Monique Johnson's drive, dedication and joy are undeniable. Born with diastrophic dysplasia dwarfism and scoliosis, doctors predicted she would not live past the age of 6. Now 36, with a business degree and a law degree, Johnson is a successful entrepreneur and artist who touches the lives around the world with her incredible tale of perseverance and her gifts of humor, painting and motivational speaking. Overcoming obstacles each day, she says she doesn't mind being defined by what she can't do, because it opens them up to seeing what she can do, and the possibilities within themselves. Monique Johnson joins Megan Hayes on this all new Sound Affect.
Megan Hayes: Monique Johnson is an artist, attorney, entrepreneur, and motivational speaker known for her gifts of humor, intelligence, business acumen, and the ability to inspire others. Born with diastrophic dysplasia dwarfism, one of the rarest forms of the condition, Monique Johnson was also born with scoliosis, which caused curvature of the spine. Doctors anticipated that her spine curvature would collapse her lungs and her heart, and predicted she would not live past the age of six.
Megan Hayes: At an early age, Johnson realized overcoming obstacles of her own, gave her the power to, not only live, but succeed beyond anyone's expectations. Now, the co-founder of Made 2 Soar, LLC, she capitalizes on her sense of humor, combining straightforward pragmatism with a drive and enthusiasm for inspiring others to advocate for those with disabilities, speak in support of education and diversity initiatives, and develop creative and innovative lectures, speeches, and trainings for corporate entities, educational institutions, and athletics groups and organizations.
Megan Hayes: While Johnson stands at two feet in stature, she fills a room with her presence and has been called gigantically tall in her wisdom and insight. Her incredible tale of perseverance and her gifts of humor, painting, and motivational speaking are profoundly empowering to others. Her work and her powerful example have led to being featured on news platforms, ranging from local to national, including Fox and CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. She holds an undergraduate degree in marketing from North Carolina A&T University, and a juris doctorate from Elon University.
Megan Hayes: Monique Johnson, welcome to Sound Effect.
Monique Johnson: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure being here.
Megan Hayes: We're so glad to have you on our campus.
Monique Johnson: I'm excited.
Megan Hayes: What a great way to start 2022.
Monique Johnson: Absolutely.
Megan Hayes: Can you start by giving our audience just a little bit of background about you and your journey to being a successful entrepreneur and advocate, who inspires and empowers others?
Monique Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. It started from when I was just a young child. I knew that I was destined for greatness. A lot of that had to do with the influence that I had from my family members, particularly the women in my family. I come from a long line of powerful African American women, who really did not allow me to sulk in my condition, but really highlighted what my skills and just different attributes that would really help me to succeed. They really highlighted that, and really inspired me, and empowered me to continue on. And so, that started from a young age and just continued to multiply with my self-esteem, with my outlook on life, and who I am. And I just took their vision and what they stood for, and ran with it.
Megan Hayes: So, you've talked about how doctors told you that you would not live past the age of six. And each night, you went to sleep afraid that you wouldn't wake up the next day. How has that shaped your worldview?
Monique Johnson: Oh, my goodness. Unfortunately, much of my childhood, especially at night, was me dealing with fear. And I wish that I could go back and just reassure myself that, "Hey, Mo, I understand that that's what the medical professionals have stated. But you've got a long life to live. And there's no need to be afraid." I wish I could go back and just speak to my younger self, to say that. I am thankful that they say, "Joy cometh in the morning." So, every day that I would wake up, especially past the age of six, I knew that it was just another opportunity for me to live life. After my sixth birthday, something clicked to say, "You know what? Maybe medical professionals got it wrong. And I'm hoping that they've gotten it wrong." And now that I'm about to turn 36 years old, I think that they've got it wrong. But I've used that experience to help shape me to be someone who is fearless today. And to not only just be fearless, but to count every day as a blessing. And to live life to the fullest every single day.
Megan Hayes: It's almost like the fear that you experienced then, is something that, not only you overcame it, but you're using it in a way to motivate yourself and others beyond that point now.
