Richard Connor - Fort Worth Business Press
Struck twice by high-voltage name expectation lightning, saddled with issues of depression and anxiety, finding temporary solace but then hell with alcohol addiction, getting up, falling down, then getting back up again to create a dynamite invention and build a new life as businessperson and counselor, Carter Johnson has a story or two to tell.
It would be burden enough to carry a famous, iconic name such as Carter, as in Amon. But if you have a second one, Johnson, as in civic leader-philanthropist mother Sheila, daughter of civic leader- philanthropist-arts patron Ruth Carter Stevenson, then you were born with a heavy yoke around your neck.
Carter Johnson has dropped the yoke and she’s opening up – in more ways than one.
She’s about to tell us a business story, about her breakthrough invention. Sitting in a restaurant with a steaming latte cradled between her hands, looking cool, serene, aloof, with long blond hair, piercing blue eyes, subtly exquisite print dress, she is most likely anything but truly composed inside.
Johnson could be, probably is, a bundle of nerves but she’s learned to mask it even though now the mask is going to come off, just like the stubborn packaging her invention will open.
Because it is on the inside where the truth dwells. What you see is not necessarily what you get. And so, the Carter Johnson story turns out to be a many-layered book with several chapters.
The breaking news chapter about the invention is intriguing but brief: Carter is president and CEO of XIT XTREME LLC and its first product is the Penguin, a blade-free tool to pry open the tops of blister packages for medication, sealed pill bottles and even that stubborn plastic top on the mustard bottle you are struggling with while the hot dog grows cold.
It’s called the Penguin because it looks like one, fits into the palm of your hand and debuts on the open market for sale this week through a website (www.getapenguin.com) and on social media. It will literally open anything and everything. Packages. Boxes. Sealed containers. Ironically, its most special asset is this: It’s not sharp – it will open but not cut.
That’s essential for use of the tool in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities where sharp objects are banned.
Another asset: it’s inexpensive, coming in three sizes priced at $7.99, $8.99 and $9.99.
It’s an invention that caught fire from the ashes of personal pain fueled by the embers of sober creativity in a mind free of alcohol. The Penguin was conceived in 2011 while Carter Johnson was in a rehabilitation facility.
“Every day I watched nurses struggle to remove medications from numerous, individually sealed blister packages,” Carter says. “With no sharp objects such as scissors available, there was no fast, efficient way to open the seals. As a result, dispensing medication was slow.”
We’ve all experienced what Carter witnessed. You open anything from a pill bottle to one for ketchup and once the cap is off you have to fight to break the seal. We’ve all used our index finger and then any sharp object nearby. Often, we try to use our fingers to latch on to those tiny tabs that hold the seal tight.
“I knew there had to be a better way,” she says. “And I knew the opener couldn’t be sharp, at least for institutional use.”
When Carter mentioned her idea to the nurses at the rehabilitation center, they were immediately ecstatic.
“You invent it, we’ll endorse it,” they said.
Turns out there are 3.8 million nurses in the U.S. – 38 million worldwide – many of whom we can assume need help opening medicines.
The first Penguin designs were plastic, but Carter’s company is for the time being producing a metal version. These are more versatile than the plastic model. They open many more items than pill or condiment bottles, including boxes of virtually any size and all variations of packages.
After Carter had the original idea in 2011, she left rehab but relapsed and continued on a treadmill of recovery, relapse, recovery, relapse, trying different rehab programs until one stuck in 2016. She then spent some time working on sobriety, until economics forced her to focus on the Penguin.
“I had spent several years just trying to get my life back in shape, back in order,” she says. Needing distance from her hometown, she lived for a while in Arizona and then New York. “But then I moved home to Fort Worth and I needed a job.”
The Penguin became that job, but she has paid the bills from time to time with work in alcohol and drug addiction counseling.
Her story is not only one of a bright, creative person always thinking, always creating, but also of someone fighting the fight, the main bout, and winning it punch by punch, battle by battle.
The Penguin is a detour of sorts, a stop along the highway to a greater destination. Carter Johnson’s backstory, forget the famous name, is about addiction.
Now 53, she began drinking more frequently in her mid-30s. Having young children caused long-nagging fears and anxieties to explode. She worried about their safety and everything she could imagine that might be bad. Depression and crushing anxiety began to freeze her in her tracks. Alcohol helped keep her moving until it nearly stopped her, ruined her life.
“My story is like many others,” she says, “wine, more wine, more wine and when it was too much wine, I switched to beer to try to get a handle on the excess, and then when that did not work, I just went straight to vodka.”
She drank every day, almost all day long, in small doses, usually not getting to the point where she could not function – although, she says, there were days she could not pick her children up from school. Rarely, though, was she so drunk that others knew it.
