How I Made It: These sisters know how to throw a good Hollywood party

Massah David, left, and sister Miatta David Johnson own boutique branding agency MVD Inc., which has planned parties and other events for celebrities, including Kanye West, Common and Mary J. Blige.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Miatta David Johnson, 41, and her sister, Massah David, 38, are the brains behind MVD Inc., a boutique creative marketing firm for the stars.

The six-employee West Hollywood firm plans and orchestrates events from small private soirees to multimillion-dollar weekend-long gigs. Their client list includes Kanye West, Rihanna, 20th Century Fox, Samsung Next, Warner Bros. Pictures and Universal Music Group. The sisters wouldn’t divulge revenue figures but said that they produce about 30 events a year.

A tough start

The sisters’ family had been part of the ruling elite in their native Liberia, but that all came to an end in 1980, when a military regime executed their great-uncle, Liberian President William R. Tolbert Jr., and imprisoned their father, Edward, who had been the mayor of the capital city, Monrovia.

When the family moved to Columbia, Md., in 1984, the only job Edward could initially find was selling shoes.

“He persevered. I remember that he seemed to be working all of the time,” said Johnson, MVD’s chief executive.

The family’s financial situation slowly improved. Her father found work with the Washington, D.C., government, saving enough to open a business of his own.

“His focus was always on what it would take to move the family to the next level,” Johnson said. “It taught us that it not only takes a lot of grit to be a leader, but you have to be a resilient person of integrity.”

David, the company’s head of creative direction and event design, said: “He taught us we can do anything we put our minds to.”

Life of the party

At home, the sisters’ mom, Charlotte, helped set the path for the sisters’ eventual careers.

She was a meticulous entertainer and family party and event planner, hosting friends and relatives and “managing to make each event fun and memorable without spending a lot of money,” Johnson said.

It rubbed off; the sisters planned events for friends even as teenagers.

Finding their way

After graduating from New York University in 1999 with degrees in journalism and Africana Studies, Johnson worked as a financial reporter for Dow Jones for three years. But it was while working informally as a publicist and event planner for friends that Johnson felt she had found her calling.

She decided to start her own party-planning business in 2002 and cashed out her 401(k) to start MVD, named after her initials at the time.

Capital was the biggest problem the business faced at first.

“I couldn’t get a bank loan, no matter how hard I tried. That was definitely one of the biggest challenges,” Johnson said.

Eventually, after many such failures, “I turned to my family for a small loan and that got us by.”

From sisters to business partners

David had been working for a record label when she began to assist her sister in trying to get the business off the ground.

She eventually joined MVD full time, but it wasn’t a good fit at first.

“It was a struggle,” Johnson said. “We had to remember to step back and go into our respective corners when things got too bad.”

Eventually, they found familiar ground in their big sister and little sister roles.

“I’m a problem solver, extremely organized, and I'm always focusing on the bigger picture,” Johnson said, “while my sister, as the baby in the family, was allowed a little more freedom and leeway to be creative. That helped us define our roles.”

I'm always focusing on the bigger picture, while my sister, as the baby in the family, was allowed a little more freedom and leeway to be creative.

— Miatta David Johnson

Getting up to speed

Johnson was also drilling down into what it took to do event planning professionally.

“I went to a lot of workshops. I’m an avid reader and I read everything I could find on the subject,” Johnson said.

The big break

Good connections are never a bad thing when it comes to running a business.

Johnson’s husband, John, had been the childhood friend and the first manager of a young hip-hop artist poised to rise to the top of the music industry. That childhood friend was Kanye West, who became the sisters’ first big client.

“We were part of the crew that was with him when he first started,” Johnson said. “We were right there with him, understanding where he was trying to take his brand.”

For the Good Music pre-Grammy event that MVD did for West in 2006, “Kanye wanted to create heaven, so we built an entire lot out to look like heaven: all white, angels everywhere,” David said.

It required the sisters to get creative.

“The things he wanted really didn’t exist. Everything had to be customized, so we had to use fabricators,” David said. “We created a floating stage and we had a custom flower wall arrangement. We flew in flowers from around the world.”

Seeing it through

Typically, the celebrities have an idea of what they want in an event, but not how to bring it to fruition.

A helpful process is a pre-event brainstorming session, such as the one the sisters recently held with hip-hop artist Common to help plan his pre-Oscars Toast to the Arts party celebrating African American performers. They produced the party for the fourth year in a row this year.

“They understood that we would connect the dots,” Johnson said. “It's a lot of trust and relationship-building and explaining.”

Branching out

The sisters said word of mouth was the biggest source of new celebrity clients. There was also the added benefit that the celebrities who came to their early parties wanted to hire them for their own events.

“Our client business really grew from referrals,” David said. “We’ve been blessed by knowing people who believed in us and believed in our talent. That has really been our marketing arm for the business.”

“That saying where you actually just need to focus on the work and you know everything will fall in line is very true,” Johnson said. “We really let the work speak for itself.”

The sisters said they haven’t yet worked with a client who was too difficult or who had unrealistic ideas.

“We’ve been doing this for so long now,” Johnson said. “Nothing is too crazy for us.”