Monique Johnson: Absolutely. It's the fuel that really projects me to just different goals that I want to accomplish. And I'm happy, honestly, that I had that experience. I can say that now, looking at it from this vantage point. But I think all things work together for my good. So, yeah.
Megan Hayes: So, can you talk about some of your educational and career choices? You chose marketing as an undergraduate degree, then you got a law degree. What influenced those decisions?
Monique Johnson: So, I knew early on, that I wanted to be someone of power, someone who could influence others. And so, I knew that I wanted to become an attorney. Part of that was, because, one thing that I knew that I could do, there were many things that I couldn't physically do, but God had really blessed me with the ability to articulate clearly. And growing up with four other siblings who happen to be female, we argued all of the time. And so, I developed the skills necessary to prove my point. And I said, "Well, hey, if I put these things together and marry my personality with my skills, I could help to speak out for other people, who may not have a voice or may not know how to use their voice."
Monique Johnson: And so, I knew that I wanted to attend North Carolina's A&T State University. And, originally, I was going to major in political science, but the Dean over at A&T, over business, said, "Hey, listen, we see your 4.0 GPA. If you come over here, we'll give you a full ride." And I couldn't put my way wheelchair in a fast enough speed over there. And I decided to do so. And so, that's why I majored in business. But it has helped me to become the entrepreneur that I am now. And I married my business degree with my law degree. And, hey, it was just a perfect combination for me to do things with excellence in business.
Megan Hayes: And now, you're an entrepreneur. So, how did you get to that step? How did you get to the step of starting a business, knowing that that's what you were going to do-
Monique Johnson: Yes.
Megan Hayes: ... and then do it?
Monique Johnson: Yeah. Originally, I didn't think that I would be a business owner, to be honest with you. My whole goal was to graduate law school and just hit the courtroom. But it was upon graduating, that the news picked up my story. And then from there, I received the invitations from all across the country to come, and to speak, and to inspire. And I didn't think that that would be my thing, until it was an elementary school... I'm sorry. A high school, that I went to visit. And I was able to see how my story impacted those young people. And there was a teacher, who called me after speaking to an ROTC class. And she said, "You know what?" She said, "There was a young student there, who heard your story. And he had not submitted any other assignments. He had not participated in class. But after hearing you, he decided that he was going to better himself."
Monique Johnson: And so, just hearing that, I said, "You know what? I think that my story is not just for me, it's for everyone who will hear." And so, I decided to shift. Instead of advocating for individuals with disabilities and advocating for others who may not have a voice in the courtroom, why don't I do so from the stage? And why don't I do so from in front of the classroom? And that's when my passion decided to magnify. And I started Made 2 Soar, and I've been encouraging others to soar ever since.
Megan Hayes: So, can you talk about one of your most memorable experiences, either in advocacy work or the inspirational work that you're doing now?
Monique Johnson: Oh, my goodness. There's so many. I would say, there's so many I could bring up. For me, what's been the most impactful... Actually, I will. I was able to speak at a huge corporation, to be the keynote speaker. Afterwards, I was wondering, "Did I really pierce the hearts of those out in the audience?" Because I don't know about you, but anything that I do, that's important to me, I do a self-assessment immediately afterwards.
Monique Johnson: So, as I was rolling off of the stage, there was a long line of individuals, who wanted to shake my hand and just say hello. And there was a businessman, who stood taller than me. And he looked down at me. And I remember seeing him through my speech and it didn't seem like anything was registering. He had this stone cold stance. But here he was, at the front of the line, wanting to greet me. And he looked down at me with tears in his eyes and he said, "Listen." He said, "I've got the corporation, I've got the position, I've got the finances, the money, I've got the cars. I've got everything," he said, "But there's something that you have, that I don't have. And that's joy." He's like, "Where do you find your joy? How have you tapped into that?" And he, literally, had tears in his eyes.
Megan Hayes: Wow.
