Amma Johnson – Designer and Entrepreneur, Amma Jo
At her first Philadelphia Gift Show, a showcase for artisans seeking vendors, Amma Johnson set up her bags in a display made from shipping cubes painted white, lit by LED lights from Amazon. The low-budget display looked awesome, but did customers like the bags?
“I got tons of noes and 10 yeses,” Johnson says.
Today, the Amma Jo line is in 45 stores nationwide, and Johnson is preparing for the breakthrough, when that big retailer must have her colorful bags for its spring line.
“It’s like music,” says Johnson, who is also a singer-songwriter. “You just gotta get in front of the right person. You’ve got to get someone to love your design.”
Johnson built a career in business, starting with a college internship in the buying office of Kauffman’s, the venerable department store in her hometown of Pittsburgh. But since age 4, she has been a designer at heart.
So she designed a bag in her signature bright colors and – to her shock – sold 20 to Hollywood Casino’s boutique. With the advance, she made 100 bags and set a goal of trying for a year to sell her line. It launched a day-by-day process of learning by doing, one step, one mistake and one mentor at a time.
In July 2015, Johnson opened her Strawberry Square showroom, filled with her signature bags and dresses, plus jewelry and housewares from local artisans and skilled craftspeople of Africa. One bracelet, made in Maasai tradition, features 3,000 beads. Beautiful totes were made in the same Ghanaian village where Johnson’s father, who came to the U.S. to work as an engineer, grew up.
From her father and mother, a registered nurse also from Ghana, Johnson learned to be “aware and accepting of differences and cultures. On my journey, everybody of every color and every everything has helped me.”
“That, and I get the craziness from my mom,” she says with a laugh.
She also works to empower women, mentoring one-on-one and planning workshops to teach such skills as branding and pricing. Today’s consumers want to know the story behind their purchases, Johnson says. She recalls a vendor who had two requirements for her suppliers – original work and community mind set. Johnson responded, “I think I can check those two boxes.” She also serves on the board of Harristown and the Harrisburg Downtown Improvement District.
“You should contribute to the community you’re selling to,” she says. “That is just good citizenship.”
Johnson and her husband, Darius Johnson, have a 10-year-old son and an artistically minded 12-year-old daughter. She tells her daughter, “Don’t ever stop doing your art. It doesn’t matter what anybody ever tells you. Your art is your gift, and it doesn’t really come alive until you share it.”
Johnson sells and wears faux fur because “when you put on a faux fur, you just have to act like a queen.” She is determined to “live a full life that I love, that I enjoy. I don’t always want to get up and go at it, but I never have a day where I feel like I’m not using every gift that I have.”