September 30, 2009, Westborough, MA
Whitney Johnson is a co-founder of Rose Park Advisors an investment firm based in Boston based on the concept of ‘disruptive innovation’. She was previously Merrill Lynch’s Senior Telecom and Media analyst for Latin America, receiving the highest industry and peer awards in her field. When she’s not picking stocks, Whitney invests her time on building communities that do good and do well. She is the architect of the Know Your Neighbor and Dare to Dream communities.
What do you do at your current job? How has your past career prepared you for this current position?
I am currently the president of a start-up investment management firm, Rose Park Advisors. There are 3 partners: one of them is Clayton Christensen who is a professor at the Harvard Business School [and formerly an Area Authority Seventy for the Church] his son Matthew Christensen, and myself. We currently have about $20 million in assets under management from families and individuals who have entrusted a portion of their net worth to us to safeguard and grow. We do this by buying stocks in companies as being disruptive or disrupted, in the parlance of Clayton Christensen who is the architect of “disruptive innovation” and that are under or over-valued.
Prior to founding Rose Park Advisors, I was on Wall Street working as an equity analyst for Merrill Lynch [now Bank of America]. I think there are a number of ways my Wall Street experience prepared me for this endeavor. First, I had to build financial models on companies, to meet with management and then make a decision as to whether or not I thought the company was over- or under-valued. Second, I needed to be able to communicate my ideas both verbally and in writing to a number of different constituencies from our internal sales force to our external clients to the management teams of the companies I followed.
And third, while I absolutely had the support of a very large Merrill Lynch, a large organization behind me, I was also running my own franchise and thus needed to build my my brand. That’s very much what we’re doing at Rose Park Advisors: we’re building a business. So there’s more transferability of skills than one might expect initially.
How did your upbringing and your youth in the Church play a role in where you are today?
I was reading an interesting piece yesterday by Penelope Trunk, who writes the blog Brazen Careerist and is Jewish. She made the comment that “Religion is the best preparation for a career” because in both, you have to ask yourself, “What do I want from my life?” So I would start with that as an umbrella comment. My religion really does help motivate me and help me decide what’s important to me in my career path.
In terms of my own upbringing, my parents were both Mormon, although my father joined the church when I was four or five. My mother worked. She was quite driven but she was constrained in her choices given that she started her career in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, which was really the height of the post-War movement to have women go back home after their extensive involvement in World War II. So I saw that as a model of something that I too could do. As the oldest child, I was inherently very driven. I felt the need to be successful so my parents would be proud of me, as often happens with oldest children. In many ways I was raised with traditional expectations in my family, but even more so because it was in the ether at that time and it was certainly reinforced at Brigham Young University where I went for college.
My mission to Montevideo, Uruguay also influenced my career decisions — I learned Spanish on my mission which I have used throughout much of my career. Studying music in college, which is oftentimes not thought of being a skill that is at all transferable, certainly to finance, has also been helpful. Music has a beginning, middle and end, studying music helps us develop “musical intelligence”, in the words of Howard Gardner, which then allows us to be able to craft or structure a presentation.
In addition, giving discussions on my mission over and over again taught me how to have a very intimate one-on-one conversation with people and talk to them about things that matter. It further helped me learn to craft a dialogue which is a very important skill in business where people are entrusting their money to you.
When did you discover that you were good at Wall Street work and that you enjoyed it?
My husband and I got to New York after I graduated from college. It took me nine years — with my mission and time off to work — to graduate. Basically the entire decade of the 1980s. I really was not very focused, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Getting married certainly grounded me, because of the person I married.
When I got to New York, I knew I didn’t want to do anything in music. I knew I wanted to use my Spanish. I also knew I had to work because I was putting my husband through graduate school.
I started working as a sales assistant — basically, a secretary — for a stock broker. I couldn’t actually get a job on Wall Street because I had a music degree and because I was a woman. But it was during those two years when I was working as a secretary and I saw other people around me coming into Wall Street analyst jobs from undergrad and I thought, “You know, I’m as smart as they are. I’m going to figure out how to do that.” The drive towards a career really didn’t kick in until my late-20s. I was a late bloomer.
I was eventually able to jump over to a professional track. This worked, but I would not recommend it to any woman who wants to work professionally today. Don’t start out as a secretary! You are forever pigeon holed. I worked hard and I got very lucky.
As you progressed in your career, was there a tension between your career and your activity at Church? This wasn’t the mold that a lot of your peers were fitting into at that time. Did you feel pressure to drop out and stay home with children?
There was some judgment among my peers at church and I would say it was on both sides. I knew that I did not want to have children immediately. We didn’t have children for ten years and that was by choice, and I felt like it was the right decision. I felt like Heavenly Father was okay with that decision. So it wasn’t me just being rebellious. It was the right thing for me. But at the same time, I found that I was judgmental of women who had children early in their marriage.
I remember being in our Manhattan ward and I had just gone to see a film by myself and it was so fun and I was talking about it. A woman who was probably even younger than I was and already had a few children said to me something akin to, “You know, you really need to have children so you can be righteous.” That kind of judgment ebbed once I got into my 30s and it doesn’t happen anymore. That’s in part because I’m not judgmental anymore. I am much more comfortable saying, You know, we all get to have our own personal revelation.
Let me go to personal revelation for just a moment. Where I have come to — and I think this is really important when we consider the choices we make as we live our lives — is that there are some baseline questions we need to ask ourselves: Am I worthy to hold a temple recommend? Have my husband and I — and children even — sought the Lord’s will and are we following it? And if we can answer yes to those questions to ourselves, then we’re doing the right thing. I’ve had priesthood blessings where I was told that it is important for me to work. So that’s my revelation, that’s for me. This has helped me be at peace with my decisions and not be defensive.