Monique Johnson: And I realized, at that point, that it was that scenario, as well as the scenario with the high schooler, that I realized, "You know what?" Again, this is not just for me." And I was able to inspire him and keep in touch with him. But I knew from there, "Mo, this is bigger than you. You're two feet tall. But let me tell you, you're impacting so many different people. You are a giant."
Monique Johnson: And so, I've used that to fuel me even more to not think of myself as little, but think of myself as much, and understand that my reach can extend beyond my wildest imagination. So, yeah.
Megan Hayes: Well, we've certainly seen a lot of that today on this campus, too.
Monique Johnson: Awesome.
Megan Hayes: So, thank you for that. So, I want to switch gears a little bit and ask you, when and how did you discover your talent as a painter?
Monique Johnson: That's an interesting story. So, I've always known that I could command different writing utensils. In elementary school, I would have different occupational therapists try to come and give me different adaptive equipment. And me, being a little, perhaps, hard-headed, possibly, I don't know, but I didn't want to stick out. I didn't want to be as different as I was from my peers.
Monique Johnson: Thankfully, I didn't have to worry about bullying or anything like that, but I felt like anything that was strange would cause more attention to me and my condition. And so, the occupational therapist would always try to think of different tools and gadgets. And I was really determined to say, "You know what? Okay. So, here's a pencil. And, yes, I cannot close my hands, because of the way my bone structure is, but let's just try. Let's try."
Monique Johnson: And I realized that I could command writing utensils really well. So, my writing skills, from a young age, was impeccable. My handwriting was better than my teacher. And so, I knew that I had the ability to maneuver paint brushes, crayons, markers, colored pencils. And then I also had an eye for color. But I did not highlight that at all, elementary, middle, high school. But it was my senior year of high school, that my mom found a sale at Michael's, or something like that. And if you know anything about moms who love sales, then you know that-
Megan Hayes: I might be one of those.
Monique Johnson: ... she's going to get something, okay? She's going to get something. She came home with a canvas and some paint. And said, "Mo, try to paint something on this." And at first, I was like, "Mom, I don't really feel like it." She's like, "No, just try." So, I was like, "All right, fine." So, that night, I decided to paint an African American saxophone player. And it ended up coming out really nice. I wasn't surprised, but my mom was surprised. So, of course, being a proud mom, she presented that to family cookouts and everyone knew about it.
Monique Johnson: And then someone at a cookout said, "Hey, I'll give you $100 for that." Now, that was what really got my attention. And the light bulb popped off. And I said, "You know what? Maybe I can flip some of these canvases, and add a couple of dollars in my pocket." And that really motivated me. So, yeah, I just decided, "Okay. Well, cool. So, let's push the limits and go with bigger canvases." So, I've completed canvases that were four feet. So, that's two feet higher than I am. And I've just been having a ball, just really extending outside of my reach, to create something beautiful. So, yeah.
Megan Hayes: And also, didn't you use the proceeds to pay for an aid?
Monique Johnson: I did. Yeah, because I had a full ride academic scholarship, but I wanted to have the full college experience. I wanted to stay on campus. But that would require me to have an assistant with me. And that was quite costly. But I said, "You know what? Let's go ahead and just sell as many of these as possible."
Monique Johnson: The news picked it up again. My community back in Greensboro really picked up the story. And people came out to support. And I was able to pay for an assistant all four years of college. So, yeah, it worked out pretty well.
Megan Hayes: Full-time creative job, on top of your incredible academic experience, too.
Monique Johnson: Yes. It was a ball of fun, though.
Megan Hayes: So, I realize it is a little hard to talk about visual art in an audio format, and we're going to post a link to show some of your work on our website, so our listeners can experience it themselves. But can you talk a little bit about your paintings? What kind of subjects do you paint and what inspires you as a painter?
Monique Johnson: Right. So, my favorite is doing abstract work. I enjoy being able to put on a canvas, take a blank canvas, first of all, and create something beautiful, something that doesn't have structure, but allows the viewer to be able to interpret whatever they interpret from it, to get whatever they get from it. I love being able to even translate and communicate through that.
