Photo courtesy of Vanita Johnson | Design by Eric Van Egren
Wit Vanita Johnson

From educator to owner-operator

Aug. 24, 2022
How one owner-operator made her childhood dream a reality at age 49.

After working in education for 13 years and feeling overwhelmed by the thought of virtual teaching when COVID hit, Vanita Johnson knew it was time for a career change.

When she resigned from teaching in August 2020, Johnson had no “earthly idea” what she was going to do, she said. Her dream as a little girl had always been truck driving. Her father, who worked in trucking, frequently took her family on road trips from Pittsburgh to visit family in Alabama, Ohio, and West Virginia. During those long drives, Johnson was fascinated by the big trucks.

“At nighttime they would be lit up, and I thought it would be so cool to drive one of those one day,” she said. “That was the seed that was planted. I had no idea that the dream would become my reality at 49 years old.”

See also: Women in Transportation 2022: Trailblazers in trucking

After leaving the education field, Johnson turned to an owner-operator she knew. He and his wife encouraged her to hit the road with them. As soon as the journey began, Johnson knew trucking was where she belonged.

By October she was enrolled in a three-week course to get her Class A commercial driver’s license. Johnson graduated in November 2020 with her CDL and immediately started the process of getting her own authority. Today, she is the proud owner-operator of Executive Enterprises LLC.

Johnson hauls general freight—anything from grocery items to tires to appliances to empty pallets and motor oil. She finds loads through load boards and by working with brokers.

“The challenge of being a new owner-operator is that there are very few brokers that want to do business with you,” Johnson said. “The first three months are the hardest. And the brokers that do work with you aren’t really giving you the good paying loads because you’re new. Now, they are calling me; before, I was calling them.”

The key, Johnson said, is building relationships with brokers. Part of that means being on time and staying in constant communication through the pickup and delivery process.

“You also have to be very careful that your broker is who they say they are,” she noted. “You can pull the load and not get paid when the load is done because there are fraudulent people out there.”

See also: Women in Transportation: Putting customers at the heart of truck product roadmap

To help mitigate some of that risk, Johnson works with a factoring company, which is also how she gets paid right away instead of waiting on a broker.

“What I love most is the people that I meet, the freedom that I have—it’s my windshield therapy,” she said. “No day is ever the same, and I get to see family that I otherwise wouldn’t get to see as often as I get to see them.”

Today, Johnson is based out of Georgia. Through her first year operating, she enjoyed hauling out west to California, Oregon, and Washington State. Now, with the cost of fuel, it’s not worth it for her to drive beyond 600 miles.

Aside from high fuel prices, finding a place to park is also a major challenge.

“If you arrive to a truck stop after 9 p.m.—really after 5 p.m. in some cases—you can just cancel Christmas on the parking,” Johnson said. “You do have a little more luck at weigh stations, I’ve noticed, than truck stops. But as you move across the country, some weigh stations don’t allow overnight parking.”

She’s found success parking at rest areas, and many times, she and other drivers are making up their own spots. Regardless of how difficult it can be to park, Johnson tries her best to avoid on-ramps and off-ramps.

“It’s dangerous because someone can accidentally hit you, and there are some people out there who make a living off of targeting commercial vehicles, which is why I invested in a camera,” she added.

See also: Women in Transportation: An expedited path toward growth

Staying healthy also has become top priority for Johnson. She avoids fast-food at the truck stops as much as possible by meal prepping before she hits the road. Johnson stocks her in-cab refrigerator with fruits and veggies, makes hard-boiled eggs ahead of time, and keeps peanut butter and unsalted nuts on hand for snacking. She also emphasized the importance of keeping a lot of water in her truck.

“As far as physical activity, while you’re getting loaded or off-loaded, some people don’t like for you to walk their property, so I walk the length of my truck and trailer,” Johnson explained.  “It could be boring, but at least I am moving.”

She also keeps a jump rope and hand weights in her vehicle and frequently does no-equipment exercise like squats and pushups to stay healthy. Sleep is also key to staying healthy, Johnson stressed.

Finding support

Johnson found the Women in Trucking Association around September 2020 and received the organization’s fall Ryder Charitable Foundation Scholarship. In August 2021, she joined WIT’s mentoring program for entry-level female drivers through a partnership with LeadHERalliance Mentoring.

“It is intimidating when you are a woman in this male-populated field,” Johnson said. “You begin to second-guess yourself and your confidence goes down if you don’t get the maneuvers right while you are in school. I had a lady who failed the test a couple times, and she was ready to give up. I said, ‘no, you’re going to pass, trust me.’

As a mentor for others in the industry, Johnson knows just how important it can be to give other women words of wisdom and advice on how to block out naysayers.

She started out her driving career as a team driver with a male trainer who was challenging to work with. The trainer would frequently get frustrated with Johnson and fill her with a lot of self-doubt.

“I guess I wasn’t catching on fast enough for him, but the reason I wasn’t catching on was because of the way he talked to me,” she said. “When he talked to me in that tone, I completely shut down. He would get so frustrated that he would walk away. Other people out there would help me, and I would get it on the first try. That happened several times.”

The good news for Johnson is she had a strong support group to rely on.

“They kept telling me how strong willed and strong minded I am,” she said. “When I was reminded of that, I just dug deep and said, ‘no matter what he is telling you that you are not made for this, you are made for this.’ That’s what I would say to encourage people who are thinking about getting out here and for people who are in it and thinking about quitting. Don’t quit. Keep going, you can do it.”

About the Author

Cristina Commendatore

Cristina Commendatore was previously the Editor-in-chief of FleetOwner magazine. She reported on the transportation industry since 2015, covering topics such as business operational challenges, driver and technician shortages, truck safety, and new vehicle technologies. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

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