In 2019, La’Asia Johnsonwas suffering from job burnout and case overload as a social worker specializing in childhood autism for the Genesee Health System. She had begun to think that maybe, just maybe, there might be another career path for her.
Johnson had long suffered from eczema, on the palms of her hands, on her scalp and on the bottoms of her feet.
“I went to a dermatologist, I had prescriptions, I bought creams. Nothing worked for it,” she said.
For years she had posted in Facebook groups and searched Google for more information about the ingredients in the prescriptions, ointments and creams she had bought over the years. Some of the ingredients made no sense to her. She thought there were better combinations of ingredients she could come up with. And so she did.
She bought a variety of ingredients, primarily shea butter, coconut oil and grapeseed oil, and began blending them in various combinations. “There were things that worked for me,” she said. Her eczema calmed down and began to disappear. “I started to share products with my family and friends. And they spread the word by word of mouth to their friends and family. This is a word-of-mouth business.”
She called her word-of-mouth business Elle Jae Essentials, based on the first letters of her first and last names, and began selling poducts from her apartment.
In September 2019, after quitting her job, she opened a kiosk at the Great Lakes Crossing. On Feb. 19, 2020, Johnson won $5,000 as runner-up at a pitch event hosted by 100K Ideas, an entrepreneurial support organization based in the Ferris Wheel Building in downtown Flint.
Johnson was sure she was on her way. But the world was about to come to a screeching COVID-19 halt, and in weeks, Great Lakes Crossing shut its doors.
Johnson, who was born and raised in Flint, was undeterred. She continued to grow her business by word of mouth, adding a sales portal through a website, ellejaeessentials.com. This September, she opened a small retail outlet on Flushing Road on Flint’s north side.
She offers about 50 different products, including whipped body butter, bath and body oil, lip butter, body wash, hand sanitizer, beard butter and hair butter. They are available at her store and at Summerset Salon & Day Spa in Flint and Handmade Toledo in Toledo.
She also recently added her fourth and fifth employees and expects sales to be more than $160,000 this year.
“When I decided to leave my job, it was like, ‘I know I can do this.’ I was determined to make it work, 100 percent. There was no plan B. No other options,” said Johnson.
“I’ve absolutely been impressed with her,” said Brandee Cooke-Brown, executive director of the 100K Ideas program. “We love it when people use their pitch money the way it’s intended. She used the money to grow her business, moving from her apartment to a storefront. She’s got such great energy.”
Elle Jae products will get some extra shine this holiday season from Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Meta (formerly known as Facebook, Inc.), who included an Elle Jae body butter in her holiday gift baskets. Sandberg said she discovered Elle Jae and other Michigan-made products this year during a virtual small business tour where she met with entrepreneurs to hear how they’ve been navigating the pandemic.
Jessica Crossfield is the founder of Handmade Toledo, a retail outlet that offers a wide range of products made by more than 200 artisans, including jewelry, original art work, stationery, clothing and bath and body products.
Crossfield said she has been selling Elle Jae products for more than a year, after Johnson submitted an application online. Handmade Toledo is in a 10,000-square-foot building, which in addition to retail space holds pop-up events, temporary art galleries and, twice a year, what is billed as a Makers Mart for Michigan and Ohio crafts people to show their goods.
“Her products are great. I love the idea behind it,” said Crossfield. “Her sales are strong … She sells quite a bit.”
Cherrell Carter is one of the friends and family who became a regular customer. She went to college with Johnson at Oakland University and has remained friends since. Her young son, Kareem, had recurring breakouts of rash on his skin. Carter began using a body butter formulated by Johnson on him more than a year ago and saw immediate improvement. She since has started using some other products herself.
“My satisfaction is 100 out of 100. I love her products, I really do,” she said.
Carter is a manicurist and said she also uses the products on her customers’ hands, too. “That reminds me. I’m running low. I need to order some more,” she said.