At 6:15 a.m., the streets of Washington, D.C., are beginning to come to life. O’Neill alumna Marie Johns is lacing up her walking shoes to head out with her 10-year-old wheaten terrier, Riggins.
It’s a daily 2-mile tradition for the duo. These early morning hours are where Johns (BS’79, MPA’82) finds the calm before the chaos.
“It’s the best way to start the day,” she says. “The air is clean. Everything is quiet and fresh.”
That quiet is soon overtaken by meetings. As the CEO for management consulting firm PPC-Leftwich, Johns’ days are packed with everything from utility industry projects to board meetings with universities and her church.
Life in D.C. wasn’t something Johns sought out. Decades earlier, a career move for her husband—also an IU alum—relocated their family from Indianapolis to the East Coast.
“I had a bit of small city syndrome, wondering how we would adjust,” she admits. “Washington has a very different rhythm than Indianapolis.”
And while her rhythm and location had changed, Johns had not. She brought her career expertise and commitment to community service with her to Washington.
Making a difference—both professionally and personally—is who she is and always has been. That’s why Indiana University is recognizing her with its highest alumni honor: the Distinguished Alumni Service Award. Recipients are leaders in their fields who have made significant contributions benefiting their community, state, nation, or the university.
“Marie is everything we hope our alumni will become in and for their community—a thoughtful public servant in all her roles,” says O’Neill School Dean Siân Mooney. “Time and time again, she has stepped up to serve her community, building a legacy of leadership, volunteerism, and community activism while sharing her talent for strategic leadership.”
Johns thinks back to how her journey of service began and points to her parents. She says they encouraged her and her sisters to become the first in their family to attend college—a move they knew would change their children’s futures.
“If you have the benefit of education, you’re more likely to have a stronger foothold in the economy and can build a more lucrative life for yourself, your family, and generations that follow,” she says. “It’s not theoretical for me. It’s my lived experience. Economic opportunities and education are intrinsically linked.”
That’s why she often focuses her service in those two specific areas.
While still in Indianapolis, she worked on economic initiatives on the near north side, where she grew up. She also made Indiana history by becoming the first Black employee hired in the state legislature’s Office of Fiscal Management and Analysis—an opportunity presented to her by an O’Neill faculty member at the time. Her experience at the Indiana Statehouse opened the door to a career in telecommunications with Indiana Bell.
When she and her family headed east three decades ago, she transferred to Bell Atlantic. The company was short on qualified workers from the D.C. area, so she developed the Students Educated for Economic Development Success—or SEEDS—program.
“As someone who had to climb a ladder before I even got to the ladder, I have a particular affinity for those like myself from underserved and historically oppressed groups,” she says. “I know what it’s like to be told you’re not capable or that something isn’t right for you. I want to help others understand they, too, have the wherewithal to overcome that.”
SEEDS recruited young people who had dropped out of high school. They helped participants earn their diplomas, go through training, and find work in the telecommunications industry.
“Young people were literally reclaimed from standing on street corners,” Johns recalls. “They got their GEDs and were trained for these careers. More than 300 young people were trained and hired by Bell Atlantic and other telecomm companies.”
She credits that success, in part, with the lessons instilled in her at O’Neill on effectively uniting the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. That program was just one of many she’s initiated to elevate others while fulfilling a business need.
Her efforts have earned her numerous accolades, including a spot in the Greater Washington Business Hall of Fame and on the list of Washingtonian’s 100 Most Powerful Women.
And while the honors are appreciated, the call to serve is a matter of faith, duty, and family for Johns.
She says her husband of 50 years, Wendell, their son, Richard, daughter-in-law, Lynn, and grandchildren, Richard Franklin and Lauren Marie, are reminders of the gifts she’s been given and her obligation to give back.
“I am so profoundly grateful for everything I’ve experienced in my life,” she says. “Having lived a life with great professional opportunities and a very rewarding family experience, I am compelled to give back to people who need support because I have been so fortunate.”
That includes her alma mater. After she moved to Washington, she joined the O’Neill School Dean’s Council and says she has continued to serve out of gratitude to the university and a responsibility to represent the Black community on the council.
“I want students to know there is a diverse network of alumni that cuts across all sectors of demography,” she says. “It’s also important for faculty and staff to know there are alumni out here who have expectations for the school to continue its work along the DEI path.”
Her role in that work will come full circle at O’Neill’s 2021 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Summit on October 14 and 15. With the summit focused on how to move beyond performative allyship, Johns will serve as the keynote speaker at IUPUI and in Bloomington.
“We are perishing for the lack of having these tough conversations,” she explains. “They’re not simple issues and therefore won’t respond to simplistic solutions. This summit provides an opportunity for us to do some of this work together and I’m very proud O’Neill is leading and creating a space to have difficult discussions.”
Johns is no novice when it comes to navigating complex conversations and situations. In 2010, President Barack Obama appointed her Deputy Administrator of the Small Business Administration.
“Words fail to describe how it felt to serve in the administration of the nation’s first African American president,” she admits, smiling proudly.
The political divide in Congress made her job at the SBA challenging, to say the least. Yet under her leadership, the SBA provided more than $30 billion to more than 60,000 small businesses nationwide—a record at the time for the SBA. She says it was her O’Neill training that helped make that possible.
“O’Neill taught me problem solving in policy—how to shift the box you’ve been placed in so you can still accomplish something good,” she says.
Johns has often called upon the skills learned at O’Neill to help others by opening doors and creating opportunities. From funding scholarships to introducing O’Neill students to leaders in their fields of interest, Johns not only is actively impacting the O’Neill School and its students, but she’s also changing the world around her for the better—a calling she is compelled to answer.
“Those to whom much is given, much is required—it’s that simple to me,” she says. “I have been given health, some measure of intellect, some measure of material comfort, and it’s incumbent upon me to serve. I hope along the way I’ve made Indiana University and the O’Neill School proud.”