Andela co-founder and CEO Jeremy Johnson shared his thoughts with MindMeet’s storyteller, Araxe, about global entrepreneurship, imagination in education, and solving problems with collaboration and compassion.
AH: What gives you energy?
JJ: Feeling as if we are able to make a sustainable impact, as if our actions matter. If we are able to think through and understand the world around us and use that process in a way that allows us to create impact—I think that is the most exciting thing in the world. It’s part of what I love about entrepreneurship and building things, especially building mission-oriented companies. It’s a special thing when you feel a deep, deep sense of connection to not just a mission but the impact that mission has on the world around you.
AH: What does creativity mean to you?
JJ: Entrepreneurship and technology, in some ways, are creative. Anytime you are bringing anything new into the world that doesn’t exist, you have to invent. Invention requires creativity and imagining what is possible as opposed to what is, so I think those are synonymous.
AH: What is compassion?
JJ: I think it includes extending respect to others. People frequently look at impact and compassion through the lens of wanting to save something and can make it very internally focused about themselves. It is important to understand that there but for the grace of God go I. Any one of us could have a challenging environment, and also any one of us could be lifted up by someone else. We are all very interconnected.
AH: Do you have a theme song or a daily mantra?
JJ: “While brilliance is evenly distributed, opportunity is not.” It’s based on an understanding that race and gender have no bearing on aptitude and problem solving. They fade into the bell curve. People are people and they deserve our respect, our willingness to take a minute to listen. Everyone has a story to tell.
AH: How do you nourish yourself?
JJ: By spending time with people who are young and driven and urging themselves to be the best that they can be. I love being in Lagos, Nairobi or Kampala (Andela’s offices) and spending time with Andela fellows. It’s a four-year program—like the Rhodes Scholarship. So, it’s a very prestigious experience but also one that allows those developers to connect with the broader tech community, in Andela and around the world.
AH: How do you define wealth?
JJ: It’s a combination of the luxury of being able to focus on the problems you want to solve and the freedom to actually have a real impact on those problems. I don’t think that monetary wealth drives that much happiness or performance. But there is a baseline autonomy: feeling like you have the ability to focus your thoughts on problems you want to solve and to focus your energy in ways that allow you to solve those problems. That makes you wealthy inherently.
AH: How do you deal with loss and disappointment when they appear in life?
JJ: Ultimately the things that I’ve learned the most from throughout life have been the hardest and most challenging—they’ve caused the most friction, the most pain. You could be upset about that or you could say, what have I learned and am I better off as a result of it? I tend to not let those things beat me up too much, because I’d rather focus on what I’ve learned and what I’m able to do as a result of that. I make room for it by embracing not only that it is inevitable, but that it might be a good thing to encounter and to be able to overcome challenges. Your ability to scale impact is going to be directly correlated to challenges you have been able to overcome, both personally and professionally.
AH: Tell us more about your designated charity, Isles.org.
JJ: It’s my parents’ nonprofit based in Trenton, NJ. Their goal is to foster healthy, sustainable families in dilapidated urban areas—and in the process, snap the cycle of poverty in those areas. Fostering self-reliance is their motto. It’s an approach I believe deeply in. I think that if it’s not sustainable, you’re not creating impact.
AH: What are you curious about?
JJ: Why people get excited and throw themselves at learning experiences, I think, is undervalued and is really important. I care a lot about that and working to try to understand why people approach what they do as much as possible. I’m also deeply curious about how different cultures form and the habits that define those cultures and that reinforce them. I feel like if you understand that, you can understand a lot of human behavior and you can find ways to create systems and create more opportunity and a better experience for people.
AH: When have you felt a connection to something larger than yourself?
JJ: I get that connection from any kind of group that has a shared goal that they’re working really hard towards. I think it’s contagious. For the first two years of Andela, I would join my cofounder and every new class that started in Lagos. We would sit down and walk them through the purpose and mission and at each of those dinners there was this palpable sense of this being bigger than any of us. It’s not about any of us individually but about what we’re able to do together. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to be part of that.
AH: What would you tell your 5-year-old self?
JJ: Keep exploring, keep trying to learn. Hold on to that curiosity, but remember that being able to achieve things usually comes down to your habits. So, get good at building the habits that you want because they will, in many ways, drive what you end up doing.
AH: What would your 5-year-old self tell you now?
JJ: It would be cool if that little guy gave me the exact same advice. Margaret Mead said, “I was wise enough never to grow up, while fooling people into believing I had.” I think there’s a lot of wisdom in trying to hold onto that notion of youth and that sense of wonder that comes with it.
AH: That’s the trick, isn’t it? Keeping that balance.
JJ: It’s not easy to do. But it’s fun to try.
Jeremy Johnson is a tech-world disruptor who has created a new model for how companies recruit talent. It is based on the belief that while brilliance is equally distributed, opportunity is not. Jeremy is widely recognized for his work as an education innovator. He cofounded Andela, a global engineering organization that recruits the most talented developers on the African continent, shapes them into technical leaders, and places them as full-time distributed team members with companies that range from Microsoft and IBM to dozens of high-growth startups. Before that, he co-founded 2U, one of the fastest-growing education technology startups in history. He’s been recognized by both Inc. (2012) and Forbes (2013 and 2014) as one of the 30 under 30, by Fast Company as one of the 100 most creative people in business (2015), and by LinkedIn as one of the next wave top professionals under 35 (2016).