Whitney Johnson - Disrupt yourself

Whitney Johnson

Disrupt yourself

Whitney Johnson was recognised as one of the world's most influential management thinkers in 2015, is the author of the critically acclaimed Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, and formerly an Institutional Investor-ranked analyst for eight consecutive years at Merrill Lynch. She is the host of the Disrupt Yourself podcast, a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, a LinkedInfluencer, and a co-founder of Forty Women over 40 to Watch. She and her husband Roger live in Lexington, VA and have two children. 

Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Show Notes

Her Story – Whitney Johnson

I grew up in San Jose California, what is now considered to be Silicon Valley, on the eve of the PC revolution yet at the time I had no idea what was going on around me. I graduated from high school, deciding to go onto studying music at college, majoring in piano. Whilst I was studying I did some temp work at Apple Computers which started me thinking about what it would be like to work with them full-time and what my life would look like if I followed this path.

I got married during college and upon my husband and I graduating, we both moved to New York City for his studies, he was completing a PhD in microbiology. As what often happened with married women back then, I tagged along as he pursued his education.  We soon realised that I needed to be the bread winner whilst he was studying and I found myself working as a secretary for a wall street broker, discovering that I had a great interest in investing and that I wanted to be a part of Wall Street myself. I started taking business classes at night which enabled me to progress from a secretary, to a broker, to an investment banker and finally to an equity researcher. My job was to issue recommendations on the stocks of the emerging telecommunications and media market, determining whether they were over or under valued.

When our children were 8 and 12, I disrupted myself and left work to become an entrepreneur, I came across the book Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School, which was not only an informative but a transformative read for me. I realised that it is not only companies that disrupt, people disrupt too. This lead to me working with Clayton Christensen and eventually starting an investment firm with him. In 2012 I wrote my first book, I sold my interest in that fund and I have spent the last 3 years really focusing on taking the idea of personal disruption, evangelising these concepts and coaching around them.

The drive to disrupt

I was institutionally ranked whilst working at Merrill and Lynch; I was very much at the top of my game. I began to think it was the time to do something new and something which excited me the way in which equity research had when I first began. I remember telling this to one of the very senior executives of the firm and discussing my desire to move into management, he dismissed me and almost laughed at me. I realised then the potential wasn’t there, that they were comfortable with me in the current position and wouldn’t want to lose me as an equity researcher. At the same time I had read Innovator’s Dilemma and realised that not only did it help me to understand what was going on in emerging telephony market but it also really applied to me on a personal level. It became apparent that if I wanted to achieve something in my life, I couldn’t do it where I was, that I needed to become an entrepreneur. I didn’t realise it at the time but I had already become a disrupter within my own space.


After I connected with Clayton, I launched an investment fund with him and his son who had just graduated with his MBA. Our fund was investing not only in publically traded securities but also in privately held companies, one of the companies we were investors in was Coupang located in Korea, we were the lead investors with our $8 million investment. At its last evaluation it was valued at $5 Billion; we made a good stock call and have made some investors a great deal of money. I have since exited this business but it was something that we were and still are very proud of.

The way in which we recommend people to invest depends upon what your function is within a firm, in my case as an equity analysis we would divide up the world into industries or sectors, you would have the media sector in Asia or the telecommunications sector in the United States. I was responsible for looking at the Media and Telecommunications sectors in Latin America, for example I looked at a company called America Movil which is now one of the 5 largest telecommunications companies in the world. My job was to look at that company, analyse it, forecast what they would earn in the next four or five years, talk to management and then make a call as to whether the stock was undervalued or overvalued. I would then be on public record as to what I thought the stock would do, thus recommending it to institutions such as Macquarie bank who would take all the information and then decide whether to buy and sell it.

My way of thinking

In 2000 two gentlemen in the UK. started the equivalent of the Oscars for management thinking. Every other year they look at a number of different matrix and come up with a list of the most influential management thinkers in that year. In 2015 I had just written the book called Disrupt Yourself which helps people to think about talent within an organisation, for my ideas around personal disruption I actually made the list of 50 thinkers. I have taken the term personal disruption as first coined by Clayton Christensen and have developed the theory that you can not disrupt as a company, companies do not disrupt only people do. I was awarded the distinction because of my thinking in this sphere and the influence that this has had.   

