2021 Best & Brightest EMBAs: Kevin D. Johnson, EMBA ’21

By Jeff Schmitt | Poets & Quants | September 4, 2021

Kevin D. Johnson
MIT, Sloan School of Management

Age: 41

I’m a Christian, husband, father, business owner, entrepreneur, computer scientist, author, teacher, student, and musician.”

Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia

Family Members: Wife and three young boys

Fun fact about yourself: During my time in the MIT Executive MBA, a few of my classmates and I combined to entertain our class with musical duets. As a pianist and a band leader of an Afro-Cuban band, I relished the opportunity to entertain our class during the pandemic. The first duet that I arranged was “America the Beautiful” with an accomplished bluegrass violinist, and the second duet that I arranged was “Night and Day” with an award-winning jazz saxophonist. We enjoyed surprising and delighting our class with musical entertainment to keep spirits high, especially as the pandemic forced remote learning.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Morehouse College, Bachelor of Arts in Spanish

Where are you currently working?

I am currently the president and CEO of Johnson Media Inc., a marketing and communications firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. I also founded KINETIC while matriculating at MIT. KINETIC helps entrepreneurs, especially those of color, find, receive, and learn about funding, from early-stage bootstrapping to late-stage venture capital and everything in-between.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: While at MIT, I have had the opportunity to participate in different extracurricular activities that involve community work and leadership roles. My fellow MIT EMBA classmates elected me as a class senator, and I have enjoyed serving in the MIT Sloan Senate over the past two years. Other activities include working with the MIT Driverless team, serving as a professional advisor to startups at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, and providing support to the COVID Policy Alliance which was founded and led by MIT faculty and students.

Also, I have been fortunate to receive a few school awards and honors. Shortly after my acceptance into the MIT EMBA program, I was thrilled to receive a Leadership Fellowship. Most recently, I received the Patrick J. McGovern, Jr. ’59 Entrepreneurship Award that is given annually to an individual or team that, in working closely with the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, has made a significant impact on the quality and overall spirit of entrepreneurship at the Institute. I was given the award for my role in co-teaching the “Building an Entrepreneurial Venture: Advanced Tools and Techniques” class, and for my work founding KINETIC, a startup that helps entrepreneurs, especially those of color, find, receive, and learn about funding.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? As I started to reflect over academic and extracurricular achievements, a few things came to mind: having a 5.0 GPA for the first few terms, something that I never thought was possible; receiving an ‘A’ in DMD, a challenging, signature course of the program; launching KINETIC with a great team and reaching amazing business milestones; receiving fellowships and awards; and having the opportunity to co-teach an MIT capstone course.

Then it hit me that I was not being genuine; I was choosing these answers for selfish reasons and self-aggrandizement. Truthfully, that is not what makes me most proud. I can honestly say that I am most proud of making it through the program, having experienced the devastating death of our daughter, having experienced the global pandemic like many of you (and all the anxiety and loss that it has brought). I also endured the crushing emotional drain and trauma from the desecration of Black lives, having witnessed so much unnecessary suffering around the world due to hatred and ignorance. I even grappled with the unfair reality of a heartbreaking health diagnosis of a dear classmate. At the beginning of our program, an assistant dean said that this is the hardest program at MIT, not because of the academics necessarily, but because we all have full-time jobs, families, and other significant obligations. I didn’t believe her, but she was absolutely right. So as I prepare to graduate, I recall the lyric that I would often hear in a popular gospel song growing up in church: “The race is not given to the swift nor to the strong, but to the one that endureth until the end.”

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I used to say that I am most proud of my company’s biggest contract to date, a $40 million project that we won competing against two other major and more experienced firms. However, I now say that I am most proud of writing and publishing an international bestselling book, The Entrepreneur Mind: 100 Essential Beliefs, Characteristics, and Habits of Elite Entrepreneurs. Although I published it almost eight years ago, I still receive thoughtful letters and e-mail from people all around the world — from Nigeria to China to Brazil to India to England — who say that my book inspired them or changed their life for the better. Some of those letters come from the incarcerated whose limited options to earn a living include entrepreneurship. It is truly humbling, especially since I never envisioned myself becoming an author, and the outpouring of grateful readers motivates me to impact more people.

