Simply Brilliant, Simply Extraordinary, Simply — #TheWomanCrushWednesday
The Woman Crush Wednesday series will highlight the extraordinary women in my life who exemplify character, kindness, ingenuity, and intelligence. I am grateful that I learn from these individuals and I’m excited for all they will do, and where they will travel. This piece will feature Deborah T. Johnson.
I’ve known Deborah my entire life, yet we only spoke because of the COVID19 pandemic. We were brought together through centuries of history, but first met at Victoria Station in London. She is both a woman I aspire to be and equally one of the most incredible representations of who I am.
This is her story.
Languish by lecture
“I was never academically inclined” Deborah, the public relations executive, content creator, and Harper’s Bazaar UK recognised small-business owner declares. “Like most children my age, I didn’t like school. I always wanted to work.” Despite being naturally drawn to art and English literature — which would surprise no one given her natural talent for curation and immaculate elocution — Deborah left secondary school and completed her GCSEs and A-levels at different colleges through a youth referral program.
Though “not academically inclined”, Deborah sought a path to higher education. Feeling the pressure far too many first-generation children face, exacerbated by knowing it wasn’t for her, Deborah begrudgingly plowed through the university application process with complete disinterest. She landed at the University of Western England in Bristol.
“Where’s the nearest tube station? How do people get around?” Deborah asked innocently to rancorous laughter during her university induction week. Happy to leave home, Deborah excitedly moved into halls, made friends, and traveled everywhere by bus. Interested in becoming a film director, she read film studies and English literature. Though immersed in university life, Deborah was still disinclined to university in principle. She had lackluster attendance, rarely completed assignments before their deadlines, and spent most of her time partying and working. In retrospect, she still stands firm in her disinterest, but concedes that she didn’t give university a fair chance.
More importantly, Deborah’s mental health began to decline. Deteriorating and feeling hollow, she reached a breaking point and suffered a breakdown. Profoundly fearful of her mother’s disappointment, Deborah continued with university and enrolled in a second year, despite knowing it was not for her. This hastened her health decline almost to a point of being unrecognisable.
Seeing her distress, Deborah’s then-flatmate and still good friend intervened and called for help. A friend from home, overwhelmed with concern after listening to Deborah describe her experience, asked, “why don’t you just come home?” Receiving that crucial counsel, Deborah thankfully prioritised her health and returned to London. An existential decision for which we are all thankful.
Finding Her Place
Being raised by a single mother who at times worked three jobs simultaneously, Deborah didn’t have the privilege to rely on her parents for spending money. Even during secondary school, Florence, Deborah’s mother who immigrated from Nigeria, made it very clear that if Deborah wanted to buy things, she needed to earn the income to do so. Having always wanted to work, Deborah rose to the challenge.
“It was cash-in-hand, one-hundred pounds for the weekend. I thought I was rolling in it” she laughs recalling her first job at Punkyfish. Maintaining that economic independence upon returning to London, Deborah was prepared for Florence to remind her that if she was going to live at home, she was going to work. Despite her recent trauma, Deborah knew she was interested in public relations, organised several internships, and worked evening shifts in pubs to sustain herself. After one year of free labour and pouring pints, she landed a position as a PR assistant with a boutique agency. Finally, Deborah’s adolescent goal would materialise: finally, she would work.
“It wasn’t always glamorous but they made it fun,” Deborah recalls of her first role and of her colleagues. Whether stuffing bags or performing pitch roundups, Deborah finally found a place where she belonged and could flourish — and flourish she did. Fueled by her impeccable work ethic, Deborah rose within one year from a PR assistant to an account executive, and after nine years, worked her way up and became a director. No degree from any institution could give her the sense of fulfillment of realising her dream. After years of struggle, misplacement, and adversity, Deborah forged her own path to success.
Acumen, Autonomy, and Aspiration
Whilst working for this agency, which Deborah credits for making her the professional she is today, a recurring motif bothered her: she didn’t see enough brands by Black women being championed. More so, she wanted more freedom: freedom to bring forth stories she found interesting, freedom to discover what made different brand creators tick, freedom to be more creative, and freedom to engage with clients on a more substantive level.
“I had the contacts, I had the experience, and I had the skill,” Deborah recalls despite delaying her freelance journey. Understandably, she was frightened by financial insecurity, but that wasn’t enough to quell her fire. In February 2018, after Deborah secured her mortgage, she took the leap and opened her own public relations agency. One of the brand owners who encouraged her to begin her independent venture became one of her first clients — her brilliance recognised by others even before Deborah recognised it in herself.
