Max Johnson of Awe Inspired: “Look around”

“Look around” — I’ve heard several startup founders talk about the importance of looking straight ahead towards your goal and not getting distracted by competition. To the contrary, I’ve seen tremendous value come out of thoughtful competitive analysis, criticism, and appreciation! So often we see other brands come up with innovative solutions to problems we’re tackling that […]

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“Look around” — I’ve heard several startup founders talk about the importance of looking straight ahead towards your goal and not getting distracted by competition. To the contrary, I’ve seen tremendous value come out of thoughtful competitive analysis, criticism, and appreciation! So often we see other brands come up with innovative solutions to problems we’re tackling that inform our own approach. “Looking around” and being thoughtful about our place in the market helps us differentiate our offering and stay true to who we are: if we start looking or sounding too much like brand X we know we’ve strayed too far off our unique path.


As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Max Johnson, CEO & Co-Founder of Awe Inspired.

In 2017, Minneapolis-native Max Johnson launched the socially-conscious jewelry brand, Awe Inspired, alongside his mother Jill Johnson. At the time, Jill was recovering from her third battle with breast cancer, sparking inspiration among the duo to create the Livestrong equivalent of fine jewelry. The debut collection, designed to celebrate the resilience of survivors from all backgrounds and hardships, delivered distinctive pieces of jewelry to serve as personal symbols of strength.

Max first took interest in digital marketing and public service during his undergraduate career at Stanford University, where he achieved the first of many notable milestones through graduating in the top 15% of the class of 2015. From there, Max went on to become the youngest member elected on the Stanford Pride Alumni Board and accepted a role as the Deputy Director of LGBT Outreach for Hilary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign. It was throughout his role in Clinton’s campaign where Max perfected the skill sets that ultimately led to the launch of Awe Inspired.

As the team struggled with sales during their first year of business, Max led Awe Inspired towards an innovative pivot that shifted the focus of the business from their survivor-focused products to an increase in consumer engagement. While simultaneously balancing a position on the Product team at the telehealthcare company, Ro, Max developed Awe Inspired’s notable Goddess collection, accompanied by an MBTI-based personality quiz, designed to match customers’ Meyers-Briggs personality type to their inner Goddess and corresponding products.

After assisting to drive 60M dollars in recurring annual revenue and close a 250M dollars Series C funding, Max left Ro in 2020 to fully focus on his efforts at Awe Inspired. Since then, Max has relocated to Los Angeles, as well as successfully leading Awe Inspired’s efforts to scale financially and focus on philanthropic partnerships including the American Nurses Foundation at the height of COVID, NAACP of Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd, and EMILY’s List honoring Kamala Harris’ Vice-Presidential bid. To date, the brand has donated over 600K dollars to their charity partners as they continue to double down on their give-back efforts and activism — catching the eye of celebrities including Bella Hadid, Chloe & Halle, Demi Lovato, Gabrielle Union, Halsey, Laverne Cox, Madonna, Maluma, Miley Cyrus, Sarah Jessica Parker, Selena Gomez, and more.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota and lived in the same house my entire life with my parents and younger brother. Most of my extended family also lived in the Twin Cities; we’re descendants from Slavik Jews who immigrated to the area during WWI and Polish Jews who immigrated during WWII. We’re some of the only Jewish “Johnsons” you’ll ever meet; my great-great-grandparents had the last name “Gavanjanski” which was deemed too foreign by Ellis Island officials and changed to Johnson. I come from a long line of self made entrepreneurs. My dad’s family still runs a liquor distribution company out of the Twin Cities, and my mom’s family had a leather goods company. My mom started her wholesale jewelry company right before I was born; seeing both my parents hustle and lead certainly instilled in me an entrepreneurial spirit.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