What was your favorite MBA course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? Undoubtedly, my favorite MBA course was DMD, short for Data Models and Decisions. Ironically, I was terrified of this course when I heard second-year scuttlebutt that DMD is perhaps the most difficult course of the entire MBA curriculum. The signature MIT course is indeed challenging, but most enjoyable, especially if you revel in quantitative analysis like I do. The course is taught by Crete native Georgia Perakis, the most delightful professor that I have ever encountered and a perennial favorite among students. She is indeed a favorite of mine too. Georgia has an uncanny ability to make a difficult subject clear and uses her own self-deprecating humor and joyful laughter to put students at ease. But she can be all business, too. When introducing her class, she says, “DMD is about what MIT is about.” In short, DMD teaches you foundational analytic tools to solve business problems. It covers descriptive analytics, probability theory, optimization, and more. The biggest insight I gained from the class is how to use new quantitative methods to gain a competitive edge like Uber, Google, and other data-driven companies studied during the class. Perhaps even more important than that, I learned how inspirational leaders like Georgia, whose disarming and humble style and approach to pedagogy, especially at a top technical institution, can maximize performance.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? There are several reasons I chose MIT’s executive MBA program. I will share three.

First, I have always admired MIT and its graduates. In fact, my good friend, one of the smartest people I know, graduated from MIT. The MIT brand is so strong not only in the United States of America, but also around the world.

Second, the entrepreneurial ecosystem at MIT is top-notch and ranks high among its peers, if not first, every year. If you are an entrepreneur or want to be an entrepreneur, there is no better program for you. I was pleasantly surprised to see that entrepreneurship is interwoven in most of the courses, including operations management, financial management, and marketing management.

Third, I heard the touching story told by Sloan Fellow and good friend Mark Anthony Thomas. Mark shared the following story during an MIT Sloan reunion. He and his partner left their apartment while it was being cleaned and returned about five hours later. The cleaner was still there. Mark asked the man why he was still in his apartment, and the man replied that while cleaning, he saw Mark’s MIT degree on the wall. He had stayed to meet Mark because he had never met an African-American who graduated from MIT, and that he wanted to tell Mark that he made him proud. Mark’s story resonated with me. It made me realize that completing this program will inspire people to go beyond what they think is possible because they will see that I graduated from a top university. Interestingly, Mark’s graduation from MIT inspired me, too.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? Without a doubt, I most enjoyed getting to know and learning from my classmates who represent the wonderful, beautiful, and diverse tapestry that comprise humanity. Every so often, members of my class shared their personal life stories during a Fireside Chat. Along with my classmates, I heard these amazing and shocking stories of triumph, sadness, disappointment, pride, loss, grief, struggle, and success. During these poignant fireside chats, we often shed tears of sorrow but always ended with smiles of joy. When I arrived on MIT’s campus for orientation almost two years ago, I saw my class as an elite group of physicians, Ph.D.s, sub 3-hour marathoners, CEOs, and so on. However, now I see them as superheroes who are defined neither by their impressive titles nor by their overwhelming success, but by the sometimes difficult, yet always rewarding journey that got them to such a culminating point at MIT.

