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Founder of Lumel Studios, Luann Baker-Johnson, on Creating Art in the Far North

By Diane Amato

Published May 22, 2019 • 8 Min Read

Ever wondered how successful entrepreneurs turn their dreams into reality? What drives them to push the envelope, create change and advance their industries? We had the opportunity to ask Canadian small business owners how they transformed their ideas, goals and passions into reality.

Luann Baker-Johnson is a passionate artist, Yukoner and advocate for the disadvantaged. In building Lumel — a glassblowing studio in Whitehorse — LuAnn has created a beautifully-blended masterpiece of arts, community support and sustainable business.

Q: Why is Lumel called the “Happiness Factory?”

Baker-Johnson: Lumel Studios offers a wide range of workshops, daily demonstrations of glass blowing and a gallery filled with Northern-inspired creations. It’s also a studio with a social conscience, as we regularly provide workshops and demonstrations for our street people, disenfranchised youth and our elderly.

And for me, Lumel offers life satisfaction. In my mind, wealth is in the ability to set out in the Yukon landscape and still have work, and have that work be the thing that you enjoy the most in the world.

Q: How Do You Balance Being an Artist and a Business Owner?

Baker-Johnson: As far as creation time goes, there is no real balance. As soon as the business started to grow, I had to choose to let my fellow glassblowers take over the floor.

The majority of my time now is running the business, socializing with people. This is running the business — talking with people and enjoying everyone in the studio. I typically get to the studio at 4:30/5:00 a.m. I do a lot of paperwork before people arrive.

While it’s difficult letting go of the artist inside of me, I celebrate my fellow artists – and I realize that this is not my time to grow as a glassblower. That time may come again, but for now this is my job — to make sure that Lumel stays successful.

Q: How Did You Finance the Project?

Baker-Johnson: Financing this big dream was exceptionally difficult. To get things started, I sold my house in Calgary (for three times what bought it for). That helped.

I then built a large home with my fellow artists, fixed up houses, built three of our homes, including one that houses the studio. Then we mortgaged it to the hilt so that we could use that money to start building the studio. At the time we felt so strongly that banks would support us, we did much of the work before all the finances came in.

I didn’t realize the hoops I had to jump through when putting together a glass blowing complex. I had to talk to fire chief in Whitehorse numerous times — I had to satisfy the safety authorities. I had to over-design — that cost money — but it was all worth it.

Q: Where Does Your Perseverance Come From?

Baker-Johnson: To own a business, you have to believe so strongly in yourself. It takes work, it takes intention. I had to be aware — to know I had a good dream. I had to recognize that I am a strong person, I can run a business, and I can prove that.

I’ve always had a desire to be taken seriously by people, but as an artist, it is hard to be taken seriously by the business world, so I joined the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce, the Yukon Chamber of Commerce. I would go to every event I possibly could — mine would be a face that would be seen. As we proved our success, I became accepted within that community.

Q: Anything You Would Have Done Differently?

Baker-Johnson: No. If we had been more cautious, Lumel wouldn’t have been built. I had a fall-back plan: I had bought a cabin up here. If the worst happened, I would have ended up in a cabin on a lake in the Yukon.

I also would have had a gigantic failure party and said, “Boy, we gave this a big try!” So that was always the fall-back plan – if this was going to fail, it was going to fail gloriously.

Q: What Advice Would You Give Someone Who Is Starting a Business?

Baker-Johnson: In Canada, we can’t afford not to go for an entrepreneurial dream. If we fail, it won’t totally destroy us. What an incredible time to be an entrepreneur — to go for your dream, to be aware you can fail, to move on.

Starting a business is tough and can be a really heavy ride. You will make mistakes — we all do. You need humility, because if you’re standing on pedestal it will be pushed over.

Just acknowledge you’re going to worry. It will be stressful. Embrace it. Just go for it.

Q: How Do You Feel Inclusivity Has Played in Your Success?

Baker-Johnson: When people come into Lumel they feel as if they are walking into a family home. We remember their first names. It’s the same with our opportunity initiative — we get to know river walkers. We know where they come from, who their family is. We are like cousins.

Our goal is to make glassblowing accessible, so we are teaching individuals of all ages and from all walks of life, including special programs for seniors, the homeless, those struggling with addiction, and more. We try to keep workshop prices so low so that all people can afford to be a glassblower.

Q: With Your Focus on Keeping Prices Low, How Do You Manage Your Cash Flow?

Baker-Johnson: It might seem counter-intuitive, but money is not the bottom line — it never was. We are not in this to get rich. You’d think that wouldn’t be a recipe for success, but it speaks to who we are as a society now — people are looking for something that goes broader than the search for the dollar.

People see how the money we earn is going into more programs and the Yukon community. Community support flows through Lumel — and Lumel is growing to support a broader population. And within three months we managed to cover our loan payments and operating costs.

Q: What Is the Secret of Your Success?

Baker-Johnson: We knew we would be a gallery, be a workshop for the public and dedicate ourselves to social consciousness. Those three elements form the success of the studio. Because we support the community, the community supports us — even beyond the Yukon. There is word of mouth across Canada — tourists visit, they read about us on our website. Because of our social values, people come in.

Q: Who Are Some of the People Who Helped Make This Happen for You?

Baker-Johnson: I am so lucky to have my crew — the Lumel crew — including the artists who chose to come with me. They were fellow students at the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD) and heard about the dream. I was lucky enough to have so many fellow students who wanted to move and join me up here.

I was also so lucky that my parents moved to the Yukon in the first place. It’s a wondrous land of opportunity. There are adventurers up here — they are part of our support. People up here think broadly, they are open and want to try something new.

And of course there’s my high school sweetheart — my husband — who is so supportive of my crazy dreams. Also, my kids love fact that we are following our dreams — they love that we are contributing to community.

Our city mayor also loved the concept from beginning. He loved the possibilities and the dream of it. In turn we have proven that we are a place to visit in Whitehorse.

Q: No Other Yukoners Have Been Recognized with a National Award for Entrepreneurs. How Does It Make You Feel to Be on This Stage?

Baker-Johnson: At the (RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneurs Awards) Gala I wore clothes made by Yukoners, jewellery made by Yukoners. I went as a Yukoner, a female entrepreneur, representing this fabulous territory.

I came to the Yukon when I was 6 months old. I was away for 30 years, but was always sad to be away. I made sure my kids called this home.

Q: What’s next for Lumel?

Baker-Johnson: We are looking at a mobile studio, and we are planning on bringing the World of Glass Trade Show here — our goal is to get it for 2025. One of our challenges is that we need to guarantee that we can have over 2000 hotel rooms available (right now have 800 hotel rooms in Whitehorse). So our plan is to make a tent city — 1898 gold rush style — and have people embrace the flavor of Yukon. We’re thinking differently. We always do!

In November 2018, 23 women were recognized at the 2018 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards. These exceptional women, and their trail-blazing companies from a variety of industries, share a common goal — to be the best at what they do. Want to learn more about how they brought their business ideas to life?

This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.

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