was one of those things where I took three months, and had my severance package, and was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life – feverishly applying for jobs, not having any luck. Everything in Los Angeles is really focused on entertainment, which I had no experience in, and I just reached out for help and started freelancing and getting more clients. I started getting more and more clients, had to hire an employee, started getting more and more clients and had to get an office space and, cut to a year later, I owned a marketing agency, and I wasn’t even sure how it had happened. It was a natural progression, and thanks to that company for laying me off, which sort of gave me that impetus and that fire to start something on my own, which I would have never probably done.
I ended up starting my marketing agency in 2009 and had that company for seven years, and sold it last year. That company I had built to eight employees. We had amazing clients — Microsoft and Loreal — and were doing everything from influencer marketing to experiential marketing, so I was really proud of that.
In 2013, I started Create & Cultivate as a total side project. I never thought it could be a business. I created it out of my experience of starting a company unknowingly, not really understanding all of the sides of starting a business. For me, I was always the creative, the one with the ideas, the one coming up with marketing strategies. I didn’t know what a PNL was, what business taxes were, anything about anything about running a company. I literally YouTubed my first business and figured it out, and kind of leaned on other women. I wanted to bring together a community to say, “Hey! Does anybody else feel this way?”
Turns out, a lot of women do, and we ended up having these amazing get-togethers, maybe 50 women in a mini, mini, mini version of what Create & Cultivate is today, and it really just took on a life of its own.
It’s funny – with my first business I was really knocking on everyone’s door, and with Create & Cultivate everyone was knocking on mine. That’s a really weird reaction when you’re used to being someone trying to find people to hire you. It was a totally new experience for me as a new entrepreneur and it became this thing that was consuming so much of my life to the point where I was like, “is this a thing that I need to consider making into more than a side project?”
Our first big event was in Los Angeles with Aimee Song and Emily Weiss as keynotes and I look back at that event now and I’m horrified. What were we doing? Because we had no idea. But people loved it, and it was a smashing success, and it’s been a runaway train since that event.
What advice would you give someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Take your creativity seriously. With Create & Cultivate, I always thought that it was never going to be a business. As soon as I took it seriously and started treating it like a business, it became a business. People always try to downplay their side hustles as just a little project they might have. Take it seriously. Treat it as a business from Day 1 and you’ll be surprised at what you can do when you have that mentality and mindset behind something.
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