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Oprah’s Favorite Things Features CGS Student’s Design, Again

Key chains draw attention for second year in a row

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During the summer months, we are revisiting some of our favorite BU Today stories from the past year. This week, we feature fashion, on and off campus.

Landing on Oprah Winfrey’s Favorite Things list, the influential annual holiday gift guide famous for turning new products into Holy Grail items, is a big deal for any designer. But two years in a row—and for a college student to boot? That’s big.

Emma Johnson (CGS’17), the bubbly founder and designer of Em John Jewelry, vaulted onto the list last year with her handmade faux-fur key chains. This year’s new design—tassled Lucite keychains—puts her once again on the coveted list.

“It is a big achievement,” says Johnson, whose supportive family contributes to her business’ success. “They are in New York handling fulfillment and shipping packages, assembling them, packing, and shipping.” She is in charge of all the website logistics, emails, and customer service from her dorm. “It can get crazy,” she says.

The celebrity tastemaker’s 2016 holiday gift recommendations, featured both in her eponymous magazine and on Amazon.com, consist of just over 100 items ranging from apparel to jewelry, accessories, toys, kitchenware, even an organic grow kit. According to the list, Johnson’s key chains, retailing for $16, are “cheap and cheery,” and they’re also excellent bag charms.

Johnson was a high school junior when she founded her jewelry line in 2013. The self-described “crafty person” posted a photo on Instagram of a bracelet she’d made from her grandfather’s old shirt and some charms she’d found, just to show off her latest craft project. She was immediately bombarded with messages from friends and others asking where they could purchase one of her bracelets. Days later, a store in her native Manhattan asked for two dozen of them to sell.

Johnson say that when she realized “people were willing to actually pay for something that I made, I was like, we’re onto something here—let’s keep making more and see where this goes.”

Em John jewelry founder Emma Johnson with Oprah Winfrey

After Emma Johnson’s faux-fur key chains landed on Oprah Winfrey’s 2015 Favorite Things list, Johnson got a summer internship with O, the Oprah Magazine, and was able to meet Oprah. Photo courtesy of Johnson

She cites savvy marketing and a hugely successful Instagram account as two of the reasons her company has thrived. Shortly after founding Em John, she created the Em John College Challenge, setting a goal of earning $250,000 over four years so she could graduate from college debt free. She says her story hit a nerve, spreading “like wildfire” among consumers. So far, she is more than halfway to her goal and says that sales over this year’s holiday should enable her to pay for college next year. Her products, bracelets and pouches as well as the now-famous key chains, are available on her website and in four dozen stores across the country.

After Johnson made the Oprah list last year, the creative director of Winfrey’s magazine offered her a summer internship with the magazine’s style section. Part of her responsibilities were helping compile this year’s Favorite Things list, an experience she says gave her tremendous insight into the inner workings of the relationship between business and media. Oh, and she got to meet Oprah herself.

“Seeing companies submit thousands of products,” she says, “then sifting through them and seeing the process of a product actually ending up in the pages of a magazine and across the whole United States is just amazing.”

Helping to winnow down thousands of submissions to a list of 101 also helped the entrepreneur come up with the design for her current keychain, which features 26 brightly colored initials bedecked with a leather tassel.

“I realized that I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Johnson says. “I was like, how can I take the keychain I did for 2015, which was just an initial and a poof, and reinvent the initial? We got a lot of submissions for tassels so I thought it would be cool to change up the initials a little and add a tassel.”

After her current design had made this year’s list, Johnson and her family spent much of the summer making 10,000 keychains assembly line–style. She had learned from last year’s experience—she had 2,000 ready before the 2015 list was announced, then had to scramble to fill the 10,000 plus orders that resulted (all were filled). So far, she’s sold over 5,000 and expects the number to rise as Christmas draws closer.

After the holiday rush, Johnson says, she plans to focus on longer term goals, which include opening her own pop-up shop in New York City to sell her products and those created by other young female designers and entrepreneurs. She also hopes to expand her Em John College Challenge to help more female college students pay for their college education by repping Em John products for a portion of the sales.

“The fact that I’m at a school where the community is so supportive helps and motivates me to keep doing Em John at the same time,” says Johnson. “It’s a full-time job, but it’s the best full-time job anyone could have.”

Liz Vanderau can be reached at vanderau@bu.edu.

4 Comments

4 Comments on Oprah’s Favorite Things Features CGS Student’s Design, Again

  • Dawn Edwards on 12.05.2016 at 8:45 am

    You are an inspiring young woman, Emily Johnson! Best of Life!

    • Vicky Leigh on 12.05.2016 at 7:14 pm

      It’s Emma.

  • The Silvio's on 12.05.2016 at 2:03 pm

    Congratulations Emma. May you reach your goal and then some!

  • Austin on 12.06.2016 at 7:36 am

    This is so great! Really proud of you, Emma.

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