You waited 10 years to have children. How did your career affect your children once they came?
I was working over 80 hours a week and my husband was still working on his post-doctoral research, so we had a nanny for the first few years. Initially, I was working for financial reasons and then I ended up making more money than my husband. But now, I work because I want to work. I need to for me.
I think one of the positive aspects of my working life is that my ambition doesn’t get funneled through my children — well, that might not be completely true. We’re all ambitious for our children! But I think that, because I have my own life, I tend to let them have their own lives a bit more than I would otherwise. Have I been tempted to stay home with them full time? No, only on really bad days at work! I have that fantasy of, What if I were home doing this and that? But it’s really not the right thing for me and I don’t think it would feel that great. I feel I’m a positive example to my children. I’m glad, however, that they have women in their lives — women in our ward, etc. — where the moms are at home and the dads are the go-out-and-work dads cause I think it’s important for our children to see that there are different ways of living their lives and that they are both right before the Lord. They can then choose what feels right for them.
Are there any specific things you have done to grow closer to your children during your time with them?
One thing I like to do is read to them at night — although my son who just turned 13 isn’t so keen on that any more! They’re going to school in Cambridge, MA now so I end up driving them to school an hour away. I didn’t think it was a big deal initially, but the reality is that an hour in the car together each morning, five days a week, is actually a big deal. Moms who are with their kids all day long probably don’t recognize how valuable that is, but for me it is a scarce resource so that’s been a good thing for us.
What prompted you to leave Wall Street?
With any decision we make, there’s a push and a pull. The “push” for me was that I was really at the top of my game. I was a double-ranked institutional investor, which doesn’t mean anything to anybody outside the industry but it’s good. I didn’t perceive that I was going to make any more money than I was making, there wasn’t another ranking for me… I’d kind of figured it out. I started thinking, “What do I do next?” It’s not enough for me — although making money is great — to just dial it in. That was the push. The “pull” was that I was starting to realize that there were other things that were interesting to me. Entrepreneurial things I wanted to try. I was also tired from traveling a lot. After I left Merrill Lynch and moved to Boston, there were two or three years when I wasn’t working full time and that was a really important time for our family. Now that I’m busy again with Rose Park Advisors, there’s more balance than there was when I was at Merrill Lynch.
Have there been specific situations in your workplace when you’ve been treated differently because you are a woman?
I would counter that with the question, “Has there been a situation when I wasn’t treated differently?” It’d be easier to answer! The double-standard behavior is just constant. At my job on Wall Street, for example, I thought that there would be fair compensation for performance. One time, I approached my boss and said, “These are 10 metrics that are very easily measured and my numbers are 20% above my peers.” But they didn’t like me asking to get paid commensurate with that! There’s been academic research by a psychologist at Cornell University who says that we can’t be considered feminine if we ask for resources, and so it was considered taboo for me to ask for something because I was a woman.
Another example. There was a time a couple of years ago at Rose Park when we were negotiating a deal with some potential investors. We were all in a room together, discussing the deal, and they told us, “You know, we would really like it if there was someone on your team with ten to fifteen years of Wall Street experience and who is about 40 to 45 years old.” I was sitting right there. That was me. But it was as if I wasn’t there. They needed to say, “We want a man” too, but they didn’t. There are also times when it works to my advantage and I don’t want to downplay that. If you’re the only woman in a room of 16 men, you can probably get any of those men to talk to you.
What are Dare to Dream and Know Your Neighbor? How have you found time to fit in these projects in the midst of your professional and family life?
I have a really supportive husband, and that absolutely makes a difference. One of the important questions to ask ourselves is “What would I do if I didn’t need to make money?” And these two projects are what I would do. I’m really passionate about building communities that make a difference in the world. It sounds cliche but that’s how I feel.
Know Your Neighbor is a website and a blog focused on teaching members of the Latter-day Saint community how to reach across the aisle to members of our communities. What I have found with members of the Church is that we have a mindset of circling the wagons and, historically, for good reason. But we’ve got to move beyond that. For the sake of the Church, because it will not grow if we’re not willing to connect with people outside the Church. And also for our own sakes, because there are many, many good people in the world and we need to look for common ground outside of religion. I was serving as my ward’s Public Affairs Representative when I created the Know Your Neighbor concept. The idea was a gift to me from Heavenly Father. It was inspiration.
Dare to Dream sprang out of my professional experience and the satisfaction I received from getting to the top of my chosen field. But after I left, I would talk to other women my age and ask, “What do you want to do? Let’s make it happen!” And oftentimes their response would be, “Well, I don’t have a dream” or “I don’t have the skills to do it.” I wanted to say, “No! You can do this!” I want to confirm the idea that we don’t dream in isolation. With women, in particular, the skills we bring to any enterprise are so often overlooked that we need other women to see what we’re doing and help give our dreams life. Even in women-owned businesses, men will look at them — who often control the purse strings — and say, “I don’t get it” and then the business doesn’t get funded.
Something that makes me sad is that on the one hand, women in our culture are encouraged to stay home which works for a lot of people when they’re young. But then as we get older it’s ironic to me that the women who do have careers — if we’re successful — garner more respect than the women who have stayed home. And I think that’s part of the reason Dare To Dream matters to me: it’s my way of saying, Whatever choice you make, whether you’re at home or not, is valid and important. As women, we have to support other women because if we don’t then we won’t dream and if we’re not dreaming we’re not happy.
At A Glance
Location: Westborough, MA
Marital status: Married 22 years
Occupation: Principal, Rose Park Advisors
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University, NYU Stern School of Business
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Current Church Calling: Primary pianist
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos by LaNola Kathleen Stone.
At A Glance