Katie Johnston is a raging success. From her tree house in a small artisan village, 15 minutes from Noosa, it’s easy for her to sit on her balcony and find her centre. From here, she can “watch the wind make the leaves dance; the birds getting along with their day.” But her life wasn’t always so idyllic.
Years of severe bullying at boarding school had slowly chipped away at her self-worth and sense of belonging. She was grateful to be there at all – her family, owning a farm in Central West NSW, were struggling through drought, fires and storms, and fought hard to keep her there – so she felt she couldn’t say anything.
Once she graduated, she took off to the opposite side of the country to start a new life.
“I was free!” she remembers. “Freedom tasted so good.”
Katie was making real friends, and being pursued by men. A little naïve and unused to the attention, she accepted their advances.
In her own words, “I was on a dangerous spiral of validation through physical affection. I thought I was in control and felt worthy.”
But one night, after helping out at a friend’s bar, her world unravelled. She was raped.
The next couple years, Katie travelled a lot. She told herself the world was calling her, but looking back, “I was running. Anything to feel like I belonged.”
She enrolled in bachelor degrees and diplomas, but “eight false starts left me feeling like a failure.”
She had hit rock bottom.
Picking up the pieces
But that’s the thing about hitting rock bottom: sometimes, there’s nowhere else to go but up.
She enrolled in university again, and this time, she was “going to save the world. This time, it was going to work!”
After the trauma she had faced, and still struggling to understand the behaviour of her peers at school, she enrolled in psychology.
“I just wanted to understand how people could inflict so much pain on someone they didn’t know. Why was I hurt?”
And this time, she graduated with distinction, with a bachelor degree in psychology.
Shortly after she wrapped up her studies, she found herself in a workshop, playing with power tools and breathing new life into the recycled odds and ends lying around. It would be the humble start of her successful business, EcoBling.
“Fast forward three years, plus blood, sweat, tears, self-doubt, and a series of mini breakdowns, I found myself being invited to Eco Fashion Week in Seattle in the US for my very own runway show. Earlier that year, I promised myself to just say yes, and deal with the fear later.”
The EcoBling designs were a huge success. Invitations flooded in, and collaborations on designer runways in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, Vancouver, and all around Australia, followed.
“But I still battle every day with my vulnerabilities and comparing myself to others. I still second-guess everything I do, but the key for me is say yes, then deal with the how.”
Katie credits a massive shift in perspective in helping her get her business off the ground.
“I didn’t realise my worth, or that being me was enough. I get it now. My perspective shifted when I moved to a shed in the middle of a forest and spent time by myself. I was surrounded by trees, living a simple life making money from days spent [selling her handmade products] at the artisan markets in Eumundi.”
The more time she spent visiting waterfalls, secret beaches, and old growth forests, the more she felt “connected to nature, and the more I realised how the human-centred world we have created is madness.”
So what would she say to someone experiencing the same?
“Escape and go deep into nature. Not the coffee shop at the beach, but real, wild nature. Spend time there just sitting with your feet in the dirt. Listen to everything and breathe it in. Realise everything else is just a game.”
Learning curves ahead
Before EcoBling, Katie says she “had never used a power tool apart from a drill, and here I was saying I was going to start a social enterprise to upcycle waste into handmade accessories.”
Today, EcoBling’s success continues to grow at a rapid pace, but along the way, and as with many entrepreneurs, it wasn’t always such a smooth road.
“But looking back, I never dreamed to be doing what I am doing now. I always envied those people who had a dream and just knew what they wanted to do,” she says. “All I know is that I enjoy this ever evolving and completely random ride. I enjoy being creative and setting goals, and testing the limitations I place on myself. I am not wise, I am not experienced, or an expert. I am just myself trying to navigate this crazy world best I can. That is all you can ever be, that is all you can ever do.”
What was the biggest learning curve she faced in her business?
“That you don’t know anything, and that’s a good thing. Keeping yourself in constant question mode is healthy. That way, you’re continually growing, continually moving the goal posts forward, continually striving. The best thing I have done is chosen a goal I know is out of reach, so I made damn sure I enjoy the journey!”
EcoBling plant a tree for each piece sold. They are planted in an African food forest to help alleviate hunger, and act as a carbon sink. So far, they have planted 20,000 trees. Visit ecobling.com.au