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Whitney Johnson

Author & Speaker

Belmont, MA

More importantly, would I really be happy if I didn’t learn to get in the game?

Nearly 25 years ago, my husband and I arrived in New York City so he could pursue his PhD at Columbia University. I was terrified.

I would never have gone to New York on my own. I was told all sorts of horror stories before we’d arrived, like people will cut off your finger to get your wedding ring. I still have all 10 fingers, but we did occasionally hear gunshots at night. For the first week, I wouldn’t go anywhere without my husband.

Eventually I had to go out and look for a job so we could put food on the table. Because we were in New York, I decided I wanted to work on Wall Street.

It wasn’t easy. My college degree was in music; I’d never set foot in an accounting, finance or economics class; I was shy on confidence and had zero connections in New York. Women who went to Wall Street in the late 80s usually started as secretaries, so that’s what I did.

Across from my Working Girl-ish desk at 1345 Ave. of the Americas there was a bullpen--essentially a locker room for 20-something brokers aspiring to become masters of the universe. It was a tough slog. The men--and they were all men--would dial the phone and people would hang up; dial the phone; hang up. When they finally got someone on the phone, the pressure was so intense in this testosterone-filled room that the brokers inevitably went for the hard sell. I’d often hear them saying, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see this is a great stock.” And I’d always know the prospect was waffling when I heard them urge, “throw down your pom-poms and get in the game.”

I initially took offense at that because I was a cheerleader in high school, but one day after hearing "throw down your pom-poms" yet again, I remember thinking, "I need to throw down my pom-poms and get in my game." My husband’s degree was going to take 5-7 years to complete. Why, then, would I be content to earn x if 10x were possible? More importantly, would I really be happy if I didn’t learn to get in the game?

I wouldn’t have known to call it this then, but that was the moment when I decide to lean in. I began taking accounting and finance courses at night, doggedly pursuing an opportunity to move up the food chain. With a lot of hard work and a little luck, a few years later, I had a boss who pulled me across the often unbridgeable divide from support staff to investment banking analyst.

In 1996, I jumped to investment research where I became an award-winning stock analyst, earning a ranking by Institutional Investor for eight consecutive years. During this time I also began to lean into motherhood; my children are now 16 and 12, respectively.

Beginning in 2005, I leaned into my life in a different direction: I left Wall Street and wrote a children’s book (never published), planned to produce a reality TV show about soccer in Latin America (didn’t happen) and backed a start-up magazine (imploded dramatically). Those years of dreaming big taught me that sometimes leaning in means being willing to fail.

In 2007, I co-founded an investment firm with Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. And because one can’t get too comfortable, in mid-2012, I embarked on a life of speaking, writing and advising full-time, and spending even more time with family. To my children, my leaning in to home life may feel more like leaning on when it comes to homework. But I am happily all in--in my career and my life. As I like to say, "Enter the room, sit at the table, chair your life." In other words, lean in.