KATIE WARNER JOHNSON, CARBON 38
Name: Katie Warner Johnson
Organization: Carbon 38
Title: Co-Founder & CEO
Written by Noble Media
Katie, tell us about your background. How did your previous experience lend itself to co-founder Carbon 38?
Well, I truly believe that every stop on my train of life has led me here at Carbon38. While you’re going through it, it feels crazy, and looking back, it absolutely makes sense. I started off as a ballet dancer -- I made my own leotards – and if you think about a leotard, it has to accomplish a lot in terms of flattering the body, elongating and enhancing the dancer’s line. it has to be aesthetically beautiful first, and then it has to be able to perform. And that’s what I grew up with.
I went to Harvard & kept trying to leave – my mother was thrilled – to go on tour with a couple of Broadway shows. Then I took a job in equity derivatives as a summer analyst, because my sister, who was in business school at the time, was like, “Get a real job. For once in your life, get a real job.” And, I did that, and it was actually quite interesting and performative. But it just showed me that I still had a lot left to say as an artist. I ended up graduating from Harvard and deferred my full-time offer to keep dancing in New York and did more tours, and more shows, and more Broadway productions.
While I was on tour & to pay the rent, I became a fitness instructor in the morning, so 5:00 to 10:00 a.m., I would teach class every day, and then go and audition, and rehearse, and dance until late at night, and do it all over again.
Fast-forward about five years in New York – I took the leap & moved out to LA, because there’s just something anonymous and limitless about this city out here, to try to start fresh as I was edging closer to my 30s. And my body started falling apart, and I knew I actually did have to get a desk job. I applied to business school, got rejected and then I kind of felt like I was at rock bottom at this one moment where my body wasn’t working. I had a ruptured disc in my back, I had overdrawn my bank account and, I thought, “You know what? No one’s going to give you opportunity, Katie. You’re going go and you’re going make it yourself.” I banded together with two other friends who were feeling equally entrepreneurial, and started weekends, and pitched ideas around at hackathons.
I had gone to an accelerator and built a couple different iterations of products on this Carbon38.com, and ultimately launched January 2013 with a content site that profiled celebrities and influencers and their wellness routines, kind of like Into the Gloss, but instead of your medicine cabinet and skin care routine, it was your gym bag and wellness routine. And then we started making the products available for sale. We really were trying to create this wellness marketplace, but what we found was our customer was just really interested in the leggings. When we launched we had these five female-founded brands -- Outdoor Voices, Lorna Jane, Electric Yoga, Work Out Life and Michi – who we still work with today – and from there is where Carbon38 really took off &here we are.
What was the why behind starting the company? Where did you see a gap in the market?
Well, we were running this content site that sold a few things on the side when a certain activewear brand not to be named recalled 17% of its product offering and then their CEO at the time was going through a bit of a PR crisis -- it all kind of dawned on me that the fitness industry, the fitness apparel industry, that at that moment was starting to explode, particularly in the women’s department, was essentially run by all men. And there were these amazing upstart brands that couldn’t scale because they were just going door-to-door to mom and pop yoga studios. And their biggest client when talking to these vendors, how proud they were to sell on consignment to a few Equinox boutiques. And there’s no way to scale a business.
I thought, “why not create a platform to showcase these brands?” And if we could link arms and unite forces, we could take on the big guys -- that was how Carbon38 was born. And that is absolutely our mission today still, is that we believe it’s through an ecosystem of brands, we can take on the larger players in the industry. And furthermore, when we took a step back and realized that 72% of our brands are female-founded, we knew we were fueling the female economy -- our efforts and passion increased twofold as a result.
“Make it real as soon as you can – you’ll spin your wheels if you are stuck in the ideating stage. Put it on paper, launch the site, open the boutique, accept clients as soon as you can because you’ll realize the market will tell you more than you’ll ever tell yourself in your head.”
What has been the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome?
Being taken seriously by myself – we all as people need validation & that is hard to come by – so I have to wean myself off of that need, but I like to be underestimated – I prefer that to the other way around – under promise & over deliver
Who are some other female leaders you respect?
My sister, Emily: she’s a gladiator – she’s fighting the good fight in building her career & building a beautiful family & maintain balance, she is also super vulnerable – she can do it all – she can be feminine & powerful, she does it all at once – she’s my muse – she is who I am serving.
What’s you go-to day to night activewear outfit?
Our high-waisted Takara with one of our signature bodysuits with a leather jacket can solve problems.
How do you hope Carbon38 empowers women in their everyday lives?
We create & sell clothes that get out of your way so you can go out & win. If you think about it– I read a statistic, every day we get to make 11 important decisions and on average women make at least seven of those before they get to the office. Think about a women’s life, she gets up, she works out, she makes lunch, creates the grocery list, she decides what she has to wear – it drains a lot of your energy. And if you think about her male peer, who got up, put on his shorts, went to the gym, gets home, showers, puts on his khakis and his button-down, and goes to work -- they both walk in the door -- she’s expected to outperform her male peers by 30%. And she’s already drained a lot of her energy by just keeping her family going, but also tuning her own perception or others’ perception of herself. She’s already thinking about the battle in front of her in terms of how she is perceived when she’s getting dressed.
What I want is to create is a collection of clothing that truly makes it simple, that you feel beautiful. Because as a leader, as women, the group of women right now who are changing the paradigm have to be the front of the pack. And as a result, you have to draw attention visually, so you have to look really good and that is why we create clothing that’s fashion-forward, ahead of the trend, ahead of the curve, flatters your figure, makes you feel comfortable, easy to wear and gets you through your day.
“…Self-care is not indulgent. It’s merely just filling up our reservoirs because we can’t take care of all the people we need to take care of, or grow the businesses we’re growing, or change the gender paradigm when we’re completely depleted.”
How do you balance being a successful founder with your own health and wellness?
I think that I gave up a longtime ago on what the world tells me balance is. Finding time to meditate, having a loving partner, making sure I could go on a 20-mile hike and cook a seven-course meal and kill it in the boardroom -- that just doesn’t exist, and that’s too much pressure we put on ourselves. How I see it for myself and any woman who’s trying to lead anything is like an athlete -- we have to treat ourselves like we’re training for the Olympics. And self-care is not indulgent. It’s merely just filling up our reservoirs because we can’t take care of all the people we need to take care of, or grow the businesses we’re growing, or change the gender paradigm when we’re completely depleted.
I just try to make sure that I’m in good health, I’ve had enough sleep and I treat my days almost like when I was dancing.
What advice would you give to other female founders who are just starting out?
Make it real as soon as you can – you’ll spin your wheels if you are stuck in the ideating stage. Put it on paper, launch the site, open the boutique, accept clients as soon as you can because you’ll realize the market will tell you more than you’ll ever tell yourself in your head.
What does a typical day in LA look like for you?
I get up, workout (I think every woman should workout 3 – 5 days a week -- working out is the best thing you can do to manage your stress response, rewire your brain.). I go home, make myself a homemade Matcha latte, head to the office (I sit in a lot of traffic --- hello LA!), get into our beautiful new offices that has 360 views of the city, then start my day where curveballs are thrown left, right, and center, but we get it done. Then get back in my car, go home, do a 10-minute Headspace meditation before bed, wake up & do it all over again the next day.
FOR MORE VISIT: CARBON38