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Joia M. Johnson

Joia M. Johnson

Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Corporate Secretary

Hanesbrands Inc.

As the executive vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary of Hanesbrands Inc. (the Winston-Salem, N.C.–based global consumer goods company whose portfolio contains a list of familiar brands such as Hanes, Champion, Playtex, Bali, L’eggs, Just My Size, Barely There, and Wonderbra), Joia M. Johnson oversees legal affairs as well the company’s corporate social responsibility function. “The most challenging, and for me most exciting, aspect of the position is in trying to be proactive in the worldwide environment in which we operate,” says Johnson. “When a company has an international footprint like ours, it requires a familiarity not only with foreign laws, but also with geopolitical issues; the business is more complex and the scale is larger than what I’ve experienced before.”

Despite her success in the profession, the law was not Johnson’s first love. At one point during her undergraduate days at Duke University, Johnson wanted to be a professional dancer. She remembers calling her parents and sharing her aspiration: “My father said I would have to come home to Atlanta and study dance someplace less expensive than Duke. That’s when I seriously turned my attention to a law career for the first time.”

It was while pursuing dual degrees (a law degree and an MBA) from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law and the Wharton School of Business that Johnson firmly set her sites on a career in business law. As a stepping stone on her way to an in-house leadership position, she spent three-and-a-half years at the Atlanta law firm that is now McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP. And at just 29, she became general counsel at H. J. Russell & Company, the largest African American-owned real estate firm in the United States, also based in Atlanta. “That was not expected,” recalls Johnson. “It was definitely a job that I had to grow into.”

Prior to coming to Hanesbrands in February 2007, Johnson was executive vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary at RARE Hospitality International Inc., a restaurant franchise owner and operator located in Atlanta. As RARE’s general counsel, Johnson not only oversaw all legal affairs, but also was responsible for overseeing the company’s real estate development and construction. “The job prepared me to manage people,” she says. “It was the first time I’d ever managed so many people, and so many people related to operations as opposed to a staff function.”

Johnson feels that being both African American and a woman requires her to demonstrate her ability and to conform to a degree to perceptions about femininity. “Of course all attorneys must prove themselves, but with women and minorities there is sometimes less of a presumption of competency,” she says. “I’m naturally strong; otherwise, I wouldn’t be where I am professionally. As a woman, though, I find that I’m also expected to show a softer side. While the being strong part comes easy for me, sometimes I have to step back and remember that people want to be cared for in the workplace—they want to know people are looking out for them and making it possible for them succeed. When I maintain that balance, I’m at my best.” DB

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From the July/August 2008 issue of Diversity & The Bar®

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