As an executive at two Fortune 500 companies, Netha Johnson has had a firsthand opportunity to immerse himself in the world of international business. In fact, a recent trip saw him hopscotching around the world, logging time in India, Germany, Holland and France during one marathon visit.
Johnson is convinced that it was his early exposure to a Junior Achievement program in Akron, Ohio as a 9th grader that helped him identify the globe-trotting path he would eventually take in life.
“[My interest in business] actually started when I was in high school,” Johnson says. “I was a JA kid and I participated in the JA Company program as a teenager. It was my first exposure to JA, and more importantly, my first exposure to business and financial literacy and running a business. It was a unique experience for me because I’d never had that before. It stimulated an interest in me in being in business, and I’ve come full circle now. I graduated from school, have worked in industry and now have been able to come back as a member of the JA board.”
Johnson believes his personal experience as a former JA student participant gives him unique insight into the role that JA can play in creating well-rounded students, a stronger community and even better corporations.
“I think for me it just sparked an interest and a curiosity in [business] that I may not have ever been exposed to before,” he says. “And then that curiosity allowed me to take a path and build that into a very successful business career. I always ask myself, ‘If I’d have never gotten that exposure to a company [in JA as a teen], would I really have thought of this as a viable career path? Would I have gone on to be a doctor or a lawyer or something else more tangible that’s easier to grasp?’”
Johnson’s corporate path — and insight into business on an international scale — has been wide-ranging. He’s worked at Pentair and 3M, and has worked extensively in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan and Germany. Before that, he served as a Special Operations Officer in the U.S. Navy. In addition, he holds an MBA from Duke University and a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California.
Johnson says that for him, as with many students, the idea of “going into business” is something he may never have considered without the hands-on exposure that the JA program provided.
“It was easy for me to connect with JA [as an adult] because of the passionate experience I had with the program as a youth,” he says about his current involvement. “I now run a global business with 70 percent of my revenues outside the U.S. I have businesses in the desalination industry, the food and beverage industry and the oil and gas industry. We have offices and locations all around the world.” (He does confide with a laugh that the youthful JA retail company that made such an impact on him eventually “went belly-up, but I learned a lot!”)
Johnson knows that JA provides tangible benefits to each individual it touches, from students to volunteers to the “corporate” members who support the program with both time and financial assistance.
“We want to be citizens of the communities where we work,” Johnson says. “I think that is fundamentally important. We pay taxes but we want to do more. We want to have an impact on the communities where we live, and it’s not about a bottom-line impact, it’s about corporate social responsibility.
“To me, it also engages our employees because it’s a volunteer program. Our employees get involved with the students and the schools, which is very motivating. That aspect of having our employees being contributors in the community is a nice thing, too.”
To Johnson and his fellow executives, involvement with JA also could be considered a long-term investment in the future of the community.
“The things that JA does in our community for our kids are exactly the type of things that employers want to do as good corporate citizens.
“JA’s mission is around financial literacy and workplace readiness, which is really in line with my employer’s mission and values,” he says. “I think the No. 1 is the workforce readiness. Finding employees that are ready to work is a huge challenge for any company. Any organization that promotes workforce readiness is an extremely valuable resource, especially at the age group where we don’t reach. Companies typically don’t reach [kids in elementary or high school] like JA does. The second is financial literacy. Having a population that’s financially literate…that understands how money works and that money is a tool, is valuable to us. [T]hose are essential, fundamental skills and knowledge that intrinsically help a person be successful in a corporate environment.”
Besides working diligently to ensure that students throughout the region have an opportunity to benefit from JA programs as he did, Johnson has also had the opportunity to watch the interaction from a bit closer at hand.
“JA BizTown is my favorite JA activity,” Johnson says. “I had a chance to watch my son, Alex, participate as a student in JA BizTown two years ago. That was a very unique and enjoyable experience for me, to both be on the board and see all the things that JA does and then to have it impact my son, too. It was really, really cool.”