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Anna Lustberg and Zoë Johnson: “It’s known that women tend to be great at multitasking”

Anna: It’s known that women tend to be great at multitasking. Professional women know how to juggle and focus on priorities because there are particular expectations for us to balance work with our personal lives. I think women also tend to lead with empathy; we’re used to existing in a (patriarchal) system full of challenges, […]

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Anna: It’s known that women tend to be great at multitasking. Professional women know how to juggle and focus on priorities because there are particular expectations for us to balance work with our personal lives. I think women also tend to lead with empathy; we’re used to existing in a (patriarchal) system full of challenges, such as having our qualifications be overlooked, underpaid for our contributions, being judged based on our appearance in the workplace, and more realities of being a woman in general — having to protect, guard, or stand up for ourselves in ways that most men don’t. Strong professional women — BIPOC women even more so — have had to be resilient, stand up and advocate for themselves and others, go the extra mile to earn respect, and contribute money-making gems all the while still being underestimated and underpaid as the bosses they are. We’re used to facing challenges at micro and macro levels in the workplace and in life. Look… I still want to work with people, but I am someone who got tired of working for other people. I’ll wrap up with this: more go-getter women should become founders so they don’t have to answer to anyone who doesn’t recognize or appreciate their potential, talents and visions. Period.


As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anna Lustberg and Zoë Johnson.

Anna Lustberg is a New York City-based illustrator and creative entrepreneur who draws playful, relatable vignettes of everyday life. Ranging from simple one-panel comics to illustrations full of detail, the style and subject matter of her work are inspired by both her recent experiences and memories from growing up in the 90’s. She is the creator of Life is Short: A Coloring Book, various hand-painted murals in NYC’s Brooklyn and Harlem neighborhoods, the illustrator of a children’s book: Joyner & Magical’s Big Dreams, and much more.

Zoë Johnson moved from Cape Town, South Africa to pursue her passion for the Arts in New York City. With a background in Fine Arts and Communication Design, her expertise as an event coordinator provided her many opportunities to network with local and international artists. As an artist herself, her mission is to give fellow creatives a platform to showcase their talents. Zoë co-founded Tropical Jawn in 2017, an all women-led collective that connects and celebrates New York’s diverse Black diaspora through creative collaboration and cultural entrepreneurship.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Zoë Johnson: Thank you so much for having us! Originally from South Africa, I graduated high school and immigrated to The States. While studying Communications Design at New York City Tech, I interned at a contemporary art gallery in Chelsea and loved interacting with the artists at receptions and meeting people from around the world. Through that experience, I realized that I wanted to do more for upcoming artists, international artists of color and especially female creatives. I later started looking into the Events Manager’s assistant position, and eventually progressed to the Event Manager, and I fell in love with it. The crowd was more diverse, as it involved more opportunities to network with even more creatives! I also started focusing on my artwork and got back into painting. This was also around the same time that I met Anna Lustberg, my business partner. By that time I co-founded an all women-led collective, Tropical Jawn, that organizes events around New York City.

Anna Lustberg: After graduating from UMass Amherst, I worked in a number of design and customer service-related jobs before working at contemporary art galleries here in NYC. Forming relationships with artists, curators, and clientele, and gaining experience in preparing for exhibitions and sales, reinvigorated my own passion to create and solidified the realm of where I want to be. I love connecting with other people through art and being a part of exciting projects. Now I work as an illustrator and freelance graphic designer as Zoë and I prepare to launch Studio 3 NYC.

Zoë: Anna and myself, both being artists, wanted to establish a space with a focus on building a creative community for both underserved and established, local and international artists to create, showcase, and document their work. We were continuously finding ourselves becoming more frustrated by our previous management, and decided that we wanted to be our own bosses. This is how Studio 3 NYC was conceived.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Anna: I think the most interesting stories have to do with taking risks. This past October 2020, my friend and former colleague (now business partner!) Zoë requested a meeting with me to propose that I join her in opening an art gallery. We used to dream about it when we worked together at the gallery in Chelsea about 4 years ago. She didn’t even know when she requested the meeting that I was transitioning out of a full-time role at a media company that wasn’t a good fit or creative enough for me, and I was figuring out my next moves. I showed Zoë a page in my journal that I’d just written out with a brainstorm list of all things I wanted to be: creative connector; advisor; gallerist; studio manager; space for art, events, music, dance, poetry, spoken word… Zoë and I realized how in sync our passions were and agreed to move forward in co-founding our own community art space. Days later, I randomly heard from my realtor friend D’Alessandra Acosta who came upon an artist studio space for rent in the South Bronx; she insisted it was perfect for me and I told her I’d be interested in checking it out with Zoë as long as it would include an art gallery. Within a week, we came together, saw the space, and set Studio 3 NYC planning in motion. Everything was in alignment to bring our vision to reality.

