The Return of La Whitney

Since Whitney Johnson’s visit to BIF-7, she has jumped off one S-curve and onto another. When you’re on the flat part of the curve, she says, it’s time to get moving.

After co-founding Boston-based Rose Park Advisors investment firm in 2007, Johnson left last year to devote more time to speaking, writing and consulting for start-ups. She co-created a new “Forty over 40 Women to Watch” list that she says fills a gap in the way business recognizes influential players across a variety of fields. Her book, Dare, Dream, Do (2012) offers guidance and an encouraging push for anyone who has hit that point in the curve where they find themselves restless and low on endorphins as things become too easy.

In his review of Dare, Dream, Do, management thinker Clayton Christensen wrote that it “drills down” on the question of how women build a happy life, professionally and personally. The book tells the stories of women who have made an impact in their careers while maintaining a fulfilling personal life, but Johnson’s message is utterly universal.

Whatever your dream, she advises, let it expand you. Even in the pursuit of a passionate goal, there will be space for all of the essential components of your life. Johnson is relentless in her own pursuit of this fuller existence.

“I never give up,” she says.

As a highly regarded equity analyst, Johnson is considered someone worth listening to, and the relational component of business has become the centerpiece of her work. Business magnates in Latin America referred to her affectionately as “La Whitney,” not just because she has the savvy and the guts of a commanding financial expert, but because she also has the heart of an intuitive person who sees the big picture. 

In her early days as a financial analyst at Merrill Lynch, she used to work 90-hours a week.

She says she was probably harder to work for back then because she wanted to go over things several times, making sure they were right. 

Today, she has tempered some of that perfectionism with more deliberate attention to those around her: “I’m a pretty demanding person because I want the product to be good, but the people who work for me feel like I am their advocate. The short term returns of being kind are not necessarily there, but if you dispose of a relationship like you do a bottle or a can, then over time, the cost of business gets a lot higher.”

Johnson now sees with greater clarity the need to tend to the personal dimension of life even as we commit ourselves to a professional goal.

Work doesn’t have to be an “Eat, Pray, Love” experience, where you abandon everything for an idea, she says. Professional women find Johnson’s message deeply applicable to their own experiences, but at the same time, she isolates the most pressing job-life question of the current cultural moment: Where is the line between pursuing our careers and cultivating ourselves?

Johnson attributes this tension to a natural conflict between the male and female aspects of the human psyche. The male tells us to act while the female tells us to nurture. In her holistic view of existence, we cannot afford to let either piece go unattended.

“Life has been really hard in the U.S. for the last few years,” she notes. “People have felt vulnerable. Society as a whole is coming to the realization that we can’t do things the masculine way or the feminine way. Ideally, we would get to the point where we fuse them.”

The best way to draw on the complete force of the psyche, Johnson suggests, is by simply showing up in the fullest sense. Being physically and mentally present, drawing on every intellectual and emotional store available and applying it to any endeavor. It’s the only way that Johnson knows how to be, and probably the fundamental formula for her phenomenal success on Wall Street.

In every pursuit, Johnson advises her clients, colleagues and friends, “Be kinder to yourself, kinder to other people.” But don’t ever stop expanding your life.

La Whitney never gives up.