Home Spirit! Ericka Johnson “Shines” with Empire

We’re excited that Black Chicago Woman and nail stylist Ericka Johnson is working with the Empire team, namely Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe, and Ta’Rhonda Jones. She is the ultimate team leader-mentor who is overflowing with creativity, fun, and the kind of humility that shines from those who are doing destiny. We loved the interviews she had with MimiChatter and InStyle, but what we wanted to focus on is the evolution of Johnson’s own “empire” named Shine. Enjoy.

When and where did you start your career as a nail stylist? Was it always a hobby or a passion or…?

I started doing nails in my hometown, Seattle, Washington, in 1997 at my best friend’s hair salon. I was working for Microsoft and thought my career would be in technology, but my friend encouraged me to go to school for nails. I worked part-time for her, mostly in the evenings and weekends. One day I went into the salon and they were having so much fun that I said to myself “I need to be here full-time.” I gave my two weeks’ notice to the City of Seattle (where I worked after I left Microsoft) and the rest is history.

Was the name always Shine? Was it always nails, brows and lashes or did you add those services as you grew?

It was Shine from the beginning because I wanted something that meant “beauty from within.” I began with nails and traveled a lot with the salon team, which expanded my knowledge. My mentor, Rodney, taught me how to do nails. I would follow him around to trade shows and would work with him there for free. At one of those shows in Detroit, a young woman was doing lashes and she taught me how to do them. Once I started doing lashes, the need to do eyebrows was obvious; when you do lashes you need to do brows.

When did you know that beauty was your life’s work?

The reason I went to school for nails is because I prayed and got a confirmation that was so powerful that I had a lot of confidence in what I did before I even started. I just asked the Lord, “Is this something that I can do? Can I do nails? ” and He told me “Yes, do it!” So I never worried about whether I would make it; I always knew that God would provide for me. After I started to do nails, I remembered that as a child I would sit for hours and draw — especially letters. I loved writing letters and coloring. I guess I loved it so much because it was always in me. It made me feel good. I liked the way it looked; liked how neat I could draw; like the details. An even earlier memory: when I was six years old or so, there was a little Asian girl in my classroom who was so good at it. She had her little pencils papers and pens and I would look at her and think “I want to be like that.”

At 18 or 19 I went to a medical program. My teacher would always have me write on the board. I loved doing that, too. But growing up I never thought of myself as an artist nor did I ever think about doing nails. I was interested in becoming a surgeon. I like the idea of working with the implements, having a steady hand, being able to zero in on something and go into that precise place and get something out without ever altering anything else. I am very good at going into a small space without interrupting anything else. It’s the same skill I use when dealing with clients with ingrown toenails or diabetic conditions. Precision.

You’re obviously a lifelong learner; and stay on the cutting edge of the industry. Have you ever been in nail styling competitions?

I entered a competition in Los Angeles the first year I did nails. Tom Holcomb was the number one nail guru in the world and a world competitor. I sought him out — stalked him (LOL) — he took notice of me, gave me some product. I told him I was thinking about competing and he encouraged me to do it. As I was there doing my thing and having fun doing it, he was standing there rooting me on. He said I reminded him of himself. I placed 5th in that world competition. Pretty good for someone with my experience! But that was the only time.

I’ve seen your work, not just the pictures of it, but on your clients. Do you ever make a mistake?

Yes, but not that often. If I’m copying something or tracing, that’s when I make the occasional mistake. If I do something freehand, I always pretty much nail it. If I pull something out of my head to do, I get it every time.

Where does some of your inspiration come from?

My inspiration comes in the moment, from the people sitting in front of me. It’s not something I study or think about. I know my clients’ personalities. That’s something I have to do, get to know you. The first question I ask is “What don’t you like?” From there I ask about colors. Even if they say “Do what you want”, I still want to know they don’t like.

How did you get from Seattle to Chicago?

I came here 15 years ago when my mother’s job transferred her to Chicago. The four of us – Mom, Grandma, my sister Bink (Randi), and I – relocated within 30 days. Once we settled in I looked up and thought, “What did I just do?” I was devastated. I had left everything – clients, friends, church, everything. I had to build a whole new clientele, friends and everything.

How did you build Shine in Chicago?

I started at a nail salon and my approach was just different. One, I was friendly. I wasn’t afraid to walk up and smile and tell them that I had a service to offer. People here (the black community)  are very supportive and if you ask them to give you a chance, they will. I was very well received. My work in that salon was very successful; I had clients coming left and right, but then the salon shut down. Thankfully, she gave us a 30 day notice. I looked for another salon to go to, I wanted a really nice one, but couldn’t find one that worked for me. So, even though I didn’t have any money, I just started the ball rolling to open my own salon. My family invested in me and that’s how I started. I opened my shop on 75th street and was there for 9 years until the building went into foreclosure. I moved to where I am now, Marimarche’, three years ago in January.

Tell me about the Shine team.