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

Zoë: I did a live painting session that was broadcasted on Twitch with Complex Magazine in the fall of 2020, and during the first session the laptop’s power cut off. I nearly died, scrambled to plug the cord back in, and fortunately everything worked fine and I was back on the air about a minute later! I laugh at it now, but at the time I was sweating bullets! The lesson I learned was, keep your laptop plugged in during live online events, and “STAY READY!” Hah!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Zoë: This is a hard one! One person would probably be my mother. She is my number one supporter of all things creative, both with my progress as an artist and my career with Studio 3 NYC. Besides my mom, I would really have to say my close group of girlfriends. They continue to push me, support me, force me to “Boss up”; they make me want to grow into a better person and take over the world!

Anna: I’m grateful for all of my previous work experience and the employers I’ve worked for that helped me grow into the professional I am today. Each job and team I worked on nurtured my know-how in how to handle difficult situations. I’m particularly grateful for both Eleni Cocordas and Buddy Warren.

Buddy is an interior designer and contractor who hired me as an intern at a fabulous art gallery/store space he owned in the Lower East Side. That opportunity was my first job in NYC and my first gallery position. While working at the Buddy Warren Gallery (named Morris-Warren Gallery at one point when we joined forces with gallerist Brian Morris), I was given a ton of responsibility and essentially learned how to run a small business and art gallery. Buddy is a highly creative individual who would tell everyone who walked into his space all of the things he does; he’d list out his many titles and the businesses he ran, and I think it made him quite memorable. I find myself taking after him in that way and in others as I build my own career.

I worked closely with Eleni Cocordas, who was the Director of Agora Gallery in Chelsea when I was the Assistant Director. She was the kindest, most inviting person who also drew boundaries with tact and held her staff to a high standard. She made everyone feel welcome and referred to all of the staff and represented artists as “family”, and I believe her nature made the gallery more approachable to patrons and artists alike. As Eleni was elegant and full of class, I learned so much about etiquette from her that no one else had ever taught me. The simplest thing she would do that makes such a difference was introduce each of her colleagues by full name at opening receptions and to gallery visitors. In doing so, she showed respect and made sure everyone was acknowledged for their work and presence. I don’t often come across high-level directors or executives who show such grace and consideration to people in lesser positions. Sadly, Eleni passed away last year — too soon, and truly a loss. I’m grateful that she shared with me many stories and experiences from her exceptional career in the arts (MoMA, The Rubin Museum, Peter Beard’s studio, to name a few). Having had Eleni in my corner, a wonderful person to look to and learn from, greatly impacted me as a person, professional, and leader.

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

Anna: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee is still my favorite book and so far the only one I read again every year, usually in the summer. I first read it in high school, like most, as it’s a beautiful coming of age story that’s also about racial inequality, the justice system in the U.S., morals and integrity, and more, but there many new gems I pick up on with each re-read. One of the most meaningful lines from the book that I can recite by heart is said by the character Atticus Finch: “Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” This always resonated with me as a reminder to stay true to yourself and do what you know is right. It gives me chills whenever I read it.

Zoë: TNT: The Power Within You, by Claude M. Bristol and Harold Sherman was probably one of the most impactful books that I have read recently. It is an old book, but I felt that at the time of my reading it, it prepared me for what I needed to know about myself, my wants, needs, and what I needed to reflect on before advancing in my career and the next chapter of life that I wanted to build for myself. I do particularly enjoy non-fiction books — it’s the Capricorn in me I guess!

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Zoe: “All you need is a MetroCard and Dream!”. My girlfriends and I use this as a motto. NYC is filled with so many opportunities to engage with the people who you need to know in order to fulfill your dreams. You never know who you will meet from walking around and attending events. The concept behind the quote is that your dreams are attainable, you just have to go out there and get ‘em!