Monique Johnson: So, a lot of my work is abstract work, but I've also really picked up with portraits. So, different celebrities. A lot of my commission pieces are portraits, as well, which is funny, because I would say, maybe about three or four years ago, that I wasn't doing portraits. And realism wasn't my area. I was quite nervous about, because if you're painting someone, you want to make sure that it looks like them, and that they like it, and whatnot.
Monique Johnson: And so, I was nervous about that. But now, portraits make up maybe about 75% of my commission work. People love it. And I've garnered so much attention around even painting celebrities, as well, on social media. So, what it's taught me, is that, "Yes, Mo, you can take a blank canvas and create something beautiful. But you still need to stretch yourself and you still need to overcome some things that may not come naturally to you, at first. But with practice and determination, you can perfect your craft." And thankfully, I think I'm there. So, yeah.
Megan Hayes: Your work is beautiful.
Monique Johnson: Thank you very much.
Megan Hayes: So, it's interesting. You started off talking about your mother and the women in your family. When I was reading up on you, I was remembering my mother always saying that no one wants to be defined by what they can't do. We all want to be defined by what we can do and what we do well. So, how do you want to be defined?
Monique Johnson: You know what? I don't mind being defined by what I can't do. And the reason for that, and I understand, but for me, I think people look at me and they see what I can't do. But then they see what I can do. And what, I think, registers to them, or translates to them, is that we all have strengths and weaknesses. We all are not capable of doing every single thing. And that is okay. But if you highlight the things that you can do, if you find your gifts and your talents, and you really work it, truly work it, number one, it can end impact your life tremendously. And it can impact the lives of others.
Monique Johnson: And so, I think that people are interested in me as a person. They're interested in my work. They're interested in just my life, because they see what I cannot do, but see what I can do. And to a lot of people, that's weird. It's mind-boggling. But I love doing it. I like confounding the wise. That's what I love doing. And so, yeah, I think more so, I would like to be defined as someone who was not afraid to tackle circumstances and obstacles, someone who understands her weaknesses, her strengths, but is determined to really enjoy life and enjoy life to the fullest.
Megan Hayes: So, do you ever have days when you just want to have a bad day?
Monique Johnson: Absolutely.
Megan Hayes: Because you don't seem to be the type.
Monique Johnson: Yes. No. I love empowering and inspiring folks. I love doing this. But at the end of the day, I'm just like everyone else. And there are days that I wake up and I'm just absolutely frustrated. And that can come from many reasons, whether it is an assistant didn't show up that day. And so, what does that translate to me? Well, the very things that you might get up out of the bed and you're able to do, I can't. So, I have to figure out, "Okay. Well, who's going to come in their place?"
Monique Johnson: And I think people see my personality, which is all true, that I'm being very transparent. You see the joy, you see the happiness. This is all very true, because I realize I could not be here. This is not a fake at all. But I think that I've been able to look at life from the bright side so much, that people forget that I do have struggles. And so, when I break it down and say, "Hey. Yeah, I can hop out of the bed, but I need someone to help me with a glass of water. Or I need someone to help me with just the ordinary things that everyone else takes for granted. I need help with that."
Monique Johnson: And so, if an assistant doesn't show up, okay, I got to figure this thing out. So, it can come from there. It can come from just not feeling like doing life that day. And I think that everyone has those days. And it's okay. And it's deciding, "Okay. Well, are you going to push beyond that? Or are you going to just chill out?" And I think, for me, it's okay, sometimes, to just chill out. And so, I don't want people to beat themselves up for not feeling like doing life that day. And I have those days, as well.
Megan Hayes: I think that's really important, sometimes, for people to hear.
Monique Johnson: Absolutely.
Megan Hayes: So, you spoke to audiences today at App State. What was your goal? I've heard you say that you want a goal, you want to learn a little bit about your audience before you go in there. What was your goal in speaking to that group today?
