February 06, 2023
All Signs Pointed to CMU
Alumnus Will Johnson creates fintech buzz and increases representation in the business world
By Hilary Daninhirsch
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University alumnus Will Johnson was aware of the university’s global reputation and had Tepper School of Business’s top-notch MBA program on his radar.
But it wasn’t until he was studying for his undergraduate degree in entrepreneurship at Hampton University, a historically Black institution, in Virginia that he knew for sure his future was Tartan.
“Unbeknownst to me, Hampton had a relationship with Tepper,” Will says. “There was a pipeline of students before me that went from Hampton to CMU. During special diversity weekends, diverse candidates would visit the school, sit through a class and meet the faculty.”
“I had an opportunity to sit in on (Tepper School of Business’s Distinguished Service Professor) Robert Kelley’s class, and it validated what I’d known all along: I was going to CMU.”
Now, as the director of brand marketing and new Initiatives at Early Warning, the company that owns Zelle, he’s leaning into the experiences and lessons he gained during his MBA studies at Tepper School to amplify new products and craft a more diverse workforce.
“Their mission is all about increasing underrepresented groups in business school and ultimately, in corporate America. CMU has been a long-time partner of the consortium. When I went through, there were 16 participating schools, and now there are up to 22 schools.”
The Best-Kept Secret
Will applied to Tepper via the Consortium for Graduate Studies in Management, a nonprofit committed to enhancing diversity and inclusion in global business education and leadership.
The consortium, which Will calls “one of the best-kept secrets out there,” streamlines the business school application process, allowing students to apply to multiple MBA schools for one fee.
“Their mission is all about increasing underrepresented groups in business school and ultimately, in corporate America,” Will says. “CMU has been a long-time partner of the consortium. When I went through, there were 16 participating schools, and now there are up to 22 schools.”
And because he grew up with great mentors that impressed onto him the value of giving back, Will is now a consortium liaison.
“If CMU has prospective students, I talk to them about how CMU has changed my life,” Will says. “I pay it forward in any way I can: GMAT prep, resumes, interviews and recommendations. I always try to lend a hand.”
A benefit of the consortium was the opportunity to attend a five-day conference in Florida two months before the start of MBA classes. At the conference, he met other students and interviewed for internships — securing an internship with Kraft Foods’ marketing department before he even set foot on CMU’s campus.
“The pressure was off when it came to on-campus recruiting; I had an internship locked up,” says Will, who graduated in 2012. “I had a phenomenal experience with Kraft and got world-class consumer goods marketing training there. The rest is history.”
“I didn’t know about the RV business, but I knew about marketing. If you know how to generate buzz and create demand, and you’re a great storyteller, regardless of the product or brand, you’ll be great in marketing because you’re connecting with consumers on an emotional level.”
Generating Buzz and Creating Demand
The internship led to a full-time position with Kraft, where he worked on campaigns for many well-known Kraft brands such as Planters nuts and A.1. Steak Sauce. After having worked on a variety of Kraft brands, Will’s career in marketing took him to a few jobs in multiple states including a brand manager and global equity lead for BIC® Lighters.
His path also took him to a small, private equity company and later into the RV resort business.
“I didn’t know about the RV business, but I knew about marketing,” Will says. “If you know how to generate buzz and create demand, and you’re a great storyteller, regardless of the product or brand, you’ll be great in marketing because you’re connecting with consumers on an emotional level.”
In April 2022, he was recruited by the fintech company, Early Warning, the owner and network operator of Zelle to serve as the director of corporate branding.
With more than 5 billion transactions totaling more than $1.5 trillion, Zelle connects financial institutions of all sizes. It enables consumers and businesses to send fast digital payments to people and businesses they know and trust with a U.S. bank account.
In his role, he’s responsible for developing the marketing strategies and campaigns for the company’s strategic brands and products including go-to-market strategies for innovation or new product launches.
Currently, he has an opportunity to lead high-exposure and strategic projects — such as a “game-changing product” due out this year — where he provides weekly updates to the C-suite.
With his career experiences so far as well as his CMU education, he’s prepared for wherever life takes him as he pursues his goals.
“Ultimately, I want to be a chief marketing officer, a business unit president or a general manager for a company and run an entire business unit,” says Will.
“The only skills that we use every day are the people skills. It’s incredibly important to ensure you’re giving everyone a voice, valuing everyone’s opinion and learning how to work with all personalities.”
At CMU, Will was the president of the Black Business Association, enabling him to organize a speakers series, during which all Tepper students had the opportunity to hear real-world strategies and professional development tips from industry executives.
These experiences reflected his own personal credo that diversity in school and in the workplace is the ideal.
“It’s a known fact that the more diverse teams you have, the better the ideas and the better the creative output and innovation,” Will says. “When you can create an environment where everyone’s voice is heard and valued, you will have better outcomes. I know this from personal experience.”
He also knows from personal experience that one of the most vital skills for his career was expanded upon in an organizational behavior class taught by Richard M. and Margaret S. Cyert Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory Laurie Weingart.
“The only skills that we use every day are the people skills,” Will says. “It’s incredibly important to ensure you’re giving everyone a voice, valuing everyone’s opinion and learning how to work with all personalities.”
“I don’t use marketing, accounting and stats every day, but I do use those soft skills that I learned at CMU every single day.”