Donnetta Bishop-Johnson, our NJMOMpreneur of the week, wholeheartedly believes you are responsible for creating the world you want to live in, and she backs those words up with actions. The former software designer always wanted her work to impact her community, and after noticing a shortfall of arts education in her hometown of Hillsborough, she found her calling. What started as a side hustle with her mom 21 years ago has morphed into the award-winning Allegra School of Music and Arts, where kids build confidence as performers and go on to find success on stage and off. We caught up with this mom (and soon to be grandma) of 3 to talk about the thrill she gets from watching her students thrive, how a personal tragedy inspired her to raise awareness about teen mental health, and the rural places in NJ she goes to get away from it all.
Please share a little bit about your career background and how it led you to open up Allegra School of Music and Arts.
I was one of the pioneering women who worked in the tech industry at AT&T Bell Laboratories in the early 1980s. I started as a computer programmer, software designer and eventually became a senior project manager Yet, I knew that I wanted my life’s work to impact the community—my family always has valued service, and I believe in the axiom that you are responsible for creating the world you want to live in. I also wanted to be an independent business owner to have more flexibility with my young family. I have always been interested in the arts. So when I saw a deficit of arts education in my community, I sought to create a place that would address that deficit and marry my love of the arts and business-entrepreneurship. I started Allegra with my mother in 1999 as a “side-hustle” while I still worked at AT&T. My mother—who all the parents and students called “Miss Rose”—was instrumental in helping me manage the school. She was also the key reason for my success, helping to balance my career, a new business, and my family. When I decided to leave telecom and run the business full-time, we had already proven Allegra’s value and viability in the community.
How has your business evolved over the years?
Initially, we opened as a music school featuring instruction in all instruments and voice classes and then added musical theater summer camp. After over twenty-one years, we have grown into an award-winning music school with an exceptional and recognized vocal and theater arts program featuring faculty from the best arts programs from universities all over. Many of our students have attended nationally recognized music and theater collegiate programs and achieved their dreams of being performers, arts industry creatives, and educators. But what makes us so proud is our students have become happier, more confident, and more generous and have gone on to make the world a more amazing place. It’s a thrill like no other to witness shy, unsure kids go out on stage and bring a character or a piece of music to life. I know this is something the student has worked to achieve, and seeing them blossom in this community is fantastic.
What sets your school apart from other Arts schools?
Art schools are always special because you have to create a space where people will open up and be vulnerable enough to express their creative originality. Creativity can be intimidating and downright scary. I have genuine admiration and respect for my peers who have created educational businesses to pass our culture and artistic excellence to future generations.
What makes Allegra unique is our relentless belief every child and adult who walks through our doors can gain something from working on their creative potential. We also help people discover how wonderful it is to belong to a community that welcomes and appreciates their quirkiness and differences. The arts community celebrates that, and in return, we create beauty and brilliance that makes the community as a whole more vibrant, more livable, especially during difficult times. Allegra believes in helping our students of all ages, abilities, and talents gain new skills and create and maintain mental health and resilience. At Allegra, students understand when you work consistently on something—whether it is a piece of music or a script—you will be enhanced by what you produce.
How have Covid-19 restrictions affected Allegra? What are your plans moving forward to keep things going in a positive direction?
When the pandemic started, we were fortunate to have our innovative and technically savvy team quickly and seamlessly move our community online. Our teachers have been exceptionally brilliant in figuring out how to craft music and drama classes that are fresh and engaging under these challenging circumstances. It wasn’t easy because online is not the same experience as in-person. But in most cases, it doesn’t have to be a reduced experience —we’re absorbing new ways to teach, and it’s exciting watching the community come together. The one-on-one music classes have adapted to online platforms amazingly well, and surprisingly, so have our group drama classes and performances. It’s been fun and fascinating to work with our young performers, and we’ve seen an amazing demonstration of experimentation, collaboration, and great performances.
We have been able to move our classes and even our camp online, and we’re prepping for our annual winter online recital. This is unprecedented—it’s not lost on anyone that our young artists will one day be sharing these historic “pandemic performances” with their kids and grandchildren. Throughout this time, the Allegra team is determined to be innovative and help our community through this crisis. We are happy and grateful that our community strongly supported us, knowing many businesses and families were not as fortunate.
Are you involved in any community organizations or charitable causes? If so, briefly explain why they’re important to you.
I’m the creator of the Hillsborough Music Festival. I focused the festival on youth suicide prevention in 2010 after losing my youngest son, Jonah, to depression at 17 years old. You never think this can happen in your own family until it does. My mission is to help families understand the impact of depression, particularly on teens and suicide. After we lost my son, we started the organization, My son, Your Daughter, The Jonah Johnson Youth Scholarship Fund. We raise funds for a scholarship and resiliency training and mental health first-aid for teachers, school aides, and other first responders. Going forward, I will continue to advocate for youth mental health and youth suicide prevention and the importance of artistic development and expression in our town. Recently, I was offered a seat on the Somerset County Board for community mental health and the Somerset County Cultural Arts and Heritage Commission.
What are some of your favorite local businesses?
Hillsborough has so many great businesses. Daisy Garden and Sculpture is a jewel of a garden shop with unique treasures, eclectic merchandise, and beautiful plants. Since I love the idea of sustainability and recycling, I was thrilled to find Max and Mia’s, a children’s clothing and more consignment shop. I have my first grandchild arriving in April, and this store is a treasure since children grow so quickly. You can save money, help save the planet, and get very useful beautiful items second hand. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Matt Schorr, who owns Mailbox Business Center. Matt is an iconic local business person who has a reputation for excellent customer service and personal attention. His staff operates with the same attention to detail and care. It is always a pleasure to have any printing or mailing needs taken care of at Mailbox.
Please share some of your favorite things to do in NJ.
I love the wholesome, simple activities that this beautiful rural community has to offer, whether it’s paddling a canoe on the D&R Canal, hiking in the Sourland Mountains, or biking around Duke Farms. This area is also particularly rich in locally-produced theater and art since it’s close to Princeton and New Brunswick’s university communities.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever got and want to pass on to a fellow Mompreneur?
The best advice I ever got was simple—hang in there and don’t take setbacks personally. It is hard to weather so many storms in the small-business environment, so set yourself up with a council of mentors and peers outside of your business who will provide you with direction and encouragement. You will go through very tough times, and you will need a community to give you the mental support to make it through. Also, appreciation for your efforts will, at times, fall short of what you deserve. Your belief in delivering value to your community will move you past many rough patches. And as my 84-year-old mother always says to me, “try to get a good night’s sleep and conquer the world again tomorrow”— it has been the best advice I can pass along.
For more information about Donnetta Bishop-Johnson and the Allegra School of Music and Arts, follow their website, Facebook and Instagram.