Moreover, in a world where dissenting ideas are often and increasingly dismissed in the name of political correctness, I savored difficult and deep conversations with classmates who held opposing views, whether it was a conversation about politics, race, gender, or even the usefulness of Bayesian inference. I found everyone to be committed to the community despite previous offenses and disagreements, and that was refreshing. What a thoughtful, caring, and lovable class! Perhaps family is a better word now.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? The study of system dynamics provided some major lessons and new insights. As a study originally developed at MIT, it breaks down the complexity of the world in which we live. It was a real treat to learn from professors who studied with the great Jay Forrester. After taking the course, I now have the confidence to model complex dynamic systems with simulation models and other valuable tools. (Calculus came in handy.) At work, I no longer blame people for failures. I find fault with bad systems or the poor design of those systems.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? There are so many stories of juggling work, family, and education. I most recall being in the hospital a few times while tending to various family members with my textbooks in tow in my oversized computer bag. I would find time to study while sick family members dozed off or went into surgery. It was not an ideal situation, but I often found some relief and pride when doctors and nurses would ask me, “What and where are you studying?” My proud family members would quickly forget their own pain and precarious predicament, enthusiastically answering the question for me. “He’s studying at MIT,” they would say with a glorious smile. The mood would instantly go from somber contemplation to cheerful inquiry.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? I normally give three pieces of advice to students looking to enter an executive MBA program. First, visit the campus to get a feel for the program, including culture, professors, students, and so forth. I traveled to MIT’s campus for a session in the spring before I enrolled in the subsequent fall, and this experience was an important factor in my final decision. Second, interview people who have gone through the program. They will give you great insight that will help you determine if the program is aligned with your professional goals. Third, do not assume that the program will be a walk in the park, as it were. At MIT, you will get your money’s worth in work and academic challenges.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? I thought that going back to school meant putting myself in an ultra-competitive and sometimes counterproductive environment for how I prefer to learn. I was pleasantly surprised, especially at MIT, to find that there was indeed a competitive spirit, but the MIT community, both classmates and faculty, were more than willing to help one another succeed. I assumed that this culture would not exist at a top business school with strong engineering roots. It was refreshing to know that if you are struggling with a course or concept, you have the support that you need to overcome and excel.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Given how the pandemic moved classes online in March 2020, I regret not hanging out with my classmates more at the beginning of the program. Similarly, I regret not taking advantage of dinners with faculty members. For example, it would have been great to go to dinner with Georgia Perakis to talk about probability theory and with Gary Gensler to discuss the promise of block chain technology in finance.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Having heard so many of my classmates’ personal life stories during emotional Fireside Chats, I truly admire them all. The story of how a soft-spoken, Indian boy who lost his mother at a young age and whose very name means “without sorrow” found the strength and tenacity to attain a Ph.D. in chemistry comes to mind. I recall the story of a young Chinese woman whose mother succumbed to cancer and how this devastating experience inspired a relentless passion in her to eventually find a cure for that cancer. I am reminded of a world-class biologist who overcame a traumatic childhood that would crush the will of even the strongest among us. I think of the story of a young woman whose own country turned against her and her family practically overnight, causing her to flee her beloved homeland to pursue a new life afar. I heard the story of a father whose teenage son came out of the closet recently and how this loving father grappled with the thought that he had somehow failed to support his son over the previous years. This father is now an advocate for his son and sees life through a multicolored lens. I ponder the story of a real-life superhero whose passion for her country sent her to foreign lands to confront evil terrorists and their atrocities that still haunt her to this day. Still, this stalwart mother of five whose name literally means “protector of man” finds comfort in knowing that she met the patriotic challenge as her name would suggest. Lastly, I love the story of a classmate whose love for Christ inspired him to serve as a foster parent to many hurting children and help them recover from trauma that no child deserves to suffer. I could go on and on. These stories will forever be with me, and I admire all of my classmates who shared their most vulnerable moments in life so that we can be better people.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I visited MIT’s campus and recalled the joy of learning with and from some of the smartest, but humblest people on the planet.”

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? Ultimately, I envision having one foot in academia and one foot in industry. Specifically, I would like to continue teaching at a top university or college while running and launching technology-based businesses. I intend to allocate more time to publish another book. Finally, I often think about what my mentor, Ambassador Andrew Young, often says: “You find success through significance.” For me, that significance will come from helping young entrepreneurs grow their business, whether that is through publishing a book, starting a venture fund, or continuing to be a mentor.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? Kevin is a principled and empathetic leader who, when facing difficulty and discomfort, strives to make the right decisions that inspire us all to become our best selves.

What are the top two items on your bucket list? The top two items on my bucket list right now have to do with travel. First, I will take a trip to the international space station on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and stay for a few weeks, conducting research that will help humanity colonize Mars. Second, in about eight years, I will take an entire year off and travel with my family around the world, visiting as many countries as possible.

What made Kevin such an invaluable member of the Class of 2021?

“Kevin is an innovative and globally recognized leader in the entrepreneurial space. He’s a bestselling author of The Entrepreneurial Mind and founder and CEO of Johnson Media Inc. During his 20 months in the MIT Executive MBA, Kevin has left a lasting impression on our program and MIT Sloan as a whole.

Since joining the cohort, Kevin was a class senator, a lecturer for MIT Sloan’s Advanced Entrepreneurship Course, and a professional advisor at The Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. His efforts in making the center’s strategic planning and execution more inclusive were integral. He led the center’s response following the George Floyd killing, creating the Racial Justice advisory board while founding KINETIC, a program that assists entrepreneurs of color to find avenues for funding.

Because of his accomplishments at MIT, he was recently named co-recipient of the 2021 Patrick J. McGovern, Jr. ’59 Entrepreneurship Award. Mr. McGovern, an accomplished entrepreneur and founder of International Data Group (IDG), created this award to encourage innovative student entrepreneurs at MIT.

Kevin’s classmates view him as a leader within the cohort and a trusted ally who is able to mobilize others for the greater good. It is our honor to have Kevin as a member of the MIT Executive MBA.”

By MIT Sloan CDO
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