Editor’s note: This article is underwritten by Plexpod — a progressive coworking platform offering next generation workspace for entrepreneurs, startups, and growth-stage companies of all sizes — but was independently produced by Startland News.
From crafting custom-made bracelets in elementary school to prepping the launch for the world’s first interactive dog crate, Jonaie Johnson said she’s wanted to be an entrepreneur for as long as she can remember.
“I grew up having an innovative mindset — always looking to solve problems or find the next best thing to improve the lives of people,” said Johnson, founder of Interplay and senior at University of Missouri-Kansas City. “Innovation has always been fascinating to me and something I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.”
Johnson was honored this fall as the Henry W. Bloch School’s Student Entrepreneur of the Year for her development of Interplay — an interactive dog crate that allows owners to virtually dispense food and water; see and talk to their dog; and open and close the crate through a smartphone app.
Click here to learn more about Interplay.
A combination of UMKC’s entrepreneurship program and basketball team first drew the Chicago-native to Kansas City, she said. Being offered a full-scholarship to play hoops ultimately sealed the deal, Johnson shared.
During Johnson’s freshman year basketball gala, she was placed at a table with Tom and Mary Bloch — son and daughter-in-law of the late distinguished entrepreneur Henry Bloch, whose name has become nearly synonymous with business education at UMKC.
“The Blochs asked me if I was going to the Entrepreneur of the Year [awards],” Johnson recalled. “At the time, I had no idea what that was, but the Blochs were asking, so I said yes.”
Johnson volunteered as a greeter for the event, tucking her business model underneath the event’s seating chart on her clipboard. That night, she recalled meeting Ben Gruber, then-program director for the university’s Entrepreneurship Scholars program (E-Scholars).
With her business plan literally at hand, Gruber told her to apply for E-Scholars and the rest was history, Johnson shared.
“E-Scholars has set a strong foundation for where I am today,” Johnson said, noting that she is a two-time graduate from the semester-long program.
“[E-Scholars] provided me with connections, resources and access into the entrepreneurial ecosystem here within Kansas City,” she continued. “I went from an idea with Interplay, to now having a prototype and viable business model.”
Between basketball, academics and running her own business, Johnson is careful to retain some free time for herself without sacrificing her priorities, she said.
“People make time for what’s important,” Johnson said. “Getting this company off the ground and positioning Interplay to where I can fully run it and generate income once I graduate has been a major motivator for me.”
Check out an Interplay demo video below, then keep reading.
As a child growing up in a single-parent household, Johnson was deeply inspired by her mother, who worked for Mary Kay and quickly earned a Mary Kay Pink Cadillac — the highest marking given to the company’s top sales representatives, she said.
The first thing Johnson did when she received the student entrepreneur award: She called her mother.
“She was more excited than I was,” Johnson said, laughing. “… Seeing how hard she worked in her endeavors with entrepreneurship definitely rubbed off on me. I got the business-owner and business-woman mentality from my mom.”
Throughout her adolescent years, Johnson dabbled in various self-owned businesses.
“In grammar school, I sold custom friendship bracelets to friends and family. Then, I upped it a notch and found a need,” she shared. “Many of the students were hungry between class periods, so I started selling snacks. I had a very lucrative fruit snack business in middle school.”
By her senior year of high school, Johnson first envisioned the idea for Interplay after watching her aunt leave family events early to go care for her dogs.
“I thought, ‘I’d be cool if she were able to do this from her phone while she was away,’” Johnson said. “And that’s how I came up with Interplay.”
Goals on goals
Going into college, Johnson set a plan to graduate in three years — giving her an extra year of eligibility with basketball to pursue her master’s degree.
“I’ll be graduating in the spring,” Johnson said with a smile, signifying that she is on track to accomplish her goal.
Her second major goal: a soft launch with Interplay’s products by her birthday in April.
Johnson credited InnovateHER, KC Collective and Opportunity Hub KC (OHUB.KC) for continuing to motivate her throughout the journey and as she plans her soft launch. Since joining those ecosystems, Johnson said, she has experienced significant growth through their feedback and support.
After college, Johnson envisions staying in Kansas City as she works on the beginning stages of Interplay — eventually venturing to other major cities, especially her hometown of Chicago.
“I have a few places on my list,” Johnson said. “But Kansas City will always be the central spot that I’m coming back to.”