Anna: “Life is Short” is my favorite little quote. It’s not morbid; for me, it’s a check to focus on what’s most important at the end of the day. It puts things in perspective — what do you want to remember about this project, this moment in time, this chapter of your life? What are the big takeaways? “Life is short” taps into time flying by and begs you to consider what you’ll do to make the most of it. It calls forth urgency to take actions towards what you really want, and not just go through a zombie-like routine… it’s a reminder to live an inspired existence.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Anna: I felt like I was making the world a better place whenever I was supporting artists through exhibitions. The work was to make our best efforts in promoting, presenting and connecting them; it’s a job of dedication toward helping someone bring their dreams to life. As an artist myself and someone who truly appreciates the practice and career of art-making, that’s what has always made me feel fulfilled and like I am giving back in some way. I also found that inserting myself and my ideas in the traditional gallery setting, despite my untraditional background, paved the way for me to give a fresh take to update and expand the gallery’s messaging, branding, and beliefs. By way of this expansion, we created a more welcoming environment for art lovers from all walks of life; we brushed aside typical tropes of the pretentious gallery and created a space where all were welcome. I realize I’ve done this at every gallery setting I worked in because I feel passionately about inclusion and stretching the norms.

Zoë: I can relate to what Anna mentioned through my experience with Tropical Jawn where we host and connect creatives from South Africa and other African countries, to the community that we are a part of in NYC. This cultural exchange creates a sense of a global community which makes the world, in my opinion, a better place.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Zoë: Based on my previous experience in gallery spaces, I have definitely noticed that women were the majority of sales reps, gallery directors, receptionists, event manager, operations management, and interns positions… the owners of these spaces however, were usually men. Most of the opportunities for people to be able to advance in their career are decided by men. Investors, board members, partners, business owners, landlords, presidents, financial backers, all of these are dominated by men in superior positions. Men are the “gatekeepers” for women to have more accessibility to those opportunities.

Anna: That’s entirely true of my experience as well. I don’t think there are any actual barriers that keep women from starting their own company in 2021. What could hold someone back, though, is if time and again you weren’t selected for opportunities you worked hard for. Fear of failure is real and can paralyze you in moving forward. In order to pursue any challenge, such as founding your own business, you need to feel like you have a strong foundation of support and resources. For women, that’s not always as easy to come by for the reasons Zoë just mentioned — if men are the decision makers, women may have less accessibility to build that supportive foundation.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

Anna: Zoë and I have discussed being intentional about who we choose to hire and work with as we build Studio 3 NYC’s foundation. Without shouting out “we’re women-owned!” (nothing wrong with that), we DO want to show in practice that we’re showcasing creative women and providing opportunities for professional women to shine and contribute. For instance, our interior designer for our space is a woman; so are our logo designers; our mentor, and our realtor are all women. As our business model includes a contemporary art gallery, we intend to set a tone with our inaugural exhibitions featuring women artists. There are statistics that show extremely low numbers of women’s artwork being purchased at market and women in ownership of many art spaces for collectors. The only way we can increase those numbers is by actively providing access for creative women — through employment, education and programming, and other upwardly-mobile opportunities.

Zoë: We hope that through Studio 3 NYC’s educational programming and professional development, mentoring, networking and creating opportunities for women, and all creatives, that we will help them to progress in their careers. From there, on to management positions, and then to becoming founders of their own businesses. Studio 3 NYC is all about empowerment.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Anna: It’s known that women tend to be great at multitasking. Professional women know how to juggle and focus on priorities because there are particular expectations for us to balance work with our personal lives. I think women also tend to lead with empathy; we’re used to existing in a (patriarchal) system full of challenges, such as having our qualifications be overlooked, underpaid for our contributions, being judged based on our appearance in the workplace, and more realities of being a woman in general — having to protect, guard, or stand up for ourselves in ways that most men don’t. Strong professional women — BIPOC women even more so — have had to be resilient, stand up and advocate for themselves and others, go the extra mile to earn respect, and contribute money-making gems all the while still being underestimated and underpaid as the bosses they are. We’re used to facing challenges at micro and macro levels in the workplace and in life. Look… I still want to work with people, but I am someone who got tired of working for other people. I’ll wrap up with this: more go-getter women should become founders so they don’t have to answer to anyone who doesn’t recognize or appreciate their potential, talents and visions. Period.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

