50-for-50 interview: Judy MacDonald Johnston, serial entrepreneurPosted: August 14, 2011
Judy MacDonald Johnston is the kind of businesswoman I’d have dreamed of being back when I was a little girl playing “office” had I known that business could ever look like this. She’s leveraged every single advantage she’s been given into creating a hundred times that for others, never holding tight to wisdom or resources, but investing them where they’ll do the most good next. That her work has helped teach so many children is no surprise—Judy herself embraces learning and adventure every single day. Her perspective seems to be that there is always another hill to climb, another problem to solve, another practice to master. And if any part of this makes her sound like she might be overly earnest, let me assure you of this: no one is better at having fun than Judy Johnston. Seriously. Lady knows how to throw an awesome party.
Note from Judy: “I would like to preface these answers with the details of my professional writing. I write every single word of the text for 24 issues each year of The Tessy & Tab Reading Club. That sounds like a lot. It is not. T&T is designed for preschoolers who are just learning how to read. The illustrations are the main event, and every issue has just ten sentences. Since we have published hundreds of issues, I estimate the sum total of my published writing might add up to one short story at this point.”
When did you decide to become a writer?
I have always enjoyed reading and writing, but writing was not my profession until my business partner, illustrator Rosie Augustine, and I decided to launch The Tessy & Tab Reading Club in 2002. Our vision was to produce an early reading skills program that kids could do on their own as a form of self entertainment. Initially, the text was an afterthought to Rosie’s spot-on illustrations, and it was my job to toss them in. Before long, we found that by age 3, kids are curious about words, and are interested in “breaking the code”. By working with the early reading resources team at the Multnomah County Public Library, I learned about the six skills of early literacy. I started to experiment with creating sentences and activities that would give kids the chance to try each skill in every issue, in a manner in which they had the thrill of figuring out how words work. After years of refinement and study, I am pretty sure we have nailed it. Many of our subscriber parents say that their preschoolers taught themselves to read with T&T. Our company’s anthem: Love words early.
Who was your favorite teacher?
Professor Christopher Armitage at UNC-Chapel Hill, whose course “Canadian Literature” I took in 1982. His selection of writers, and his mentorship in critical thinking about writing was an experience of pure awakening for me.
What do you love to write about?
It might be hard to imagine, but writing about genuine preschool life experiences is very rewarding. It allows me to transport myself back to a self that is fascinated with every new thing. Rosie and I are lucky to have “understanding the preschool sense of humor” as part of our job description. Aside from T&T, I love to write about challenging things that are happening in my life. Sometimes they are shared (the chronicles of a 4-day hospital stay with my 93-year-old neighbor who has a devoted following), and sometimes my writing is just for me (matters of the heart that are meant to be kept inside).
What has writing taught you?
By using words, you can create something from nothing. By using words, you can bring a experience to life for someone who cannot be there. Words have the potential to be the greatest gift you can give to someone.
How has writing made you stronger?
Writing makes me stronger by helping me to be heard and understood. Language and narrative have innate power. Writing is the tool that lets one tap into the power. Whether I am trying to capture the mind of a preschooler or influence a person with an important role to play in my life, writing is my instrument of choice.
If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?
You are right to think that life is fun now and it will be even more interesting in the future.
What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?
Two books have stopped me in my tracks over time: The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder; and Surfacing by Margaret Atwood. I love anything by Jane Austen, especially for dialogue. I am a big fan of Dorothy Sayers. And I will drop anything when a New Yorker arrives with a film review by Anthony Lane.
Judy MacDonald Johnston is the co-founder and CEO of The Tessy & Tab Reading Club, a program based on the Six Skills for Early Literacy that builds early reading skills in preschoolers. An entrepreneur at heart, Judy has co-founded three companies in the last 15 years including PrintPaks, a children’s software company sold to Mattel in 1999. Judy spent seven years with Hewlett Packard, starting as product manager for the first color HP DeskJet printer and finally Worldwide Product Marketing Manager for the $3.5B HP DeskJet brand. Judy’s parents were public school teachers in Miami, Florida. Judy graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1983, and earned her MBA at the University of California Los Angeles in 1988. She also completed the Stanford Professional Publishing course in 2001.