There are five of us, my sister Bink (Randi), DeAngelo, Marnie, my goddaughter Courtney, and myself. DeAngelo started by cleaning up the 75th street shop for me. Now he does everything from cleaning up to doing nails. He says I saved his life. He had to fight people because he was inside in a safe place. The neighborhood boys walked by and made fun of him, but whatever I asked he would do. People think I’ve done so much for him, but he’s done so much for me too. I noticed that he could draw and realized that he’s an artist. Then whenever he was bored, he would take nippers and clean up his nails. One busy day I asked him to help me. He started with pedicures, and then he started doing nails. I go to him for tips. He can polish better than anybody I know; his shaping and cuticle work are all top notch. He’s been with me since he was 13; he’s 24 now.

Marnie is an extraordinary nail designer who has been with us for 2 years. Her specialty is nail art and pedicures. She’s such a perfect fit, I can’t imagine working without her. Courtney helps out with day to day operations and helps introduce innovative ideas from nail art to salon design. Carla is a young Latina who lived in the 75th street building with her family. That’s where she first started coming in to help me out. She works with me on weekends. I like these young people being around me. I like being able to give them a skill so that they don’t have to be on the street. If I can give a little bit and they take that and build on it, I’m happy. Working at Shine is still helping them to better themselves. I especially want DeAngelo to do something else, find another career. He’s not sure yet what that is, but I’ll be there to support him when he figures it out.

My sister, Bink (Randi), went to school for hair and that really was her intention. The plan was just to start off doing nails. She has the touch, though. Bink is the glue that holds everything together. She’s lively and outgoing where I’m more laid back. If she’s not there, everyone knows it and they ask for her.

Have you ever considered creating a training program for technicians? Why or why not?

Yes, I would definitely consider doing that…

As an entrepreneur in the trendy beauty business what is your formula for maintaining the business of Shine? Are there two or three things that you always (or never) do?

Yes, there are:

  1. Always stay on top of customer service. When I go places, I always look for things that I can take with me that will enhance my level of customer service. I am really grateful that someone would come to me, specifically. This is a big city with many options. I know that treating people right makes the difference.
  2. Always having the right kind of supplies; not running out of stuff. You have to spend money to make money. To give quality service, you must have the right stuff.
  3. Location and stability. I don’t move around a lot. I’ve been in my current location for 3 years and I have kept the same phone number; if you’re looking for me, I’m easy to find.

What is the best advice someone inside and outside of the beauty industry has given you?

Recently I asked Taraji’s makeup artist, Ashunta Sheriff, if there was anything she thought I should be doing differently.  She told me to just keep being creative, so that’s what I’m working on now. I was glad for that advice. It helps me to continue to focus on what I love most – being creative, trying new things, and thinking outside the box.

As for outside advice…once a long time ago, I ran out of eyelashes and my client said “Never run out of something that you make money off of.” It has never happened again.

You posted your Empire pass on FB and said “I asked and He gave it to me.” Talk about how that happened.

I was initially referred to Taraji though a friend, hairstylist Towanna Wilson, but I wanted to be the ‘go to’ person for Empire. I had been doing Taraji’s nails, but she was paying me herself (and being reimbursed). One day she said, “They (the production company) need to be paying you,” and she sent me to them. That actually allowed me to make more money but it also gave them the opportunity to know who I was and put me in their database. So now my name is there for any of the needs that the production company has, not just Empire. I told them I have a team of people, so I’m like a one stop shop.

Were you surprised when this happened to you?

It’s something that I’ve prayed about, but I prayed believing. When it happened, all I could do was be amazed at His way and thank Him. I think and say all the time, “God You are so faithful, so mindful, so amazing.” When you pray you must expect things to happen. He’s just amazing.

Has your role as an Empire stylist opened other doors in the industry?

I’m becoming more known. I’m being followed on Instagram/Twitter by big celebrities. So people are noticing.

What does 2016 look like for Shine?

Always innovative, moving ahead, serving my customers in a more excellent way, and designing my salon (looking to have my own space again in 2 years).

And 2026?

I will have a Shine franchise – high quality service and environment from which customers leave very satisfied. And then there’s that relocation to Miami… going to café everyday with my dog; taking a swim. I will always be a part of this nail industry; I love it, I love it, love it.

In closing, please Shine some advice on those who are interested in the beauty business as a career (or a second career).

What you need to know is, unfortunately, a lot of schools don’t really teach you what you need to really compete in the industry. I don’t know why, but people are coming out of school but not using the skills. Advanced education is what you need. Find a mentor. Find someone whose work you like; seek them out and learn everything you can. And you must practice, practice, practice.

Karen E. Stark

Karen E. Stark

Karen Stark is a lover of words and the Word. She is a passionate people developer who acquired her expertise over several decades in the human resources profession and the ministry. Her no-nonsense, can-do approach is highlighted in her blog, Letters to Elect Ladies (www.letters2electladies.com), and her book, First Natural, Then Spiritual. Karen currently has several works in progress, including a children’s book series honoring her late mother. Ms. Stark is a member of the leadership team of Chicago Embassy Church.
Karen E. Stark

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