Business & Tech, Features

Boston University alumni business ventures

Emma Johnson BU Alum
Emma Johnson (COM ‘19), founder of Em John and Accessories. Johnson started the business at 16 years old, starting by selling charm bracelets on Instagram and expanding to pouches, wallets, hats, necklaces, key chains and more. ​​COURTESY OF EMJOHNJEWELRY.COM

By Rachel Do and Ava Berger

A new focus on community

The pandemic did more than just change 2020 College of Arts and Science graduate Sarah Greisdorf’s day to day life — it changed her entire business.

Before the pandemic, Greisdorf’s company, Holdette, aimed to solve the issue of the lack of pockets in women’s clothing. However, Greisdorf said when the pandemic shut down manufacturing facilities, she decided to redesign her business into a social platform for recently graduated women.

“COVID fundamentally shaped my business and changed the absolute direction of it,” Greisdorf said. “If it wasn’t for COVID, forcing everyone to work from home from their childhood bedroom and drive people to this state where they’re not talking to anybody… I would never have changed my business.”

Holdette became “the support network for recent grad women” because unlike college students who attend classes, live in dorms and have classmates to lean on during the pandemic, the graduates might lack coworkers that are in the same age group as them, Greisdorf said.

Greisdorf started hosting monthly 90-minute conversations with recent graduates, the same format which Holdette uses today. There are now seven groups in the country, one in Los Angeles, one in San Francisco, two in New York and Boston and one online.

“We get together across the country, to talk about finding belonging and building relationships and money and health,” Greisdorf said.

Gresidorf accredits Innovate@BU, a BU initiative to support student ventures, as the “catalyst” for starting her business.

“There were so many resources and mentors and programming that [Innovate@BU] provided that really set me up for success, and it really gave me the tools and the skills that I needed to be successful beyond college,” Greisdorf said.

Through Innovate@BU, Greisdorf learned the concept of “customer discovery.”

“I took advantage of a lot at Innovate@BU,” Greisdorf said. “The things that I learned that were the most impactful as I pivoted my business … was the importance of talking directly to your customer and getting a really good grasp on their specific needs.”

With the advice from Innovate@BU, Greisdorf conducted 20 customer interviews with recent women college graduates, and said she found out that the majority of the women felt lonely. With this information, she pushed Holdette forward.

“It was those skills around customer discovery that were really, really beneficial in helping me grow Holdette as far as what it is today,” Greisdorf said.

Bringing a summer orchestra to Boston

2015 College of Fine Arts graduate Nicholas Brown teamed up with Alyssa Wang, a conductor and fellow graduate student at New England Conservatory, to create a summer orchestra.

The Boston Festival Orchestra, which had their first season in 2021, was the first orchestra to have live concerts in the city of Boston post-pandemic, Wang said. They came up with the idea for the orchestra before the pandemic, but it also motivated them.

“It became suddenly extremely important that we create a project that not only continued the survival of classical music in the city, but also provided work for as many musicians as possible,” Wang said. “It was just a really big deal, having everybody in the room playing music with a large group of people after not being able to do that for so long.”

Another reason why they founded the orchestra, Brown said, was because many major orchestras in Boston didn’t operate over the summer.

“We wanted it to be very identifiable with the city,” Brown said. “[Festival is] just kind of synonymous with summer orchestras.”

Brown is the executive director of the orchestra and the principal clarinet. Wang is the principal conductor and the artistic director for the orchestra.

Brown said his time at BU was informative and inspirational to his entire career, especially seeing arts administrative skills and orchestral community among musicians.

“What BU provided me was … the social dynamic and the understanding of how ensembles can function at a high level, but also be very forgiving and understanding and accepting of other things that are going on.”

Turning crafts into an empire

After growing up with an obsession for DIY projects, Emma Johnson, a 2019 College of Communications graduate, started her own business, Em John and Accessories, at 16 years old.

“Everyone kind of as a kid had their own little hobby whether it was dance, a sport or an instrument,” Johnson said. “I never got into any of that, so I would constantly come up with crafts projects.”

In high school, after posting a picture of one of her handmade bracelets on Instagram, Johnson said she immediately noticed interest in her products. So, she took the first syllable of her first and last name and created a business brand, Em John.

As the company took off her junior year of high school, Johnson said she set a goal for herself.

“I challenged myself to pay for college through this little business. Make the same amount of money, $250,000, that it costs to go to a private university in America,” Johnson said. “I set that goal for myself to stay motivated … I wanted it to become something other than just a hobby on my bedroom floor.”

Her freshman year at BU, Em John and Accessories was featured on Oprah’s Favorite Things 2016, and then sophomore year, Johnson hit her goal of making $250,000. She said the support at BU helped propel her business forward.

“When I got to BU people were so driven and inspired by my story, and there was a huge support system around me who was championing my success and wanted me to do well and succeed,” Johnson said. “It pushed me.”

Johnson said the large community at BU and their promotion spread her business like “wildfire.”

“It opened so many doors,” Johnson said. “I would tell different people all about Em John, and they’d be so excited and then tell other people that they knew. It wouldn’t have been possible if I just stayed in the same space or the same circle all four years.”

Johnson said her advice to young entrepreneurs is “if you want something go and get it and start today.”

“Set a big goal for yourself and keep pushing to hit that goal,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that had I not gone to BU and not set that goal, none of this would have been possible …The people at BU really pushed me to succeed and wanted to see the best in me and wanted me to thrive which was more than I could ever ask for.”


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