JEM Alum Janna Abraham on Coming Home to Tennessee
Janna Abraham in her booth at Southern Market in Knoxville.
Home is so many things: the place where family and friends are, the comforting landmarks from childhood, and the origins of where one grows, and thrives. For Janna Abraham (’01), Tennessee is home, and she’s come back to it at just the right time.
“This is where I’m from, this is who I am. I’m deeply rooted in Tennessee and I’m very proud of that. I’m proud of my parents and where I came from, the community that raised me, my grandparents, the ones I know and didn’t know, generations of people who made a life so I could be where I am,” Abraham said.
But the realization of how important home can be was one that grew over the years as the School of Journalism and Electronic Media alumna journeyed through her life and career. That journey started with a big step, which was to move away from the only home she’d ever known: the rural farming town of Charlotte, Tennessee, population 2,000.
Finding Home in Knoxville
Abraham’s decision to become a Volunteer was met with surprise and a little dismay by her family, as they expected she would attend one of the universities that had offered her a music scholarship. Instead, she packed up her bags and headed to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. There was just something about the city and campus—which she had visited every year when her father would take the whole family to attend the annual water authority conference in Gatlinburg—that drew Abraham to it.
“I’m a first-generation student and graduate. I’d also never been away from home, ever. It’s a three-and-a-half hour drive from home, but even that seemed like a cross-country trip,” Abraham said.
Her first-gen status also meant she was entering very unfamiliar territory and, though her family supported her endeavors, they didn’t know the higher education system any better than she did. Abraham said it was a difficult freshman year; she wasn’t a stellar student, and even failed a couple of classes her first semester.
“I had a lack of commitment and direction. I didn’t understand that I needed to carve out my path, and I didn’t know who to turn to, to do that,” she said.
At the beginning of her sophomore year, a close friend died, followed soon after by her grandfather’s passing. It was all too much and she chose to take a year off from school and reevaluate her future. Her parents thought she may never return to school, but she did—and this time, she started over in the College of Communication and Information to pursue broadcasting.
Though she said she was still clawing her way through the academic side of student life, Abraham took advantage of several opportunities to get hands-on experience at CCI. She did the WUTK 90.3 morning updates and also finished an internship at WBIR-TV. But her lightbulb moment came from a different internship.
“I didn’t have the drive you need to pursue that kind of career. You have to get your hands dirty, carry the camera, be the producer, and I just wasn’t mentally tough enough at that time. But during that time, it opened doors. I interned with the track and field team on the business side, event organization and management. That was really eye-opening and beneficial,” she said.
For the Love of Sports
Even before Abraham became a CCI student, she had been fascinated with the Daily Beacon’s sports section. Clippings from the newspaper covered her dorm room walls, and she closely followed the football team and many other UT sports. Once she discovered she could combine sports and communication, she pivoted her education and finally started to find her groove. Her first job after graduation was at a small start-up in Brentwood, Tenn., called Rivals.com. She had found her niche and she loved it. But when the website was bought by Yahoo Sports, Abraham had to make the choice to either move to Santa Monica to onboard the site to Yahoo Sports, or to look for something else. She made the move.
“That was a really long way from home. It absolutely rocked my family and I thought, oh, I’ll never be out here more than a couple of years anyway. There was no long-term plan, I built a life there, I loved it,” she said.
But living in the urban sprawl of Los Angeles had its drawbacks, even when she did her best to acclimate. Namely, many of her California colleagues couldn’t make their way past her Southern accent to see that she was an educated and skilled professional.
“It intimidated me enough that I questioned my knowledge, my experience, my worth in that position as a marketing manager for a huge company. They gave me the keys to a million-dollar marketing budget but I certainly didn’t feel like I was worthy of that, and it negatively affected me personally and my work performance,” she said.
That job ended when the dot-com bubble burst in 2008, and though she found other employment, Abraham didn’t really ever regain her footing in California. She missed her family, she missed Tennessee, and she missed being passionate about her work.
As Abraham was looking for her next step in life, a trip back home brought everything into focus.
“I just happened to pick up my camera and took some pictures when I was home on a visit and they turned out great. I had no idea I could do that, that I had an eye for photography,” she said.
Abraham surveyed the photos from her trip and decided to get some of them printed on nice quality materials. The shots were of places around her hometown that anyone from there could look at and instantly feel a connection. That’s when it all clicked into place.
“That’s when I realized, oh my gosh, I’m going to start a business and it’s going to be about where I came from. It’s going to be deeply rooted in Tennessee and the values I was raised with. It’s going to evoke Tennessee pride,” she said.
Abraham began embracing her roots, her accent, her skills, and her love of sports. Out of all that was born her business, Preserve Press. She initially acquired a license to sell University of Southern California-branded merchandise, and that gave her the clout to acquire licenses to sell branded items for UT, Middle Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt University, and Virginia Tech.
She built up her business even as she was still living in California, but the Tri-Star state kept tugging at her. In 2020, Abraham started transitioning her life back to living in Knoxville and set about establishing a stronger business presence in the city. Her first move was to get a space inside Southern Market in Bearden, where she sells an array of Volunteer merchandise, from luggage tags and clothing to home décor.
She’s still working on it, but Abraham’s goal is for her merchandise to be made in Tennessee. She’s been busy meeting with owners of small and medium-sized businesses to explore how to produce her merchandise, and she loves seeing their reactions to her goods—the reactions she hopes to see from future customers once she launches a more complete line of products.
“They see what I’m doing and they believe in it. They touch my products and hold them and look at them and you can see that spark, that they’re holding a memory, a tangible good that takes them to a place that lights their heart on fire,” she said. “There’s so much hope because so many people are pitching in to make this dream a reality. Not just for me, but for themselves, too. It’s the Volunteer spirit, where you’re like-minded and you’re driven to help each other.”
Some of her favorite work thus far has been creating personalized or special pieces for departments at the university and within the UT system. She is particularly fond of creating quality home and decor items that feature the UT brand.
Though her support of the Vols hasn’t wavered over the years, the football teams’ current successes have been a boon not just to her morale, but also to business. Abraham said she hopes the wins will continue to be a coup for all the businesses that profit off the tourism and fandom dollars spent on UT-branded items.
Regardless of sports wins and losses, Abraham knows that the bumpy journey that took her full circle back to her home state has been well worth it. She has found her passion and purpose, and her new goals extend far beyond herself.
“My dream has been to create jobs in Tennessee, drive revenue inside Tennessee borders, and I want to be able to say that my products are made in my home state. I want it to be genuinely rooted in who I am as a human being, and in the people around me who make this state so amazing,” she said.