Antoinette Marie Johnson is a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based entrepreneur who knows intimately the process of reinvention and transformation. After a painful divorce from her ex-husband, who was also her business partner, she chose to grow from the situation and start a new business. Today her creative agency Cohere works too transform formerly abandoned spaces and to bring socially conscious businesses to emerging arts districts and forgotten neighborhoods. Johnson understands the delicate balance that exists between those living in gentrifying nieghborhoods and those wishing to build businesses there and seeks to work with businesses who, “are choosing the health of people and planet over selling just anything.”
Johnson’s story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:
We started Cohere as a way to amplify our passion to transform abandoned spaces. There is nothing more thrilling than bringing a vision to life in a forgotten neighborhood or historically relevant building. Design is the principle medium that we use to help solve problems, but we are more than just a creative agency. As we grow into our larger vision, which is to build a hospitality company that serves emerging arts districts with the types of businesses that they actually want in their communities, we are determined to keep sustainability and community building at the core of what we do.
I live by this mantra, “I expand in an abundance of love, success and inspiration and I inspire others to do the same.” It took me a long time to say it out loud because I wasn’t convinced that I expanded in success. Which made me look inward and decide what my definition of success really was. For me it’s about being able to have a diverse array of ways I spend my time during the day. Not being stuck behind a device or at a desk. Incorporating wellness in the morning and again once more throughout the day with yoga, meditation, exercise and sunshine. Being able to walk into a meeting and command the room with gentle confidence, simultaneously creating a space for others to share and their voices to be heard. Ending the day with a glass of good wine and a meal prepared with the one you love. Spending the later years of my life on a porch beside that person on a rocking chair talking about how happy we are that we did it all together. That is success for me.
My biggest success to date is turning trauma into triumph. It sounds so cliche but truthfully it takes a big commitment to yourself to turn something that’s gone horribly wrong into something that succeeds. About five years ago I was divorcing my ex-husband because I learned of his betrayals and sex addiction. I was buying out his shares of my company, devastated, realizing that he had spent years worth of hard earned money on strippers, happy ending massages and loads of porn. All behind my back. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever faced and it was a complete disaster. We only had a handful of employees and my immediate reaction was to protect them, be honest, and ask for help. Thankfully those employees turned into incredible leaders who helped us reshape the company, rebrand, and stand for something more true to our core passion and values. Without that traumatic experience I would not have the thriving set of businesses I now own and a world-class team. The honor of this opportunity is something I am present to every single day of my life.
Our goals for Cohere are to continue building a world-class branding agency that attracts ideal projects. Clients who “get it” and choose to scale consciously in food, neighborhood redevelopment and hospitality. We aim to work with the best hotels, restaurants and wellness initiatives that are choosing the health of people and planet over selling just anything. We are getting ready to launch our own brands, with florals first and an indoor-outdoor destination next. 2020 is a huge year for accomplishing our 10 year vision and we are so honored to be in it now!
For each challenge we have faced we have used a few core principles to guide us. The types of things that have been harder for me to grasp are strategic business growth and financial management. I wasn’t bad at those things, they just ended up being the tasks that brought me the most stress. The types of stuff that fell to the bottom of the to-do list. But now that I have overcome those challenges I can see the principles that helped me improve. It’s important to lead by understanding where I can improve before pointing the finger at someone else. This is important for taking away how you will do better before constantly blaming others. It is also important to accept that things take time, that real sustainable change comes in small steps. There are no overnight successes that stick. You should also work to create a “critical path” and outline how you can improve and overcome a challenge. Share it with others to hold yourself accountable.
The situation with my ex-husband presented a huge dilemma for me both personally and professionally because he was also my business partner. When I learned of his misappropriations of funds from the business and acts of disgusting activity, I chose to make the professional decision first and wait on the personal. Making both at the same time was too daunting and made for blurred lines. So I terminated him with legal counsel on the professional side and then waited to hear him out and go to therapy on the personal side. The decision to separate those processes was helpful for removing emotion from the business. Ultimately I divorced him also, and thank goodness!
I have a whole list of mentors in my life. The biggest tip that helped me was, never to tell a person they are your mentor because the formality of that scares both parties. So therefore I will keep mine secret!