Anna and Zoë: Mentorship. Being mentored by a successful business woman would empower a woman to pursue founding her own company. It’s a real-life example of someone who’s done what you dream of doing. We came upon our mentor, Laura Beechwood, through New York’s SCORE mentorship program. We were both so impressed with her career in running several successful businesses and background in marketing. Our meetings with Laura, someone we look up to, have helped us stay motivated, her guidance and advice are priceless, and she gives us more confidence in our startup journey.

Anna: I think about a Skills Assessment as a way to erase gender disparity in hiring and promotions. In order to get my job at a gallery in Chelsea, I had to take a “Common Sense test” in my first interview. I never knew what my score was, but I was hired and worked there for 2 years . Anyone who applied for a full-time job at that gallery had to take the same written “Common Sense” test; it was a rite of passage. Some people couldn’t handle it or take the pressure that they had to do so on the spot; it was indicative for the hiring managers that they weren’t cut out for the role or demanding environment. Perhaps something like this could be used as a way to “level out” the playing field for men and women, in order to keep the job about skills and qualifications rather than alliances (who-knows-who) or other privileges.

Zoë: Changing the Narrative: rather than repeating the narrative of women being housewives, it should be the fact that women are the breadwinners in single family homes. Women are responsible, they hold everyone down, and if this was the more common narrative, then it would empower more women to found their own businesses.

Anna and Zoë: Accessibility to tools and resources.The Studio 3 NYC community will provide opportunities that will be given especially to girls and women in the neighborhood through programming, exposure to professional projects, job opportunities and a network of other women to learn from. This kind of accessibility empowers by providing help if they need advice, information, or just someone to talk to.

Anna and Zoë: Introduce a new model for what it means to go to work. If women were assured that respect was a top priority in a work environment and knew that disrespect of any kind, to anyone, wouldn’t be tolerated, perhaps they’d feel more empowered to take steps toward leadership and ownership. Perhaps a new model for the workplace could be implemented, one that isn’t just about “getting the job done” and clocking your hours in/out, but that upholds respect and ensures a safe space. One that measures its success not just by its monetary profits and losses, but also by its employee satisfaction and morale. If we can imagine a new system for going to work that looks beyond making money and centers around treating people well, it could encourage anyone to truly pursue their dreams.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Zoë: Among other programming, through Studio 3 NYC I want to spearhead a cultural exchange program in which we will introduce international creatives into the NYC art world, and provide a supportive program during their residency. I know from firsthand experience what it’s like to move to this city from abroad as a creative — so I know that by having this supportive network, it would bring great opportunities, future potential relations, and connections.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Zoë: I’m impressed by Oprah Winfrey’s progression from being a talk show host during a time where the majority of her audiences were white, to a successful Forbes list first female African American multimillionaire mogul. One of the main reasons that I would love to have a sit down with her is because of the people with diverse backgrounds who she has interviewed. Another reason is because she was never one to only look out for her own success, but the success and the opportunities that she created for others. She gave them a platform to showcase their talent, interests, and businesses to a broader audience, and that is something that I would love to do with Studio 3 and through the cultural exchange program.

Anna: It’s a tie between Michelle Obama and Janelle Monáe. Janelle is a true creative, a visionary in every sense of the word, ahead of her time, and a true original. She lives, breathes, and stays true to her art that I’ve been a fan of for such a long time. I often say she’s my favorite person I’ve never met, so if I had the opportunity to be near her incredible energy, I’d be so appreciative. Michelle Obama may be an obvious answer as she’s someone so many people look up to for leadership and sound guidance, but I’d love to brunch with her because she’s got so many great stories. She’s met so many incredible people. She’s accomplished so many inspiring things with her life already that I’d just absolutely enjoy the opportunity to chat and cheers to delicious food and drink with her.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

AnnaLustberg.com & @AnnaLustberg on Instagram. Connect with Zoë on Instagram & Twitter @iamzennez. Visit http://studio3.nyc (@studio3.nyc on IG) to tune in to Studio 3 NYC as it grows.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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