Ambitious Black Business Owner Shares Lessons from Her First 3 Years as CEO

ICONI CEO Angel Johnson
Written by
Hiring Our Heroes

The transition from military intelligence to fashion design is an unconventional and challenging journey.

“Everything was a challenge (when I launched ICONI) because I didn’t know anything. None of my degrees prepared me for this business,” said Angel Johnson, founder and CEO of ICONI.

What Johnson lacked in knowledge, she made up for with her learner mindset, quiet confidence, and researcher prowess. As a result, ICONI had phenomenal success during its first three years.

The leggings earned a spot on Oprah’s Favorite Things list. ICONI launched new collections to include hoodies and sports bras, and Hiring Our Heroes recognized ICONI with the 2022 Capital One Small Business Award.

Hiring Our Heroes recently asked Johnson to share her advice for Black and female veterans interested in entrepreneurship.

Conduct a Small Business Owner Self-Evaluation

Johnson launched ICONI in January 2020 while still on active duty at Buckley Air Force Base. She separated from the Air Force in 2021 after serving eight years and completing two deployments.

“ICONI wasn’t the reason (for leaving the Air Force). It just gave me an outlet to get out and allowed me to have a plan,” Johnson said. “Also, I decided when I got out that I didn’t want another person telling me what to do.”

The transition from service member to CEO starts with a self-evaluation, Johnson said. She regrets not spending more time on reflecting on her goals for her business when she launched ICONI.

Angel Johnson
Angel Johnson is the CEO and Founder of ICONI, a motivational activewear line for women and men, that donates 10% of profits to nonprofit organizations. Through her business, she empowers others with her philanthropy and her messaging of power, strength, and versatility. Johnson served in the Air Force for eight years. (Photo courtesy of Angel Johnson)

“You have a bit of an identity crisis when you exit the military. Take that time to work on your mindset,” she said. “I didn’t become a great business owner until last year because I finally did all the mindset work. Now I believe in myself and have the confidence to push out the brand.”

Johnson said she had to shift from Air Force Capt. Johnson to Angel Johnson, business owner. To develop her CEO mindset, Johnson read books and connected with like-minded small business owners.

“Before, I felt like an ex-military officer running a business. Now, I feel like a business owner running a business,” Johnson said.

“Before, I felt like an ex-military officer running a business. Now, I feel like a business owner running a business.”

Angel Johnson, Founder and CEO of ICONI

Your Military Experience Is an Asset

A self-declared JROTC nerd, Johnson was among the first 100 Black women to graduate from The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. She holds a master’s degree in intelligence studies and a bachelor’s degree in history. Prior to launching ICONI, Johnson didn’t have experience as a fashion designer. Her military experience supplied a valuable foundation.

“My background in the Air Force and career field taught me to be prepared to answer questions five layers deep,” Johnson said. “I didn’t just throw myself out there (when I launched ICONI). I did a lot of research. I’m constantly doing research.”

During her research, Johnson created a list of 20 questions to ask every manufacturer. She researched fabric, color trends, and how to request samples. She kept detailed and organized notes on the answers.

“I’ve been told I’m more rigid than other business owners. I think having a military background helps you to be organized,” Johnson said.

Additionally, Johnson believes her experience collaborating with fighter pilots and interacting with people from other countries has helped her as a business owner.

“The military taught me I can talk to anyone,” Johnson said. “I’ve heard people in business say, ‘No one wanted to help me.’ I haven’t had that issue. People are always willing to help me. It’s because of how I treat people. You need to be respectful to everyone you interact with. Everyone’s time matters.”

“The military taught me I can talk to anyone.”

Angel Johnson, Founder and CEO of ICONI

Participate in Accelerator Programs, Networking Opportunities

Johnson credited business accelerators with helping her quickly turn her “hobby into a full-time business.” Business accelerators provide startups with resources, mentorship, marketing guidance, and support to small business owners. The training typically lasts three months.

“Even if you don’t get accepted into those programs, they will push your brand out,” Johnson said. “I’ve been in two accelerator programs, and I’ve applied for tons of grants. That’s how you get your brand name out there.”

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Veteran Entrepreneurship

In addition to these training programs, Johnson attended networking events offered through Bunker Labs. “Normally, I try to hug a wall and stay there during networking events. With Bunker Labs, I enjoyed talking with everyone in the room. The people there get me and what I’m going through,” Johnson said.

Woman talks into microphone
Air Force veteran and ICONI CEO Angel Johnson is interviewed for a podcast.

Be True to Your Brand

ICONI stands for “I Can Overcome, Nothing’s Impossible.” The company donates 10% of its profits to nonprofit organizations. The company’s mission is to “change the world one legging at a time by motivating people through our high-quality activewear and providing an inclusive environment for everyone, while giving back to those in need and in crisis and remembering our humble beginnings.”

Johnson recommended business owners work through the recommended brand exercises.

“Go through all those steps they tell you to go through and get your brand messaging done,” she said. “It may seem small, but it’s going to pay off in the long run.”

activewear photo shoot
ICONI CEO Angel Johnson makes an adjustment to a model during a photo shoot. Photo credit: Blooming Sun Photography

“I would have had a stronger marketing message and not tried to be like everyone else because not everyone is my customer,” she said. “I had a target market, but every time things didn’t sell the way that I wanted, I would think, ‘maybe I should include more people.’”

That wasn’t an effective solution.

“Brand marketing is about identifying your niche and finding different ways to reach out to them,” she said.

Three years after ICONI’s launch, Johnson is confident about her brand.

“ICONI is about embracing your power. So, no matter what kind of workout you do or how you look, if you embrace your power, ICONI is for you,” she said.

Interested in a small business membership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce? Find out how the U.S. Chamber of Commerce can help your company grow and thrive in today’s business environment.

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