How Good Spirits Helped D.C.’s First Women-Owned Distillery Risk it All
Meet the women behind D.C.'s first women-owned distillery that is on a mission to build the community.
Many high school students take part-time jobs or apply for scholarships to help them pay for college. New York City native and current Boston University student Emma Johnson took a different approach — she started her own business.
“I never worried about how I would pay for college until I found myself touring campuses that cost $65,000 a year to attend,” Johnson said in an interview. “Then I panicked.”
However, that startling realization gave way to an entrepreneurial drive when – as a junior in high school – Johnson posted a photo on Instagram of a bracelet she had made. “Immediately,” she recalls, “I started receiving texts from friends and family asking where I got it and if they could buy one.”
What began as a side project to make bracelets for her friends suddenly snowballed when several local businesses began to contact Johnson about selling her products in their stores. Johnson realized that she had a unique entrepreneurial opportunity on her hands, and by the holiday season of that third year of high school, she had formally launched a company, EmJohn. In between college applications and SAT preparations, she was producing, packaging, and shipping bracelets from her bedroom.
Johnson credits her ability to balance the tasks to her commitment to a strict schedule. While other students would head to their after-school activities, like sports practice or club meetings, she would go straight home and spend those late afternoon hours working on her newborn business.
Somewhere along the way, between the college research and the bracelet production, Johnson thought to herself: “How cool would it be to graduate college debt-free by running a small business?” The goal, she admitted at the time, seemed far-fetched – but that only added to the motivation.
Three years later, Johnson has built EmJohn into a thriving enterprise and a respected brand, and she has expanded beyond bracelets into keychains, pouches, and necklaces. Her products have already been featured in magazines such as Seventeen and Marie Claire, and the brand (and Johnson’s sales) got a massive boost when EmJohn was named one of Oprah’s Favorite Things two years in a row.
“People email me asking, ‘Can you connect me to your marketing team?’ or ‘Can you connect me to your customer service team?’” she says with a laugh. “I’ll connect them to whoever they need – all their names are Emma.”
Meanwhile, Johnson is now a sophomore at Boston University, where a four-year bachelor’s degree in communications will cost her approximately $260,000. On her company’s current trajectory, she’ll have the full bill completely paid off within the next year.
“Every week, I get emails from people saying they are inspired by my mission,” Johnson said. “The most rewarding part about my business is knowing that my customers don’t just want to buy a keychain – they want to be a part of my story.”
Johnson’s response: To earn enough money through EmJohn to pay for her twin brother Jake’s college education at nearby Tuffs University, too.
Photos courtesy of Meagan Hooper, founder of bSmartGuide.com.