‘The CEO’ Recognized as Bloch Student Entrepreneur of the Year

Jonaie Johnson juggles the demands of college basketball and the rigorous Entrepreneurship Scholars program receives top honor
Jonaie Johnson

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Jonaie Johnson ‘22

Hometown: Chicago, Illinois

Degree Program: Business administration with an emphasis in entrepreneurship

High school: Kenwood Academy

Jonaie Johnson received this year’s Henry W. Bloch School of Management’s Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation Student Entrepreneur of the Award for her development of Interplay, an interactive dog crate that allows owners to interact with their pets while they are away from home. She first learned of the Bloch Entrepreneur of the Year recognition in 2018 while she was volunteering for the event. Even then she could see herself receiving this recognition.

“Seeing Andrea Savage receive the Student Entrepreneur of the Year award was very inspirational. From that moment forward, I knew this honor was something I wanted to achieve.”

When she received the news that she had been selected she was overwhelmed.

“I had so many emotions. I was happy, relieved and very enthusiastic. I immediately FaceTimed my mom to tell her. I couldn’t stop smiling.”

“I knew this honor was something I wanted to achieve.” — Jonaie Johnson

While she keeps in mind that starting a new enterprise is challenging – and not always successful – she focuses on why she’s working to fulfill this dream.

“I believe that Interplay is going to be significantly successful,” Johnson says. “This award is a reminder that my hard work and dedication to entrepreneurship has not gone unnoticed and is paying off.”

Johnson has a history of success. The sophomore women’s basketball guard is recognized as a team leader following a high school basketball career where she was recognized with All-Conference honors her sophomore and junior years, and earned All-City, Second Team All-State, Chicago Tribune Third Team All-State and Kenwood Academy Player of the Year during her senior season. But not all of her accomplishments were on the court. Johnson was valedictorian of her 8th grade class and graduated 5th in her high school class with a 5.1 GPA.

Johnson is seen as a leader on the Western Athletics Conference champion Kansas City Roos women’s basketball team, but is also excelling in the Bloch School Entrepreneurship Scholars (E-Scholars) program. Interplay is a dog crate designed to provide remote interaction – including video and audio access, locking and unlocking features and the ability to provide food and water – for a dog and its owner through a mobile app.

Jonaie Johnson in classroom

Why did you choose UMKC?

It was a combination of things. I was recruited for basketball, but I really had no idea about what UMKC was like. I had other schools recruiting me, so I wasn’t sure UMKC would be for me. But once I came here and was on campus, I loved it. And then once I realized that it was one of the few schools where you could major in entrepreneurism on the undergraduate level, that was the decision maker for me. 

Why did you choose your field of study?

I developed the idea for Interplay for a project when I was in high school. My aunt was always leaving our family events to go home to feed her dog. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to do that remotely?” I want Interplay to be the Apple of dog crates.

My freshman year, I attended an event and was seated with Mary and Tom Bloch. They mentioned the Entrepreneur of the Year program at the Bloch School and asked me if I was going to be there. I actually didn’t know about it, but I offered to volunteer to help people to their seats.

I was wondering about the companies that were presenting and someone told me that they were part of the Entrepreneurship Scholars (E-Scholars) program. I had a clipboard with the seating assignments, but underneath I had my business model. That night I had the opportunity to talk with Ben [Gruber, director Regnier Institute] and I was able to show him my plan. That’s how I ended up in E-Scholars.

“I want Interplay to be the Apple of dog crates.”

What are the challenges of the program?

The biggest challenge for me is time management. On top of the course work, in college you have a lot of events and activities going on around you and you want to hang out with friends. The freedom itself is an adjustment because you don't necessarily have your parents guiding you and telling you what to do and what not to do. Being able to stay focused and manage my time is a challenge. But I do have fun! I enjoy school and working on my company. I’m kind of a nerd. I love learning. 

Jonaie Johnson receiving certificate
What are the benefits of the E-Scholars program and participating in athletics? 

There are a lot in both cases. The E-Scholars program laid the foundation for my company. They took me from a simple idea to a viable business.

When I came into the program, my company was nothing more than a cool idea for a product. Their resources, connections and mentors took me from an idea to a viable business. Their coursework taught me how I should strategically go about starting my venture to avoid many mistakes entrepreneurs make when starting a company. Their continuous support and help throughout the program, and even after I graduated from E-Scholars, has been a major key in the success I’ve had thus far with my company. 

When it comes to starting my career, I know companies are always looking for college athletes. Even some of my mom’s managers at Eli Lily are always asking when I’m going to graduate. We have the time management, discipline and the ability to work with others that we learn in the team setting.

Since entering college, what have you learned about yourself?

I've learned how hard I can work, what I can really do and how mentally strong I am. I've always known it about myself, but my experiences in college have enhanced that.

Jonaie Johnson at Women of Color Leadership Conference
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received from a professor?

When I went to talk to Jené Hong, who is a mentor in residence in the E-Scholars program, about my company, she told me, “Do what you do best and hire the rest.” That’s the thing that keeps me going. I know I can’t master and be strong at everything, but I can understand what and how things need to be done and work with others who can complement my skills.

What is one word that best describes you and why?

Driven. Because I consistently strive to be the best me in any and everything I do. I’m very goal oriented, and I don’t stop until I achieve my goals.

What’s your greatest fear?

Not reaching my greatest potential.

“I enjoy school and working on my company. I'm kind of a nerd. I love learning.”

Do you have a role model?

Absolutely. It’s my mom. I’m an only child, and we have a really tight-knit relationship. From a young age, she was one person that I could look up to. She was a Mary Kay director and got the pink Cadillac in a short amount of time. Now she’s a pharmaceutical rep and she’s always one of the top sales representatives. She always goes above and beyond.

Were you always interested in sports in general or basketball specifically?

I’ve always been a competitor. Growing up, I loved sports. I started out playing baseball. I was the only girl on the all-star baseball boys’ team and I made the all-star game. When I had to transfer over to softball I didn’t really like it. It was softer to me, and I liked baseball more. But in between seasons when it was cold outside, my mom put me in basketball. It took off from there. 

 Johnson cutting net
When you started playing did you think you would play in college?

When I started playing competitively, I was determined to play in college. My mom was so worried about how she was going to pay for college and where the money was going to come from. I always told her “Mom you’re not going to have to worry about college. I’m going to get an academic scholarship or a basketball scholarship.” I was pretty confident about that.

We’ve heard that sometimes your teammates call you “the CEO.” Do you see yourself as a leader?

I do, but my mom always tells me that I don't necessarily walk in the room and try to take charge and take the lead. People just naturally flock to or look to me as a leader. I usually don’t want it, but it comes.

Jonaie Johnson with teammates
There are a lot of young girls who come to watch your games. Do you see yourself as a role model? What would you tell them about pursuing sports in college?

I’m usually so focused during the game, that sometimes I forget that they may see me as a role model. But, I would tell them that if they find a passion and have a heart for it, to work hard and just let it happen. If it’s meant to be, everything will fall into place.