Social Media

I joined Twitter around 6 or 7 years and have found it to be such a great source of short form journalism as it forces you to condense your ideas. There is rarely a day that I am not on Twitter which has really allowed me to build on the platform. I am also a LinkedInfluencer, you can be designated as a LinkedInfluencer such as Richard Branson but I my case I became aware of it so I wrote to LinkedIn to ask them to consider me as an influencer. At first I did not get a response but over 6 months I kept asking to them look at some of my work, I have now been a LinkedInfluencer for the past 3 or 4 years. It is important to emphasise that I did not become an influencer because someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to be, but because I built the case of why they would want my content on their website.

One of the biggest benefits has been that now when I publish something, the news staff at LinkedIn will review it and then post it in a number of relevant categories, you will see it is very rare that an article will go viral on LinkedIn without having had the support and publishing of the LinkedIn news desk. The most successful article I had had was called ‘you are interviewing and pregnant’ which went viral, another piece that was really successful was one I wrote about networking. It told the story of a man who I met on the way home from a trip who I asked lots of questions about but whom didn’t even ask me my name, only to realise that I could have been of great use to him had he shown an interest in engaging. Any post that has more than 20,000 hits I would consider as being at least mildly viral. For anyone who is looking to get a lot more traffic and generate a lot more interest in their articles and posts, don’t underestimate the importance of asking people you know and trust to share it for you. A lot of things happen because we ask people to share and pass along.

Investing fundamentals

The first thing I recommend that a mother and father investor do is to utilise the platforms that are now available, there are a number of really good platforms particularly for millennials. The first platform I would recommended is GoldBean, founded by Australian Jane Barratt, is a great beginning platform for people who want to invest in stocks. There is another platform called Ellevest, created by Sallie Krawcheck, which is geared particularly to women. I guess what makes these platforms ideal for beginner investors is that they focus on cutting through the clutter and the jargon of investing.

I would also recommend reading One upon Wall Street by Peter Lynch which advises the reader to the extent that they are not wanting to just save money or choose safe options, but actually want to invest in stock. I would then recommend investing in what you know, if you do not understand it then do not invest in it. But I think the most important thing that anyone can do is to save money, not enough of us save.

Advice to self and others

The advice that I had wished I had gotten would be to get a coach early on in my career, of all the mistakes that I have made I think that if I had gotten a coach I would have been so much better prepared. You need to find the right people to coach and to mentor you as work is so much more than just having the skills to do the job, there is a way of navigating in business and of being accountable.

Successful habits

The first habit I have and recommend is getting up early every day. There were a number of years where I would get up at 5 or 5:30 but I then had about 10 years where I didn’t and I found that my productivity decreased significantly. This year I have gone back to getting up at 5 or 5:30 and my productivity has improved immensely.

The second habit is ensuring that I take one day off a week from work, where I completely disconnect from it. For me I do this for religious purposes as I take the Sabbath day, regardless of whether you are or religious or not, you can not underestimate the importance of disconnecting.

My third habit is that last year I stopped eating sugar and found that also greatly increased my productivity.

Recommended reading

I would recommend The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis which I am actually listening to now on Audible. It would be a great read for those interested in investing as there is a lot about behaviour economics, it is an interesting read.

Inspirational quote

I came across this Ralph Waldo Emmerson quote about 15 years ago, ‘rings and jewels are not gifts but apologies for gifts. The only true gift is a portion of thyself’. I think when we are interacting with people both professionally and personally, we often try to perhaps substitute for ourselves and our time. I think the only true way we can connect and give to people is if we put some element of ourselves, of our time and our attention, into the conversation and into the interaction.

Contact Details

The easiest way to get in contact is to sign up to my Newsletter which you can subscribe to on my website whitneyjohnson.com. I link to my latest podcasts  and try to write every two weeks about things I have been thinking about, centred around the theme of self-disruption  You can also follow me on my twitter handle @johnsonwhitney or download my podcast Disrupt Yourself.