Mary Johanna Brown

Our interview with July EQUALITY speaker, Mary Joanna Brown, Gender Equality Leader, and Founder of Brown & Company Design in Portsmouth NH.

PKX: How did you come to founding/owning a design agency?

Mary Jo: I got a degree in Etching - like Rembrandt! 

UNH has a very traditional Fine Arts program and I helped to start a communications magazine while I was still in school, then went to work for Main Street Magazine. 

I got my first job through that magazine and moved my way up to become an assistant art director before I had even graduated. 

I learned that I love design more than fine art.

However, I wouldn’t admit to my professors that I had a main stream job! Because if you were a “fine” artist, you would be selling out if you had a job in design. 

You were considered a sell out. 

But fine art students who are interested in design get sent to us here at Brown now. 

So I had my degree, and I was already working for a magazine. The first gentleman I ever worked for taught me everything NOT to do. It was fascinating. 

But he went out of business and I travelled all around the West Coast I found my first big/great client through this job - so it kind of worked out.  

PKX: What inspires you as a creative person.

Mary Jo: Living a full life. 

Having diverse life experiences. 

Attending WWF matches for instance. Haha. I have more in my brain to pull from. Travel has been significant for me lately. And having my daughter Haley - children are so creative. 

I always believed in creating an inspiring work environment, but my vintage toy collection just happened. 

I’m drawn to red, to fun, to eclectic, to this explosion of fun and creativity. 

I want to create a space where I want to go every day. We spend a lot of time there - better make it fun. There are layers of learning and fun in the work environment - books, hidden cash, high level Easter Egg hunts. 

PKX: Anything new and exciting in your industry?

Mary Jo: When you have been around for 25 years you see a lot of change…when we first started we used to do more print work, and now we are doing a majority of web & digital work. We have to be committed to evolving technologies. 

What I have noticed is that they have come up with a bunch of catch phrases for what are very simple marketing concepts. Which I find funny.

I think we have to have enough young people too. We have designers that stay for 15-20 years, but we also have to be committed to a diverse skill sets and people. 

PKX: How does this topic of Equality speak to you?

Mary Jo: 

I have dedicated the last 12 years of my life to becoming a champion for gender equality in the state of NH. 

That’s the short version.

The long version is that over that time I helped merge 5 completely divergent organizations into one organization - the NH Women’s Foundation. 

I’m very attracted to things people say I can’t do. 

I was told this merging can’t be done - so that was very attractive to me. The two titles I carry most, other than mom, are Artist & Entrepreneur - two other things I was told don’t go together. Merging a government agency into this new organization required an actual bill. 

But with this merger, I was able to apply my communication knowledge and shepherding resources to this goal of championing women’s and girl’s issues. 

I wanted to re-think the idea of a woman’s movement. 

All at the same time I was thinking of being a single mother by choice and was also asked to be a speaker as a woman owned business - which I naively had never thought was “different.“ But I started researching and found out that NH was way behind the national average on woman’s issues. 

The stats were alarming to me: NH was behind in wage gap, in CEO representation, in women on public boards. There was this conflict - and I was interested in conflict. 

I did not call myself a life long feminist, and so conservatives and republicans people were willing to talk to me. 

The very fact that we figured out how to merge a government agency with this organization, I’m very proud of this work.

PKX: If you could open up a door into another time, what would you do?

Mary Jo: I would just like to be gardening with my grandfather. 

PKX: If we could invite anyone to speak?

Mary Jo: I gotta let go of my “go to” answer, but Gloria Steinham. She has so much to say.  

But I also know that answer as a “feminist” is riddled with judgement. 

Everyone thinks I’m a huge Hillary nut too. Which is totally fucking unfair. You would not believe what people assign to me with this work. 

You would not believe what people have told ME, about ME, because of this work. 

Unlike anything I’ve ever been involved with. 

And it’s worse than “oh, you are an artist, you probably won’t be good at business.”

Incredible. I may address this my talk more. 

PKX: Any advice for people just starting out in your field?

Mary Jo: Don’t work for a jerk. Ha. 

No, but really. 

There is nothing better than practicing your craft. 

It takes time to get better, and better at it. Doing volumes of work, and lots of diverse work is important right out of the gate. 

I’m a big believer in crafting a plan that allows for a lot of experience.

I believe in the internship model and the mentorship model. Offer to do internships at 20 different places. Go to places that have something to offer. Pick places you admire. Surround yourself with great mentors. 

Photography by Raya Al-Hashmi of Raya on Assignment. Interview by Geneve Hoffman, Host of CreativeMornings PKX - Portsmouth NH. Interview held at Profile Coffee Bar, Portsmouth NH.