As part of my Bar Mitzvah curriculum I started volunteering at the International Education Center in Minneapolis, teaching English as a second language and basic computer skills to immigrants mostly from Mexico and Somalia (Minneapolis has the largest Somali population in the country). I continued volunteering at the IEC long after my Bar Mitzvah until I graduated from high school. It humbled me to see these incredible people working so hard to acquire skills I took for granted: speaking English, using Microsoft Word, sending an email. I felt a deep connection to many of the students I tutored, most of whom were taking classes at night and working service jobs during the day in the hopes of providing more for their families. It reminded me of what my own ancestors must have struggled through when they first arrived in Minneapolis. I feel indebted to those who came before me and set me up for success; my ESL students helped me pay some of those dues forward.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

While I was studying at Stanford, I felt an immense amount of pressure to equate making a difference with having impact on a global scale — essentially create the next Google or Facebook, or bust — which I then learned rather quickly is not the actual case.

I define making a difference as improving somebody’s utility function, or quality of life — That can be a single person, that can be thousands of people, but I believe improving how another person experiences life, be that by providing them a terrific experience or product, teaching them a skill that helps them achieve more, or even putting a smile on their face constitutes making a difference.

Building Awe Inspired has helped me reset those precursed expectations: it took speaking to one of my very first customers who told me how our product brought delight to their day and made them feel just a bit more empowered, I already felt like I’d made a difference..and haven’t stopped ever since.

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

At Awe Inspired we design fine jewelry as a vehicle for self empowerment. The jewelry industry has changed dramatically in the 21st century; 20 years ago men were the primary purchasers of jewelry, now women are driving the market through self-purchase. We’ve set out to empower our customers through designs that make them feel not only beautiful or glamorous but powerful and resilient. We saw an endless amount of pendant necklaces depicting male saints and royalty but none proudly celebrating iconic women, let alone women of color. There’s something truly emboldening about wearing a medallion of a strong female figure like Harriet Tubman or Ruth Bader Ginsburg; it’s representation at a profound, tangible level. Additionally, we’re proving that you can build a successful luxury business with a double bottom line: 20% of all our proceeds are donated to our charity partners. Many have told us along the way that this aggressive of a give-back program wouldn’t be sustainable or sensible, that there’s a reason major luxury brands only drive charitable impact during key calendar moments like International Women’s Day or Earth Day. But giving back and using our platform to champion social justice has been instrumental to our success and what our customers love most about us.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

My mom Jill is a three-time cancer survivor. While she was recovering from her most recent battle with breast cancer, she and I were talking about what she could give to the other women in her recovery program to honor their resilience and realized that there wasn’t a beautifully made and deeply meaningful jewelry offering intended for survivors (essentially the fine jewelry equivalent of a Livestrong bracelet). We spent months talking about what a brand could look like that honors those who have overcome adversity with timeless, empowering totems. Our brand has evolved a great deal since its inception, but at its core we are still honoring the strength and resilience of our customers with empowering designs that give back to many of the original charity partners we first launched with.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I was so inspired by my mom’s desire to give back to other women battling cancer who didn’t have access to the resources that allowed her to consult with top doctors and meet all her physical needs while in recovery. Her reaction to her “all clear” wasn’t “thank God, let’s move on,” it was “thank God, let’s do something.” She spent her entire career in jewelry, so it was instinctual for her to use her craft as a vehicle for giving back. At the time I was working on the Digital team at Hillary’s 2016 campaign headquarters observing in warp speed how to stand up a robust digital marketing organization, and at some point I felt like I could do something similar myself, which was deeply naive but I guess has worked out!

