On Disruption and Dreams with Whitney Johnson @JohnsonWhitney

Monday, February 03, 2014

Today's guest is Whitney Johnson, co-founder of Rose Park Advisors and author of Dare, Dream, Do.

You have a fascinating story -- you're a classically trained pianist who decided you wanted to work on Wall Street. You then went on to co-found Rose Park Advisors with Clayton Christiansen. Can you tell us a bit about your non-linear career path and how it came to be?
After I graduated from college, my husband and I went to New York so he could pursue his PhD. Because I have always gone after the brass ring, albeit secretly because this is not what a woman in my demographic did, I went to Wall Street. As a music major who had never set foot in any type of business course, and was shy on confidence and connections – and a woman – I started as a secretary. My first job was at 1345 Ave. of the Americas, right across the street from the Hilton Hotel on 54th Street. Like Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, I decided I wanted in.

After three hard years of taking business courses at night and a boss who believed in me, I eventually moved up the food chain to investment banker, then into equity research. Fifteen years in, and at the top of my game, I disrupted myself, and took a sabbatical from Wall Street. My motivation was to do more entrepreneurial work, and, in part, to spend more time with my children who were 9 and 5, respectively. Now living in Boston (my husband was a professor at U Mass Worcester), I worked on a number of church-related projects with Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School. When he launched a fund to invest in disruptive innovation, I joined him as a founding partner.

In 2012, after writing my book Dare, Dream, Do, I disrupted myself again, left Rose Park, and now speak and coach full-time -- for the moment.

You've described your investment philosophy as doing more than just investing in stocks and companies, but as investing in people. What do you mean by this? Why do you feel it's important to make that distinction?
A common trope among investors is “I invest in the entrepreneur.” Perfectly logical: the entrepreneur will make or break the business, and is therefore core to the investment thesis. But there’s another kind of investing. By discovering the investment thesis of an individual, understanding their hopes and dreams, you can help them realize their value, take stock in themselves. Combining the two (the company and the person) is where magic happens, and is deeply satisfying.

You're an advocate for giving people, particularly women, permission to dream. What do you feel holds women back from dreaming in the first place or from pursuing their dreams?
When I took a sabbatical from Wall Street in 2005, I finally had time to talk to friends and friends of friends, all interesting and intelligent women. What is your dream? frequently came spilling out of me. I was surprised and saddened by many of their answers. I don’t have a dream. I don’t know how to do my dream. And the unspoken subtext I’m not sure it is my privilege to dream. Determined to encourage women to dream, and wondering why they don’t, I discovered the research of psychologist Anna Fels in which she explained that women aren’t considered feminine unless we are saying ‘yes’, proffering resources, whether praise, money, time. This works very well for some of our dreams, such as being a wife and a mother. Saying ‘yes’ is what binds us to others. It also means that when we dream for ourselves, we must say ‘no’ in order to pool resources on our own behalf. The consequence is we feel unfeminine, and even naughty. A true double bind.

Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In and Anne-Marie Slaughter's cover story, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" in The Atlantic have garnered a lot of buzz regarding women, dreams and work. You've mentioned before that you and your husband decided to have children later in your marriage than your friends did theirs. How do your own views flesh out when it comes to pursuing a career -- particularly with an identity as a career woman -- and a family? What do you think of the concept of "having it all"?
First off, I am really glad that these conversations are taking place. Some have said that Slaughter, Sandberg, and Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, are out-of-touch. Whether they are or not, taking a stand, which has cleared the path for you and me, has come at a social cost to them.

I didn’t realize that I was agitating for ‘having it all’ until I read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece, and shortly thereafter an Amazon review by A.B. Bourne of my book stated: “If you are looking for a new way to understand how to ‘have it all’ – and why it is vital to try – please read this book.”

In building the case for dreaming, one of my early discoveries was Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson who wrote: “Our psyche is made up of both masculine and feminine components. Every man and every woman comes equipped with a psychological structure that in its wholeness includes a rich set of capacities and strengths. Certain qualities are characterized as feminine: our capacity for relatedness and love, while the ability to wield power and control situations, we find in the masculine department.”

Here it was. An entire body of research telling me what I instinctively knew to be true. In order to dare to dream, we need to develop both sides of the psyche, to handle power and to love, to be both a “harbor” and a “ship.” Or in other words, “to have it all.”

What one piece of advice would you offer to people who are looking to disrupt themselves and design a life or career around their dreams?
Safety first. Do what you need to do to feel safe financially and emotionally. Then, understand that disruption is by definition lonely and scary. Disruptors play where no one else wants to play or has even thought of playing. You are a trailblazer. Think of the companies like Netflix that have announced what they thought were highly disruptive moves, only to see their stock price plummet. It can be similarly breathtaking when you disrupt yourself. Your friends wonder if you’ve lost a marble or two. There’s a loss of cash flow and identity. And yet, you know that if you don’t disrupt yourself, you’ll die inside just a little. That’s the innovator’s dilemma. Whether you disrupt or not, you risk downward mobility. When you do disrupt, not only do you stay alive inside, there’s a positive business case for disruption. The odds of success are six times higher and twenty times greater for disruptors. So when you decide it’s time to go after your dreams, if you are on occasion lonely and scared, you’re probably on the right track.

WHITNEY JOHNSON is a leading thinker on driving innovation via personal disruption and the co-founder of Clayton Christensen's investment firm. She is a regular contributor for Harvard Business Review and Linkedin, and she speaks and coaches at Fortune 100 Companies, top tier educational institutions, and industry conferences. Recently, her work was recognized by Thinkers 50, which named her as a finalist for the 2013 Future Thinker Award. You can follow her on Twitter at @johnsonwhitney.

Think Splendid will be offering insights and perspectives from Splendid Guests for the months of February and March while I am working in Africa

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