“I literally drank in the closet at my house,” she says
She didn’t need others to intervene. Self-awareness took over and on her own she entered the Betty Ford Center, a famed rehabilitation facility. She got sober and left the program but soon relapsed. The pattern persisted through four more programs until, on the fifth try, she found sustained success. She celebrated five years of sobriety this spring.
Carter came into the world with a heavy mantle of responsibility flowing from her famous family and the family’s legendary legacy of accomplishment. It’s an age-old question: Is being born into a famous family a blessing or curse? Most likely, it’s a little of both.
Her great-grandfather, Amon G. Carter Sr., could be called an inventor. It would not be too much of a stretch to say he invented Fort Worth, and much that remains special about it today. Ruth Carter Stevenson, Amon’s daughter and Carter Johnson’s grandmother, had the brains and, especially, the will of Amon Sr. She made the Amon Carter Museum what it is today. Ruth was a national figure in the art world and known as a world class gardener. She was a leader and a force to be reckoned with, particularly if you misrepresented any fact about her famous father. Carter Johnson’s mother, Sheila, has been a community leader for decades and at one time served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Cook Children’s Hospital. She also helped start the Warm Place and Children’s Alliance.
When you talk with Carter Johnson you see in her face, hear in her voice the same determination, keen mind, pluck and vigor that defined her grandmother and mother. Genetics is a powerful thing.
But a famous name comes with expectations and pressures most of us know nothing about.
“I was put in a box no matter what I did,” explains Johnson, who lived the first 11 years of her life in North Carolina and in somewhat of a Fort Worth-free bubble before moving to Fort Worth.
“I barely knew who Amon Carter was,” she says, “and then all of a sudden I’m living here and everywhere I looked something said ‘Carter.’”
So, she dug in and did what young women in her sphere did: debutante debuts in Fort Worth and San Antonio, boarding school in California, back home to Texas to volunteer locally for a few years and then graduating in three years from The University of Texas with a degree in art history. She is an accomplished photographer and has had her work exhibited in New York and here in Fort Worth.
In Fort Worth she worked as a volunteer on many civic projects, served on several boards and created the most successful fundraiser in the history of the Museum of Science and History, “The Mad Scientist Ball.” She directed it from 2005 through 2015. There have now been 11 of them with COVID knocking out the 2020 event. She continues to serve on the museum’s board of trustees.
But as she married, volunteered and worked at raising two children, Josie, now 24, and Edward, 22, she battled depression and anxiety along with the pressures attendant to progeny of Fort Worth’s first family. Alcohol took over and the spiral was long and punishing –psychologically, physically, financially.
Through it all, she somehow summoned the will and resilience to find her own way, to begin carving out a legacy of her own, separate from the daunting heritage of her birth.
Today, the Carter name and legacy is a notation. She has her Penguin invention and a new story that is uniquely hers. It will be her mark on business history.
It would be easy to look at Carter Johnson and assume she is on her way to success because of family money or the intangible capital that accrues to well-known people, but that’s not true. She built her dream and her invention on her own, even leaving Fort Worth for a while to make money as a recovery advocate at Awakenings Hill Country, now called The Fullbrook Center, in Fredericksburg, Texas.
Carter works these days from a small office in Fort Worth with two desks and barely enough room to turn around, getting ready for the Penguin product launch and developing new ideas. She has owned the trademark for many years and has filed an international design patent as well as the domestic utility patent.
In the meantime, as she navigates the world of a start-up business, she gazes into the future beyond this invention and others she is developing. Carter looks to a time when she can achieve a heartfelt goal of helping those addicted to drugs and alcohol and their families – that is the long-term mission. She holds two certifications as an alcohol and drug counselor for adults and children and has only a few more classes remaining before becoming a Certified Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor. After that: 4,000 hours of supervision and licensing in 10 states.
The need is great, as these numbers from experts show:
22 million people suffer from active substance use disorders.
23 million people are in addiction recovery.
45 million people are directly impacted by addiction.
1 in 3 households suffer from, are exposed to, or are otherwise impacted by addiction.
“We have to get rid of the stigma that exists around addiction and mental illness that creates so much shame, Carter says. “Struggles with mental health are real. I’ve suffered from severe anxiety and depression my entire life and was ashamed to admit it. My drinking began as a way to self-medicate my anxiety. Sadly, COVID has only exacerbated what was already a crisis.
She pauses when asked to define her goals and answers in measured tones.
“Basically, what it boils down to is that I’ve been fortunate to be able to receive the help that I needed, when I needed it,” she says. “Not everyone is that fortunate. My hope is that by sharing what I’ve learned with others, sharing what helped me, I might be able to keep another person from having to go through that kind of pain alone.”