Antoinette Marie Johnson: “To develop resilience, commit to one change per month”
This article was originally featured on Authority Mag, written by Fotis Georgiadis. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry.
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US, ANTOINETTE! OUR READERS WOULD LOVE TO GET TO KNOW YOU A BIT BETTER. CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKSTORY?
I grew up with a single mom in the suburbs of Philadelphia for the first half of my childhood. I joke that I got into branding at the tender age of 9 when my mom remarried and changed my name from Antoinette Malavolta. The name Malavolta translates in Italian to “bad energy”, so changing it to Antoinette Marie Johnson was a no-brainer! But seriously the lessons of frugality and hustle date back to my mother as a young professional woman who did everything she could to create a good home for us. I was determined to make her proud, so I went to college at Temple University, and paid for it by enlisting in the military, serving for a few years and becoming an RA to pay for room and board.
At Temple University I was fascinated by the disparity in North Philly. Such beautiful historical brownstones on Diamond Street abandoned and left to rot. It motivated me to take Urban Studies on as a major and soon I found myself fully devoted to the revitalization movement in Philadelphia. Over the next 15 years I’ve started a non-profit greening group in South Philly, my creative agency centered on beautifying neighborhoods through the transformation of abandoned properties, and now with the focus of creative activation.
CAN YOU SHARE WITH US THE MOST INTERESTING STORY FROM YOUR CAREER? CAN YOU TELL US WHAT LESSONS OR “TAKEAWAYS” YOU LEARNED FROM THAT?
The most interesting story for my career and our team’s history is our origin story and how that has helped shape us full circle to the unique growth opportunity we are in now. A few years ago, we discovered that my ex-husband and business partner was misappropriating funds from the business for his sex addiction. Something that hit me pretty hard and was an extreme surprise. Betrayal in both the professional and personal realms. I quickly realized what I had to do, and leaned on my team for support, buying out his shares and pivoting the company to rebrand around a new mission — to help revitalize cities through the power of design. We chose to focus on transforming abandoned spaces and have since helped reshape over 8M square feet of space in cities like Philly, Baltimore, DC, Detroit, NYC and more! The narrowing of our core focus was informed by urban studies background and amplified our interests in real estate, restaurants, and hospitality design. It was a perfect storm of staying true to who you are, enlisting a value system of transparency and only choosing clients who treated us with respect. Since then we’ve tripled in size, grown to have offices in 3 cities, and we are now launching our own placemaking project that is super exciting. The reward for listening to my intuition and looking into the mirror has been phenomenal. Female empowerment is a big part of this story, but it’s not just about women — it’s about anyone who is sick of not reaching their full potential. Even the abandoned spaces!
WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES YOUR COMPANY STAND OUT? CAN YOU SHARE A STORY?
The word “Cohere” is a verb, and it means to become united around shared values and principles. We chose this as the name of our company because, in every project where we thrive, we are cohering stakeholders around a vision to help improve a neighborhood or project reach its full potential. That is a gift, and we dedicate ourselves to that cohesion in values on a regular basis.
The best example of this is our latest project at Spring Arts in Philadelphia at the rail park which is a lot like the Highline in NYC.
We are activating the neighborhood with an immersive outdoor experience with native plants, vegetable beds, chickens, a flower shop and a cafe. Part of the proceeds of sales will go towards building the 2nd stage of the rail park. Cohere has helped several parties in the neighborhood come around the vision for these spaces so that an underserved community can get what its been hoping for, and others can accomplish their dreams. A win-win scenario.