Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

From East Oakland To Entrepreneur to Ph.D

“You must meet CJ!” was the mandate from the Fearless Women Entrepreneur Network.  Carolyn Johnson (CJ) had just started teaching business classes with the organization and was a self-made entrepreneur that had a reputation for inspiring others.  I never turn down the opportunity to chat with amazing women and hastily made plans to ring her.

Upon answering the phone, CJ’s voice rang merrily into my ear like a jinglebell during the holidays.  “It’s a pleasure to speak with you!”  Not even my own mother was that enthusiastic to talk to me.

CJ eagerly described herself as a girl from East Oakland that likes to camp. “No one can beat a s’more!  I also like to bowl…but I am terrible” she laughed.

CJ isn’t just a campfire and bowling connoisseur.  She also has a MBA from Columbia, her own business consultancy, a beautiful 13 year old daughter, and is about to embark upon a Ph.D program in Education Leadership. “My daughter has molded my life,” she said.  Not only does she strive to put her first, but CJ also strives to set a positive example and drive change for a better world.

Genetic Motivation

Being a positive role model is engrained in the DNA of the Johnson family.  CJ told me that she was born into a strong family and raised happily in east Oakland.  As someone who rarely crosses the bridge, the  phrase “Happily in East Oakland” seemed like an oxymoron.  CJ laughed at me, “Oh I didn’t realize I lived in a poor neighborhood until I saw a list of Urban Ghetto’s in a college class.. and Oakland was on the list.”

CJ’s childhood was anything but what one would expect in the “ghetto”.  She came from a big family that taught love and joy.  Her mother was a nurse and missionary and her father a minister and social worker. They would often have people in need over for dinner and occasionally invited them to stay for a while in their attic. “Our motto was to just open the door and help.”

Although CJ’s parents never received a university education they never let on.  “My parents would sit and the table and pretend to read intellectual books, because they wanted to set a good example.”  CJ’s parents told her that college was her destiny. “I didn’t even know it was optional until I was in 10th grade-I just thought that was what everyone did after high school.”

I asked CJ what, besides her parents encouraged her to get a bachelors, a masters, and now a PhD.

“School wasn’t always easy, but it was easier than the other choices in East Oakland.”  CJ told me that she looked at the African American statistics and saw how many ended up in minimum wage jobs or even worse, jail. “I thought a college degree was a better option for me.”  In CJ’s High School class of 250, she was one of eight who was accepted into college.

Following Passion

After a joint degree in psychology and business, CJ pursued her MBA at Columbia. She then worked as a health care senior executive and  co- founded an investment banking boutique. Not many girls from east Oakland end up in the fast paced world of finance!  However, she knew her career as a banker was limited.  “It was interesting but I wasn’t passionate about it.  The hours didn’t allow me to spend enough time with my daughter.  Plus I needed to go back to my roots of helping others.” CJ had a strong desire to give back and create her own business.

“In my family, being an employee was considered being lazy,” CJ told me.  She said a lot of her entrepreneurial spirit came from her Grandmother who came to the U.S. from the Caribbean at age nine.  “Oh she was a hustler,” CJ said warmly. “She owned a hotel, a restaurant, and a bar in the small town of Tracy, California.” Channeling her grandmother’s ‘can-do’ attitude, CJ set up a business consultancy to help small businesses create actionable business plans, secure loans, and reach and exceed the break-even level.  With her company CJ had found the perfect blend of a flexible schedule, entrepreneurship and altruism.

“You have to love what you do—your job shouldn’t be drudgery!  Plus, I’m a glass half full type of person,” CJ said, “I just cannot be unhappy!”

Education is a Social Justice Tool

However, CJ isn’t stopping at business consulting.  She has decided to pursue a PhD in education leadership so drive further change in the world. I asked her why she felt a need to impact the US education system.

“Education is a social justice tool,” she said. CJ told me that her degrees opened up doors for her and people were blind to her color and gender.  For CJ, education was a way to have an equal chance in the world.

“It saved my life and I’d like others to be able to have the same benefit.”

Plus, CJ saw a lot of opportunity in education policy.  “Right now there is a lot of waste and mismanagement. Some districts cut classes but still put money into things like new furniture.”

In addition to inspiring others to succeed, CJ wants to ensure we have a robust system that supports them.  CJ aims to open up as many doors as possible.

“Our jobs shouldn’t be about us and our ego, they should be about helping other people.” I asked CJ how she came to that conclusion. “It was just how I was raised,” she said simply.

If you are interested in business advice or coaching with CJ please check out her website!

“Life’s most urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published.