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q & a with cookie johnson

I really respect and admire Cookie Johnson. As a businesswoman, mother, philanthropist, wife of NBA legend turned businessman, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and advocate for women in the fight against HIV & AIDS, Cookie is creating a legacy and leaving her mark on this world. Many people will tell you that life is all about choices. Cookie Johnson could have chosen many different paths that would have resulted in very different outcomes for her life, her marriage and her career (just think about the “wives” in the sordid world of reality TV to understand the kinds of different outcomes I’m talking about). Facing incredible challenges that would have caused lesser women to run in the other direction, she stood strong and protected who and what she loves. She has built – and continues to build – a powerful fashion brand, Cj by Cookie Johnson, which is one of the topics we discussed recently.

Read below to discover why I think Cookie is all things amazing. And no, it’s not just because her jeans make my butt look fabulous! It's because she’s smart, driven and ambitious when, let’s be honest, she could choose not to be. Cookie is inspiring and empowering legions of women from all walks of life. Yes... I think I’ll add her to my short list of heroes.

LeslieWrites: Cookie, in just a little over two short years you’ve made a significant mark on the world of fashion and the premium denim industry. Your company, Cj by Cookie Johnson, continues to make powerful strides as you expand the line and reach more female customers. What motivated you to even start the company?

Cookie Johnson: For years I couldn’t find jeans to fit my body type and it frustrated me to try on every pair of jeans in the store and leave with nothing. I began to talk with — and listen to — more and more women, particularly stylish, curvy women… those with hips, butts and thighs that don’t fit the standard of beauty found on today’s runways and in today’s magazines. As I talked with these women, I learned I wasn’t alone in my struggle to find jeans that fit. I discovered that most women with curves, even those who are into fitness and work out regularly, are looking for jeans we don’t have to hold our breath to squeeze into. The bottom line is that women are in search of jeans that make us feel good about ourselves and this is one of the reasons I was motivated to create the Cj brand. Our jeans are designed to fit, flatter and forgive. We proudly say that we weave self-esteem into the fabric.

LeslieWrites: Who are the people in your life that encourage and support you? From where do you derive your inspiration?

Cookie Johnson: I have a dedicated support team that includes my husband; my business partner, Michael Glasser, a true icon in the denim world and the founder of 7 For All Mankind, Citizens for Humanity and current owner of Rich & Skinny denim brands; my fashion consultant, Eula Smith; and what I affectionately call, ‘Team Cookie’ also known as my girlfriends, my sister and my children, Andre, EJ and Elisa. They inspire me and keep me laughing. Without my support team surrounding me with a great deal of love, giving me that extra nudge and providing me with encouragement on my toughest days, my company wouldn’t be where it is today. To each of them I owe a huge debt of gratitude and I thank God for blessing me with incredible support. Honestly, I believe everyone should have a support team. A good support team makes us better. They make us stronger, they keep us grounded and they tell us the truth even when we don’t want to hear it. I couldn’t possibly do what I do alone. This journey is so much bigger than just one person.

LeslieWrites: Tell us how you got started and why you decided to go into the very competitive world of fashion.

Cookie Johnson: Growing up, my mother encouraged me to explore the things I was passionate about. She nurtured my love for fashion. Like many young pre-teen and teenage girls, I would lie on my bed flipping through fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. I studied the young women on the covers of Seventeen Magazine. And the beautiful women that graced the covers of Essence Magazine opened up a whole new world for me. They were classy, confident and their skin was brown like mine. I can’t even put into words how great an impact these brown models from Essence had on me. I told myself that one day I, too, would make an impact on the fashion world. I even went through a phase where I wanted to become a model. Instead of saying no, my mom encouraged and guided me. She helped me understand what I needed to do to get there. With her guidance, I took modeling lessons. I learned to walk and sit properly. I learned proper etiquette and grooming and the do’s and don’ts of print versus runway modeling. This is where my love for fashion was born. As a high school student, I took tailoring and sewing classes and began to make clothes. I also took an interest in the business side of fashion and what it took to get fashion from the runways to the boutiques and showroom floors. It took me a few years to put all of the pieces together but my mother and my entire family encouraged me.

LeslieWrites: You seem to have figured out at an early age what you wanted to do with your life. Where did this insight and great sense of independence come from?

