Interview by Sarah Shumick
As a woman of color at a mostly white university, LC Johnson’s favorite places to spend her time were the Women’s Center and Black Culture Center. After college, LC realized that these spaces were few and far between, so she decided to create one in Central Ohio. Enter Zora’s House: a co-working, community space created by and for women of color. When it comes to innovation, LC generally trusts her gut instincts in a “do-what-feels-right” mentality. Generally speaking, if she can’t get it off her mind, it’s an idea worth exploring, which makes her a perfect addition to our 19 Nonprofit Innovators.
Give us a brief overview of your organization: Zora’s House is a co-working and community space that centers the identities and experiences of women of color. When I was in college, two of my favorite places were the Women’s Center and the Black Culture Center. As a woman of color attending a predominately white university, I knew that stepping foot into either of these two spaces meant the ability to connect with like minded individuals, to encounter mentors and friends who looked like me, and to attend programs and access resources that spoke directly to my particular identity and experiences. But after graduating from college, I quickly realized that spaces like these were not the norm out in the “real world.”
Zora’s House is a community and creative space created by and for women of color. Our mission is to provide women of color with the clarity, confidence, and connections they need to amplify their authentic voices; grow and contribute their talents; and powerfully transform their lives, careers, and communities. One of our members once called Zora’s House “sanctuary.” It’s a safe space where women can bring all of their messy, vulnerable, authentic truths AND be rooting in their identity as black and brown and Indigenous women. That’s so much more rare than most people know. I created this space because I needed it for myself and couldn’t find it.
How is your organization making an impact in Columbus? Women, femmes, and non-binary folks are used to navigating spaces that were not created with them in mind. For many of us, this means using precious time and energy worrying about how we are perceived and dealing with microagressions. Having physical space that prioritizes emotional safety allows us to put aside the put away the “mask” and tap fully into our most creative and vulnerable selves. With that in mind, the goal of Zora’s House is to create a thriving pipeline of women of color leaders, entrepreneurs, writers, and activists who are able to contribute more fully at work, at home, and in the communities they care about, all around Central Ohio.
What makes your organization thrive? Our goal is to let our members shape our growth. Our space opened in April of 2018 with an idea of how we would function and what ways we might best meet the needs of our community. In the brief time since, we’ve already adjusted our membership structure and pricing model, and changed the language we use to describe the space to more accurately reflect how our members access and use the space. Ultimately our goal is to create a safe and create space for folks who identify with our mission to connect, create, and grow. What this looks like, sounds like, and feels like will continue to evolve and be shaped by our community in major ways.
As a leader, how do you come up with innovative ideas, and what helps put those ideas into action? I don’t have a very scientific answer to this other than “do stuff that feels right.” I’ve always been a person with a lot of ideas and I love taking things from one industry and seeing if there are applications for them in another. Sometimes people will mention an off-hand comment or idea to me and if I can’t get it out of my head, I know it’s something worth exploring further. For example, a few months ago, a friend mentioned that it would be cool for women to be able to stay the night at Zora’s House. We had some rooms upstairs that I had intended for use as private office space. I immediately looked at my friend like she was nuts. Who puts bedrooms in a co-working space? But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it might actually be a dope idea that is very in line with our mission. Now in about three months, we’ll be launching our Residency Program – a residential accelerator where women of color entrepreneurs, writers, and activists who are working on new projects can come and stay at Zora’s House for four days and get support on bringing their ideas to life. And when the Residency Program isn’t running, those rooms will be used almost like a co-working hotel. People can book a “work-cation” – stay overnight and receive co-working as part of their stay. It will be a great space for women who need to get away from their every day responsibilities to work in a focused way on a particular goal or deadline.
Give us a snapshot of your career path—what is your background, and what led you to work in the nonprofit sector? I’ve been in the non-profit sector pretty much my entire career – which is hilarious given the fact that I only discovered the non-profit sector existed during my senior year of college. But after graduating with a degree in Women’s Studies (that I had no idea what I was going to do with), a mentor suggested a one year fellowship for graduating seniors who were interested in “making the world a better place.” That fellowship was a non-profit leadership program. I applied, got accepted, and never looked back. That said, I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart. I love solving problems and starting things. This has worked for me in positions when I’ve been in charge of launching, growing, or evolving new programs but with Zora’s House I really get to combine my love of social change with my love of entrepreneurship.
Who inspires you? My mom for sure. She’s the strongest, most creative woman that I know and her career path was completely non-traditional. Basically, every time she said she wanted to do something – even if that thing had never happened in her industry – she would do it. Growing up, I got to see that and I think I’ve held on to it in my own life and career.
How do you stay motivated? What drives you to take things to the next level? Being a social enterprise means that we are mission driven. Entrepreneurship is heard as hell but it helps to remember that Zora’s House exists to serve. I remember desperately needing a space like Zora’s House. We saw eight hundred people come through our space in our first eight months of being open, which tells me that I am not the only person who was looking for a space like ours. Even at moments when I feel tired or like giving up, I think about what a gap we will leave in the community if we were to close and that motivates me to keep moving, keep growing, keep coming up with innovative program and event ideas, and revenue streams to match!
Why do you think people should care about innovative nonprofits? The non-profit sector is the sector that is tasked with serving those in our community who have historically been marginalized, under-served, or are in need of the most support. Our challenges are only becoming more and more complex as our country becomes more diverse. I think it’s important that we continue to come up with innovative solutions to our communities biggest challenges.
As a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up? A doctor. Until I realized I hate science.
How can others in the Columbus community get involved with your organization? If you’re a woman of color and you’re reading this, come check us out! If you are not a woman of color but would still like to support us in a meaningful way, help spread the word to those who might be interested in our work. Consider making a donation or sponsoring a membership for a woman of color who might not otherwise be able to afford one.
If someone were to ask you what the “pulse” of Columbus is, what would you tell them? Interestingly enough, because I am not immediately part of this community, I’ve really loved exploring Columbus’ black arts scene. There’s amazing film, poetry, and art all around the city that I have loved exploring since moving here in 2015!