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Ithaca, New York
Majors in Environmental Studies and Sociocultural Ecology (self-designed)
After graduating with honors with one major in environmental studies and a second, self-designed major in sociocultural ecology, Jessie Johnson '12 took an unconventional route. Now residing in Ithaca, New York, Jessie runs a successful food blog called Life As A Strawberry and makes her living as a full-time blogger.
How did you begin blogging, and how did it become what it is today?
I started Life As A Strawberry as a hobby food blog right after I graduated from Knox. I was working in Galesburg part-time for both Deb Southern and Nova Singers while I saved money for graduate school, and I wanted a creative outlet that let me keep my feet in the food world since all of my academic work centered on food systems and food security. I’d grown up cooking in catering and community kitchens, and I’ve always been the friend who brings snacks, so writing about food on the internet seemed like a fun and natural fit.
That first year, my readership was basically 1) my Knox friends and 2) my mom. A year into blogging, my now-husband and I moved to New York so I could do my graduate work at Cornell, and I kept the blog going during grad school as a creative outlet (and to earn some extra money—when I got to Cornell, Life As A Strawberry was earning a few hundred bucks a month and basically paid for all my books). By the time I finished my master’s of public administration, I was being invited to speak at blogging conferences around the country and the website was making almost as much as the nonprofit jobs I was considering. Blogging was still pretty new then—we didn’t have the influencer industry we do today—but I had a gut feeling that going all-in on my company was what I needed to do.
So, I decided to just go for it. Building Life As A Strawberry has been equal parts really, really fun and really, REALLY HARD. But that’s true for every entrepreneur. Almost a decade after I published that very first post, we’re a six-figure media company with staff and contractors in seven states. It is still completely wild to me that this is my full-time job.
Describe a day in your life running your blog, Life as a Strawberry.
The best part is that no two days are really the same! I usually split my days by creative or admin tasks. So on a given Wednesday, which I use as admin days, I might wake up, make breakfast, and spend a few hours on email and writing new content. Then, I’ll proof any new content that comes from my staff and send them my notes. After lunch, I’ll usually have a check-in meeting with my operations director and then knock out an email draft or recipe review before ending the day with our all-staff meeting. On Tuesdays, I’m typically in the kitchen: I’ll wake up and start prepping whatever recipes we’re shooting or testing, cook for a few hours, then spend the afternoon editing or writing.
As the company has grown, I’ve honestly been doing less and less of the actual content production, which is bittersweet. But I am so grateful to have an incredible staff who handles the bulk of our photography, editing, and recipe testing, which gives me time to work on our major projects and focus more on creative direction. I’ve also learned that it’s really important to set aside “deep work days,” where I’m essentially out-of-office so that I can have some solo work time to focus on the big-picture projects without getting distracted by staff or meetings or day-to-day things.
Did you expect to follow this path when studying at Knox?
Definitely not! This has been a complete surprise (albeit a wonderful one!) But it is interesting to see how many similarities there are between what I studied, what I thought I would end up doing, and what I do now. I always thought I would end up working for a nonprofit, because I wanted to use my creative and leadership skills to build a better, more sustainable food system, and I wanted to create healthy workplaces with great benefits. Ten years ago, I thought that meant I would be sitting in policy meetings in Washington, or handing out food at community meal centers, or assisting on fundraising campaigns.
But instead, I get to build a better food system by using our platform to showcase small, sustainable, equitable food businesses to hundreds of thousands of readers. I get to help small businesses and nonprofits craft marketing campaigns to help them reach more people. I get to invest heavily in building a great workplace for our staff because no one can tell me not to. We get to donate to causes we really care about. So while the work itself might be different than I imagined, all those values I wanted to work for are still the same. We’re still doing all the things I wanted to do: I just took a different path to get there. And I think that’s really cool.
What advice would you give to someone aspiring to have a blog like yours?
Just start. I see so many people fail to get an idea off the ground, not because it’s a bad idea, but because they’re so consumed with making it perfect before they tell anyone about it. If you have an idea, or if you’re passionate about something, or even if you’re just like “Huh, this sounds fun!” just start. Start messy, and start imperfectly, and start without a real plan. But start. Because I can tell you from experience: No matter how much time you spend on that first step (a first post, a first logo, a first press release—anything) you will NEVER look back and be like “Dang, that was perfect!” You will always, ALWAYS look back and see things that you could tweak or change or improve. So don’t let yourself get bogged down in the details at first. Just rip off the Band-Aid and know that you’ll learn as you go.
Photograph by Kate Ames Photography and provided by Jessie Johnson.