carissa johnson

Fabulous People: Carissa Johnson

Carissa Johnson is the executive director for the Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival, a beloved annual event that draws hundreds of thousands of people to Cedar Rapids to celebrate July 4 with more than 70 events. As the festival’s youngest executive director in its 36-year history, Johnson discusses how she got to be where she is today. Learn about Carissa Johnson…

Hometown: Marion, Iowa

First job: Culver’s. I still know what “the works” means (ketchup, mustard, pickle, onion).

Favorite ways to spend your free time in IA: My husband and I thoroughly enjoy trying each new (local) restaurant that comes to Cedar Rapids. We are big foodies, and enjoy being out in the community, so this is a perfect excuse to support a new local business and to spend time with each other and friends. I’m glad this question wasn’t about a favorite restaurant, because I could speak on that topic for hours. A few other favorite things to do in Iowa would be visiting our county parks for a hike, picnic or kayaking. Live music is also abundant in Cedar Rapids, and I cannot forget to mention biking. Cedar Rapids is a very bike-friendly community and there are many times were bars and restaurants will be completely packed with all the bicyclist from that day.

Your biggest accomplishment and why: Becoming the youngest executive director in the Freedom Festival’s history. After college, I had several jobs that I was overqualified for, which took a toll on me. Instead of being the one taking minutes in meetings and answering the phones, I wanted to be the one in the meetings sharing my insight and giving valuable feedback and advice. I truly thought it would be a long time before I finally was able to get into a role that I deserved. I am the executive director of the Freedom Festival because of the connections I made, starting in college. I was an intern for one summer for the Freedom Festival and because I maintained those relationships, I was able to work my way into a board member then to the events and marketing director and finally to executive director. I went from thinking I would never reach my full potential to being the leader of the second largest festival in Iowa.

The biggest obstacle you have overcome: This year was absolutely crazy and unpredicted for everyone. Being an executive director for a three-week-long festival during this time has been extremely challenging. We had to cancel our festival in the middle of April, which was devastating. We had no idea where we would go from there and how we could possibly pick ourselves up and continue to move forward. Although these times have been hard, I am glad it forced us to rethink how we plan our events and give us this time to reinvent ourselves. COVID has been the biggest curveball thrown to me, but I am ecstatic to say that we were able to provide our community with virtual programming and held our first ever drive-thru pancake breakfast that served over 800 meals in two hours. Just when you think the storm will never end, the sunshine starts to peek through.

Someone who inspires you and why: That’s easy. My dad. He has taught me to be passionate about life and always learn as much as you can. He is always kind and courteous to anyone he interacts with and makes others feel important. No matter how big or small, he is continuously proud of my accomplishments, just like I am always proud of his. And he somehow finds the time to take my approximate 10 phone calls to him a week. He really is a patient man!

Advice to someone pursuing a career path in what you do: Network, network, network. As I touched on before, I never would have had the opportunity to be an executive director if it wasn’t for the genuine connections I made. Try different internships or part-time jobs and stay in touch with your connections there. You never know when you may find yourself needing one of them for help or interviewing for a role within that same company. Don’t be afraid to send that email to an influential person in your community to meet them for coffee. It is surprising how one simple coffee meeting could turn into something so much more valuable in the long run. No matter what your career is, you will always find yourself looking to others for guidance and advice and those genuine connections you made, are just the people who will always be in your corner. Event planning is hard, yet rewarding and bouncing thoughts and ideas off of others allows for constant collaboration between similar organizations. Lastly, say yes. Do the presentation, have that uncomfortable conversation, think outside the box; you will not only continue to develop your career, but also challenge yourself to grow as a person.

Favorite quote: “I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.” – Lucille Ball

Something someone would be surprised to learn about you: I may get some major backlash for this response, but I do not like bacon. Shocking, I know.

What makes someone fabulous: Someone who is a wing man/woman – a man/woman who helps, guides, or supports another person.

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