Monique Johnson: Oh, goodness. I had many things that I wanted to accomplish. Ultimately, I wanted them to be impacted in such a way, again, that they weren't just inspired. I get that people are inspired by Monique, your favorite little artist. I have an inspirational story. I get that.
Monique Johnson: But beyond that, I feel like when you leave that room, and when every individual left that room, I wanted them to be impacted in such a way that they impact the communities that they return to. And they impact their family, their neighborhood, their classroom. I was hoping that, even with some of the young students, that there was something that I said that would really pierce their heart and be buried in there, for when there's a bad day or when you don't understand something. And when life is complicated, which life gets complicated, I was hoping that, at least something that I said, or even the image of me being on stage here at Appalachian State would inspire them. And, hopefully, give them the nudge that they needed, to continue on. So, I'm hoping that people were really ignited from my speech today.
Megan Hayes: My money's on yes, that happened.
Monique Johnson: I'm glad.
Megan Hayes: So, I don't know if this is a great way to end, but as we were thinking through where we've been just over the past couple years, it's been a rough couple years for society. And I think that tends to be amplified on a college campus. There's anxieties about COVID, about global warming, about economic concerns, political, civil clashes, all that.
Megan Hayes: And then you combine it with this extreme social isolation, that can present a lot of mental health challenges for young people, in particular. And so, I'm just curious, what do you say to people who are searching to find hope and strength among those, sometimes, what can feel like really overwhelming challenges?
Monique Johnson: Well, I think the first thing is to know that you're not alone. I think a lot of times, we encounter these difficult moments and what really magnifies this feeling of despair is feeling like you're all alone. I've heard from many college students who will bury themselves in their dorm room and do not want to have any interaction with the outside world. You can be on a campus with so many thousands of students, and staff, and faculty, and feel alone. I think that the first thing is to know that you're not alone. Even if you feel like you're alone, just know that you're not alone. We're all experiencing everything that's going on. So, just, again, know that you're not alone.
Monique Johnson: I think that after that, it's about really being okay with how you feel. I think that, and I would never want people to look at me and think that I'm just trying to advocate for, "Hey, feel better." No, if you need a moment to gather yourself, if you need a moment to feel sadness, feel it. Feel it and know it, because you're going to be able to use that later, to maybe help someone else. So, feel it. And if we turn a blind eye and act like we don't feel it, that's not going to do anything. So, feel it. Absorb it.
Monique Johnson: And then I would say, really talk to someone when it's your time. So, not trying to push anyone. Take your time. But talk to someone, be around someone who cares about you, who wants to pour into you. And even if that's not them giving advice or them saying something, get with someone who will just listen to you, lament about whatever's going on. I think that that is really important. But in today's age, with everything going on, you've got to have someone who is in your corner. And so, I don't mind even being that person. So, yeah. But make sure you have someone that's in your corner, that's willing to be there to support you.
Megan Hayes: Well, I think that's really important for people to hear.
Monique Johnson: Yes.
Megan Hayes: Thank you.
Monique Johnson: Absolutely.
Megan Hayes: Well, Monique Johnson, it's been my privilege and my pleasure to speak with you today.
Monique Johnson: Thank you.
Megan Hayes: You have brought joy to our campus on the first day of class.
Monique Johnson: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much.
Megan Hayes: The beginning of the semester at the beginning of a new year, I think it's a really great way to get started. And those who had the pleasure of hearing you speak today are inspired to embrace what the new year holds for us. So, thank you for the joy, and the light, the hope that you brought to our campus. And also, the pragmatism, as well.
Monique Johnson: Thank you.
Megan Hayes: So, the impact that you have, I am confident is going to continue on our campus for quite a while.
Monique Johnson: Awesome.
Megan Hayes: Thank you so much.
Monique Johnson: I'm so grateful for the opportunity. Thank you.
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About Appalachian State University
As the premier public undergraduate institution in the state of North Carolina, Appalachian State University prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The Appalachian Experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and to embrace diversity and difference. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachian is one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina System. Appalachian enrolls more than 20,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.