Cookie Johnson: The funny thing is I think God made me independent the moment I came into this world. I was born this way! An important moment in my life came when I was a senior in high school. My parents were going through a divorce and I watched my mom go from being a stay-at-home mother to a single, working mother. This meant my younger brother and I became “latch key kids.” While some people might view this negatively, I turned it into something positive and it helped shape my independence. When it was time for me to take senior pictures, buy a dress for homecoming and prom and pay school fees, my mother told me “we can’t afford it, Cookie. You’ll have to go out and get a job.” This made me open my eyes and realize what was going on in my household. It made me look beyond my own wants and needs. It also made me say to myself, “If I want something, I have to work to get it.” It helped me become resourceful and develop a real sense of independence, and independence is something I don’t take lightly. I believe it sets the foundation for many young people as they begin to think about their lives and their career paths. As I look back on this time in my life, I realize that God was preparing me for the incredible journey, not only as a fashion designer and businesswoman, but also as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, philanthropist, child advocate and spokesperson for women’s health. God was setting my foundation and preparing me for many blessings and in turn, I was preparing to answer the call. When it was time to go to college, I knew right away that I would study the business of fashion. I pursued and earned a degree in retailing of clothing and textiles from Michigan State University and worked in the industry for seven years as a merchandise buyer. All of this early preparation and my sense of independence prepared me to start Cj by Cookie Johnson.

LeslieWrites: Do you run your company with a set of personal or business principles that you can share? What advice would you give other women who are thinking of starting a business?

Cookie Johnson: Yes and the principles I share with aspiring entrepreneurs are the same principles I learned when I set out to launch my brand. First, I would encourage anyone thinking of starting a new venture to really investigate the business and do his or her research before jumping headfirst into a very competitive marketplace, especially in an economic period that’s still very uncertain.

Second, they need to identify and secure funding sources. In other words, they should never even think about starting a business without a plan for securing capital. My advice is to determine what you have, what you will need and how you will go about getting it.

Third, it is so important to have the help of a solid team beyond the support team that I talked about earlier. I’m talking about a business team that consists of an attorney to negotiate legal contracts and leases and help determine the right business structure, an accountant to file tax documents with the IRS and manage your financials, a savvy public relations expert who will promote your brand and create positive media opportunities and a marketing guru who will help build your brand, create your website and establish your social media presence.

Fourth, I tell people that they shouldn’t be afraid to trust their instincts. We know that most women are intuitive by nature! It’s important when starting a business to trust yourself and your ability to make decisions based not only on what your left brain tells you but what your right brain tells you as well. Having a great team to help you weigh decisions is very important but it’s also important to remember that the business you start is yours and you must feel empowered. Trust yourself!

Finally, make sure you love what you do. At the end of the day the success of your business begins and ends with you. It rises and falls with you. It’s this love and passion to succeed that will get you through the difficult times. It’s this passion that will make you work harder to build your brand.

LeslieWrites: What are some of the things you’re most proud of?

Cookie Johnson: In addition to being proud of my family and my business, I am always proud to spread God’s word and help other people understand who God is. And whenever I have the opportunity to help people I feel proud. Educating people about HIV & AIDS is so important to me and I am proud to empower women to stand up against the spread of the disease.

LeslieWrites: As many people know, in 1991 when you were pregnant with your son, your husband announced to the world that he contracted HIV. You have spoken publicly about this difficult time for your family. Today you speak to women across the country about preventing the spread of HIV & AIDS. What is the main message that you share?

Cookie Johnson: One role that I am absolutely passionate about is my commitment to women’s health and the fight against HIV & AIDS. When I speak to women I tell them that first, they have to stand up and take care of their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. A lot of women neglect themselves because they’re too busy caring for their families. Second, I tell them they must to go out and get tested. Knowledge is power. Third, as women we have to empower ourselves by insisting that our partners get tested. Finally, women have to take the leadership role in the bedroom and insist on protection. What I find when speaking with people across the country is that young people are not paying attention. They are taking on this attitude that it can't happen to them. Young African American and Hispanic women in particular are not making the choice to protect themselves. They are relying on their sexual partners to make decisions about whether or not to use condoms. This inability to speak up is making our young people sick and killing many of them.

I tell people that this is the generation that must start talking about this epidemic and standing up for ourselves and for those who cannot stand up for themselves. We cannot sit there and watch while our loved ones get sick and die. It starts at home, in our communities and in our churches. We have to open our eyes and realize what’s going on. We have call out to the churches because they have a great deal of power and influence. Our churches provide a whole host of ministries but a lot of church leaders refuse to create HIV & AIDS education ministries. We can’t wait any longer. I urge people to talk to a family member or a friend. They must educate themselves about HIV & AIDS. I tell them to call their local health facility to get more information about HIV testing and learn what they can do to spread the word and prevent the spread of the disease.

LeslieWrites: So what I realize is that you are busy 24 hours a day and I’m getting tired just thinking about your schedule! What do you and your husband do when you’re not working, traveling around the country promoting Cj by Cookie Johnson or speaking to women about entrepreneurship and HIV & AIDS awareness?

Cookie Johnson: Honestly my husband and I are just everyday people. We try to live our lives as regular people. You know... spending time with family and friends, working out, trying to eat healthy, watching movies. We try to do things that make us happy.

LeslieWrites: Cookie, give me one word you would use to describe yourself.

Cookie Johnson: I would say... GRACIOUS.

For more information about Cj by Cookie Johnson, please visit: http://www.cjbycookiejohnson.com/.

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