Today, Deborah is comprehensively involved in the business of her clients. With experience in wholesale distribution, copyright, brand management, and new product development — she offers an exceptional and indispensable service. Her fourteen and growing years of experience, talent, drive, and ambition have done more for her than a degree from any institution ever could.
Simply building an intergenerational legacy
As Deborah was navigating a difficult transition to university, another pivotal juncture in her life took place: Florence, her mother, was made redundant. In Nigeria, Florence was a thriving entrepreneur — selling clothes, owning independent salons, and exploring any opportunity of her choosing. Upon immigrating to the United Kingdom, Florence suppressed that part of her personality to support her family. She worked everywhere from catering at the BBC, the post service, to the London Zoo. After decades in the United Kingdom, Florence was unemployed for the first time in her life.
When Deborah was a child, her mother worked so much that she had to send Deborah to live with relatives on the outskirts of London for years so she could build a life for their family. After receiving a redundancy package, a gift in disguise if there ever was, Florence too sought a path of her own choosing.
Secretly taking courses, Florence earned her qualifications to work in a beauty salon and opened one of her own. SIMPLYGorgeous Afro Hair Salon has operated in West London for the past sixteen years. After beginning what became the family business, Florence insisted that Deborah take part in what would be her legacy. Reluctant, as Deborah had no interest in hair, she finally realised she could use her public relations skills to market the business. The mother-and-daughter co-owners have sought to elevate the image of afro hair salons by providing quality services to clients of all backgrounds.
Deborah concedes being a small business owner isn’t easy, and that their main challenge is staffing. It’s difficult to work hard to establish a brand if you’re not always able to bring in staff who can meet the expectation. Even more so, external events, including the COVID19 pandemic, affected their business: the UK furlough scheme didn’t cover enough of their staff’s expenses and many could not afford to stay in London. Deborah has hope for the future, and dreams of seeing their business at five times the capacity it is today. But she also understands the reality of economics and why that may not come to pass. That said, no matter how much longer SimplyGorgeous continues, they are a success.
It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish
I asked Deborah to reflect on her life journey and what that represents on a macro and micro level. Ever so self-deprecating, she doesn’t see the magnitude of every milestone she’s taken, every adversity vanquished, and every individual to which she is a role model. Deborah’s appreciative for the journey of those who came before her. If she could return to years past and speak with her ancestors, she would thank them for the fortitude, and tell them she will rest because they couldn’t. She will work as her mother did for her to provide opportunities for children she may have, continuing to ease the burden as each generation before has done.
As an independent business woman, she is living her wildest dreams and happy with where she is — a legacy in and of itself worth celebrating. She is a woman who was once a girl who so many would’ve written off, to now become an individual of which so many dream of being. If that’s not the definition of rebranding, I don’t know what is.
It’s been incredible to watch her journey thus far, and all of us are excited to see what is next for Deborah, SIMPLYGorgeous, and Florence. We’ll be cheering them on every step of the way.
Returning to academia…
I could never quite articulate why it bothered me so much when Deborah dismisses herself as a “non-academic.” Now I can. Of all things, I remembered Newton’s second law of motion: force equals mass multiplied by acceleration. Deborah says she’s not academically inclined…but she’s someone who left both secondary school and university under discouraging circumstances to become a woman who’s interviewed on podcasts and in magazines to discuss her life journey.
Deborah’s applied every law of motion and physics to accelerate as far as her heart desires. She may not have a bachelor’s degree, but she’s learned more from life than most who do ever will.
Deborah T. Johnson is the founder of her own PR and Brand Management company. She is the co-owner of SIMPLYGorgeous Afro Hair Salon. She is proud South Londoner, though originally from West London. She is an incredible friend, a loving daughter, and in the interest of full disclosure, my cousin. Everything about her makes me proud to call her my relative, and I hope to be half of the incredible woman she is today. Florence, of which I have never called her, is my aunt. We are so thankful she gave us this incredible human being she calls her child. Deborah is today, and quite literally every day of my life, my Woman Crush Wednesday.
You can follow Deborah on Instagram at deborah_t_johnson, and SIMPLYGorgeous’s Instagram at Simplyg_hair.