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

The first step was to get our ideas on paper: my mom and I started to meet weekly to work on a presentation deck that outlined what we wanted to achieve and why we thought it would succeed. She started sketching designs for an initial product concept (which we never ended up making) and I started filling out the mission/vision/values slides I’d found in a pitch deck template online. Neither of us had ever designed a luxury brand so we thought that the next steps would be getting someone to help us design the brand name, logo, packaging, and fine tune the messaging. I started cold pitching different branding agencies around New York and finally found one run by another recent cancer survivor who was willing to serve us at a reduced rate. Looking back, those were the wrong first steps; we should have focussed more on the actual product design and performing user testing before fleshing out the entire brand identity, but I learned so much through the process of making my pitch repeatedly and speaking with dozens of marketers in the luxury brand space. I think distilling your concept into a concise, cohesive presentation is a great first step, and then getting others to give you feedback is a great second. And those steps are free!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Ahead of the 2020 election as we were brainstorming how Awe Inspired could plug in to the moment, we were aware that basically every other consumer brand was going to create their version of nonpartisan “VOTE” merchandise. Our team was excited about Kamala Harris’ candidacy and foresaw how powerful it would feel for women (especially women of color) to wear a Kamala Harris medallion in the age of the first-ever female Vice President. We knew such a product would be divisive, but frankly we’re a private company with a clear set of principles and were prepared for the consequences of taking such a stance. To make an even more meaningful statement, we partnered with EMILY’s List to donate a portion of proceeds to the campaigns of other progressive women down the ballot.

This strategy paid off. The morning the Biden/Harris victory was called, our website nearly crashed from the influx of interest (we’d previously only fielded that kind of traffic during major shopping holidays such as Black Friday)). While many celebrities in our network were wary of wearing a Kamala Harris piece, several were ecstatic about it and enthusiastically drove traffic to our page (including Miley Cyrus, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tyra Banks, and more). We received plenty of hate email, but not enough to drown out the hundreds of women grateful for how we’d used our platform. We’re going to continue to be a brand that stands proudly with our principles, and we’re confident we will have a sizable market to support us.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

It wasn’t funny at the time, but hindsight is everything! In the first major campaign video we shot for Awe Inspired, we wanted to tell the stories of real survivors of adversity and illustrate how, regardless of your background or journey, we are all united through our shared strength, hope, and resilience. The campaign was supposed to be hopeful and celebratory. Unfortunately, some questionable creative decisions were made: we shot the campaign participants on a backdrop straight out of a school portrait session. The styling was mostly black and grey. And the way the participants were guided to share their stories highlighted the most harrowing moments of their journey, to the point where the “uplifting” message at the end of the video was painfully trite. Tone really is everything, and we missed the mark! It taught us the importance of fully fleshing out campaign briefs down to the most minute details that can inform the tone of the final deliverable like lighting or wardrobe color palette, and getting multiple voices in the room to gut check assumptions. We can finally watch that original video and laugh at how heavy-handed it is.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

In our early days of starting up I stumbled upon a clothing brand’s pop-up in SoHo that really blew me away — a gorgeous luxury product with a meaningful, socially impactful mission. I cold emailed the CEO and begged him to meet with me. During our first meeting, he grilled me on the economics of the business I was trying to build: what’s the profit margin? CAC? ROAS? Loyalty metrics? I was visibly unprepared to answer — I knew where some of these numbers lived on my computer, and others I honestly hadn’t heard of yet. He challenged me to have these at my fingertips, to mentally drive all my decision making through the language of our KPIs. And he agreed to keep meeting with me (perhaps out of pity)! Mastering the analytical language of my digital business has helped me navigate innumerable subsequent conversations with authority, and of course made me a much more effective leader.

Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

We hear all the time how meaningful our Goddess necklaces are to our customer: a customer who wore a Joan of Arc throughout her chemo treatment and made it out the other side stronger, a customer who purchased a Florence Nightingale upon completing her nursing degree, a customer who traveled around the East Coast over the summer attending BLM protests wearing her Harriet Tubman necklace, the list is endless and each story is magic.

This past January, we received the most adorable video of a mom and her daughter wearing matching Kamala necklaces while watching the inauguration. The mom was so grateful to have these wearable reminders that any glass ceiling can be shattered! I love knowing that we’re contributing in a small way to a world where young girls see and believe every day that their potential is limitless.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Be thoughtful about how you spend your money, and hold the companies you support to their words. A lot of brands co-opt branding buzz words like “sustainably made”, “ethically sourced” or “mission-driven” but don’t always make the sacrifices necessary to earn these labels.

