MSLOC at 15: Eric Johnson: Building Educated Leaders

MSLOC at 15: Eric Johnson: Building Educated Leaders

Eric JohnsonEric Johnson (MS13) understands the frustration of being a bright, curious student struggling in an under-resourced school system.

Johnson grew up in Virginia's Tidewater area, the son of working-class parents who emphasized the necessity of earning a college degree. He attended top-ranked University of Virginia, became the first in his family to graduate college, and committed his career to providing more educational opportunities to economically disadvantaged students.

Johnson is now senior director of philanthropic partnerships at the non-profit Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL), which supports summer and after-school learning experiences to help close the achievement gap in cities nationwide. As part of MSLOC's 15th-anniversary celebration, Johnson talked to us about the difference that MSLOC made in his managerial approach, the challenges of working remotely, and the elusive art of brewing beer.

You didn't want a master's program that focused solely on non-profit management. What drew you to MSLOC?

I tend to be a generalist, and I already had experience in non-profits. What I wanted was to broaden my mental model, as one of my friends put it. MSLOC opened my eyes and ears and gave me a new set of tools and language to be able to manage and shape an organization's mission in a much more effective way. I would not be nearly as effective as a manager without having gone through the program, and that experience can position me in a number of different career settings.

I also gravitated to MSLOC because of the student's diverse work experience. Roughly 80 percent came from the business world and shared their best practices. Learning from others and being able to process it all was a much richer experience for me.

You mentioned taking a course with MSLOC instructor Dorie Blesoff (who is also Chief People Officer for the software development company Relativity). What did you learn that continues to resonate?

It was back in the summer of 2010, but there are still so many takeaways in terms of how to manage strategic change. I learned so much about how people in workplaces react to change differently, especially in terms of what they have to lose and how that impacts their actions.

I've been thinking about this recently because BELL is wrapping up a big reorganization effort. Under our new strategic directive, we let entire functions go. Understandably, a lot of staff have had a difficult time adjusting to so much change all at once. I was able to tap into what I had learned with Dorie Blesoff, asking the right questions of staff to help them get back on track.

And how about that Capstone, eh?

I always joke that my capstone was the best time I never want to have again! I had some really transformative experiences by being able to dive into a topic. But three phases over nine months? It kicked my butt.

You've been with BELL for less than two years and initially were a bit tentative about taking the job. Why?

I oversee BELL's large, multi-year investment giving, and I have a team of three. But as the only staff person in Chicago, I work remotely, and that makes for some really interesting management challenges. Being virtual does give you more autonomy and a more efficient day, but I'm an extrovert. I miss the water cooler conversation and the energy from other people. There are advantages: My daughters are 8 and 4, and I can spend more with them when I'm not dealing with the hustle and bustle of a long commute.

What keeps you motivated when colleagues are a plane ride away?

This new strategic plan includes really ambitious goals: We hope to increase the number of students we serve by more than 60 percent over the next several years. We aspire to eventually serve 25,000 students or more, and it's exciting for me to be able to move the program forward. I hope to dedicate more time this year to idea generation and strategic thinking.

You often bring potential funders into actual classrooms to witness the impact of BELL. What's the best part?

Kids are always saying things that are inspiring or cool. But what I love most is when the adults have that 'aha' moment. It's one thing to say in an email that reducing the achievement gap is critical and that we have to lift all boats and get children of color up to the same level as their white peers. But it's another thing to sit in front of those kids and contextualize the information.

You were the first on either side of your family to finish college. Looking back, has that experience helped you in any way?

When I went to the University of Virginia, I didn't know what I was doing because I didn't have a particularly robust primary education. I'm proud of being able to have gone there and to have learned how to be a great student. Now, I can straddle two worlds, coming from a world of white male privilege, but also understand how socioeconomic status can impact a person's future. I'm glad I have sensitivities on both sides.

You're helping to establish a new cultural landmark in Chicago. Tell us more:

It's called the Chicago Brewseum. Liz Garibay is an anthropologist and has the vision to build a physical space dedicated to the history of brewing beer. It really is an art: I've brewed many batches at home and frankly, they're all terrible!

Learn more about the MSLOC program.


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