Never stop challenging your notion of representation and inclusion. I’m proud of how at Awe we’ve dedicated ourselves to being as representative as we can be with our depictions of women in our products and marketing, but there’s a ton of room for improvement. We also have a long way to go to make our in house team more representative of the diverse customer base we serve, and I vow to never stop having these conversations.

Be true to who you are! There’s so much pressure in our fast paced capitalist society to constantly re-conform to the newest fads. Wear things or support things that make you feel good, not what keeps you on trend.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).

“Make sure everyone eats lunch” — Seriously, skipping lunch is a terrible idea. But more broadly, I wish someone had emphasized the importance of taking care of your team’s human needs. We had a team member recently who was clearly overwhelmed with her family stuck inside during a snow day amidst new COVID restrictions. I insisted she take the day off, no questions asked, we’ll pick up the slack. I’ve learned this kind of empathy is how I build trust and accountability with my team. Often the ‘successful boss’ is portrayed as demanding and having strict performance standards. We’ve built a successful team by practicing empathy, taking time to celebrate our wins, offering fully flexible paid time off, and making sure everyone takes a break for lunch. It matters.

“Don’t skip reference calls” — I used to question the importance of calling references. Afterall, candidates share references they are confident will speak well on their behalf, and the calls can be annoying to arrange and burdensome on recommenders. However, I’ve learned they aren’t skippable! Building a stellar team is the most important task of a startup founder, and it’s more than worth the extra time and probing to make sure new hires will not only be a fit for the role but a fit for the organization.

“Look around” — I’ve heard several startup founders talk about the importance of looking straight ahead towards your goal and not getting distracted by competition. To the contrary, I’ve seen tremendous value come out of thoughtful competitive analysis, criticism, and appreciation! So often we see other brands come up with innovative solutions to problems we’re tackling that inform our own approach. “Looking around” and being thoughtful about our place in the market helps us differentiate our offering and stay true to who we are: if we start looking or sounding too much like brand X we know we’ve strayed too far off our unique path.

“Reflect often” — I like to describe starting a company using a standard 2-axis chart; plot time on the X-axis and ‘success’ on the Y-axis, and you’ll see your line squiggle up over time. As a founder, your outlook is usually determined by the slope of that line, not your position on the ‘success’ axis. So during a setback, downturn, etc, you can feel as defeated as you did during the early days trying to launch. Just the other day we had a final round candidate turn down their offer, and it felt like a tremendous setback: we aren’t good enough to attract the talent we want, we were misled, we don’t have enough money, blah blah blah. In those moments, I force myself to reflect (as I’m doing now responding to these questions!) on how far we’ve come up that ‘success’ axis and how inconsequential all the little setbacks have been over time.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I believe the most dire issues facing our society from income inequality to racial injustice stem from a lack of mutual respect for and understanding of people who are different than ourselves. Racism, bigotry, and selfishness are rooted in ignorance. It’s unfortunate that a lot of people in our country are homophobic until they learn a beloved relative is gay, or don’t believe in increasing the minimum wage until they are personally impacted by inflation. If we took time to listen to the voices of those in need, look them in the eye and internalize their struggle, I’m confident we’d see much less political divisiveness and quicker progressive reforms. My advice to other young people would be this: have empathy for other people’s journeys that have led them to their current state of understanding, and use your intellect to disarm their resistance to change.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Definitely Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I am constantly in awe of her ability to level with her constituents through social media — no scripting, no convoluted explanations, just her candid point of view, which I often wholeheartedly agree with. A lot of politicians talk the talk when it comes to transparency, but I don’t see anyone including the general public in their decision making or legislative experience quite like AOC. I’d love to ask her how she thinks entrepreneurs like myself can build large organizations that are inclusive, fairly organized, and scale their positive societal impact along with revenues.

How can our readers follow you online?

Follow us on Instagram! @aweinspired_

I’m on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/maxbjohnson

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