Profile with Alia Whitney-Johnson

Alia Whitney-Johnson (North Carolina & St. John’s 2009) is a consultant at McKinsey & Company and the Founder of Emerge Global, a non-profit that empowers teenage survivors of sexual abuse in Sri Lanka. She has been recognized for her work in Sri Lanka as a Sauvé Scholar, a YouthActionNet Fellow, a Truman Scholar, and as one of Glamour’s Top Ten College women in 2007. 

Rhodes Project: What is the last book you couldn’t put down?

Alia Whitney-Johnson: I just finished reading Lean In. I read the whole book on a plane ride; I couldn’t put it down because it has sparked such an interesting debate in the women’s community. There is an interesting dialogue amongst women in particular about how you can “have it all”. In fact, this dialogue for me started with a group of women Rhodes Scholars while I was at Oxford. But, I feel that is almost the wrong dialogue to be having as nobody can “have it all.” Life is really about choices and about figuring out what choices are important to you. As women, there are a number of different factors that we are juggling, a number of different dimensions that are important and I don’t know how they all come together -- I’m figuring it out one day at a time.

Rhodes Project: How did you become involved in women’s empowerment work in Sri Lanka?

Alia Whitney-Johnson: I became involved in girls education and empowerment during a trip I took to Sri Lanka to do tsunami relief work. I was 19 and just starting my engineering degree at MIT. At the time, I was a big believer that math, science and technology could solve so many different problems, that they could be a foundation from which we can grow as a society and as a world. My trip to Sri Lanka helped me understand the human dimension of the challenges we face globally. During my trip, I met a little girl, age 11, who had been raped by her father and who was carrying his son. She had the courage to take her own father to court to protect her little sisters and as I looked at her, it just hit me: there was no engineering formula, no equation that was going to fix this girl’s life. Despite the fact that she was 11 years old, she had such an incredible vision for her family and community, such incredible strength. I admired her and I wondered what would happen if that vision and that strength could be magnified. As I got to know her, I was hooked. I realized that as much as I cared about engineering and science, I also had a deep passion for human rights in general, especially women and girls’ rights. It has been my life path ever since. It was not part of the original “plan” but, so far, that is how the best things in my life have worked.

Rhodes Project: What is your personal definition of “empowerment work”? That is to say, what is the goal of what you do with women in Sri Lanka?

Alia Whitney-Johnson: My definition of “empowerment” is having the tools, resources, connections, and capital –whether that’s financial capital, intellectual capital, or social capital – to be able to realize your own vision for your future. For these courageous girls, empowerment means helping them to achieve self-sufficiency, lead safe lives, and equipping them with the leadership skills and social capital that they need to enact their vision of change for Sri Lanka.

That is what we do at Emerge. We run a series of different programs in entrepreneurship, life skills, education and mentorship. We help them generate capital for their futures through the creation of unique jewelry. We also support these girls in reintegrating back into their communities and staying connected to one another so that they can bring their knowledge and ideas to make a difference in the lives of girls and women across Sri Lanka.

Rhodes Project: What is the greatest challenge that you face in your work at Emerge?

Alia Whitney-Johnson: At the beginning, due to societal stigma, it was like pulling teeth to find mentors or staff, even to get volunteers. However, as we started to find people to work with us and they had the opportunity to actually meet the young women we serve, they were blown away. The rippling affect has been amazing. Now there is a waiting list to be a mentor, there has been a ton of press and there is a growing national dialogue in Sri Lanka about this issue. We even have had support from Miss Sri Lanka!

We also face challenges with the individual learning needs and backgrounds of each girl. Some girls have never been to school; others were taken out of high school while they testify in court against perpetrators. They each have their own vision for their futures and for their communities. We have to be sure we are delivering the right end product to each girl, which has pushed us to develop self-paced curriculum and a model of peer-to-peer mentoring. Refining our curriculum is a continuous process.

As a small non-profit, funding has also been an ongoing challenge. We are constantly pushing ourselves to find ways to be innovative and independent of grants and donations but we still have further to go! 

Rhodes Project: You have also worked with large international bodies that do human rights work.  What do you think are some of the advantages of approaching women’s human rights work from a grassroots perspective instead of from the top?

Alia Whitney-Johnson: The main advantage of a more grassroots approach is that it is easier to listen the needs on the ground and to address them through a truly relevant solution: we are nimble as an organization and can evolve with the growing community of women leaders we support without a lot of bureaucracy or overhead. Larger organizations can have big impact but it’s harder to be sure that the program you’re developing is what is needed or what is wanted.

I’ve loved the depth of impact we can have as a small organization. What we are doing is much more than a program. We are becoming these girls’ family. When they leave Emerge, the staff play the role of mothers at their weddings, they are there when they give birth to their children. That is only possible when you are small enough to know every person you are working with in a deep way. We aren’t reaching millions of girls and hundreds of countries. We are reaching about 100 girls a year but it is in a deep and meaningful way.

The girls we work with have used the money they’ve generated through our program to build entire houses or buy land, start businesses or educate their children. We have more than 300 alumni now and we keep them connected every year through reunions. What gets me really excited is the prospect of what happens in five or ten years when we have a thousand alumni all connected, all skilled, all with similar visions for their country. Think about how powerful that is and what they could achieve collectively that we could never achieve as an organization. Eventually it could be that these young women are doing such great work that we no longer need to exist. That’s the dream, to not even need to be there.

Rhodes Project: What is a memorable learning moment you’ve had recently?

Alia Whitney-Johnson: I recently joined McKinsey and last September I transitioned out of my position as executive director of Emerge, although I am still on the board and I am going back to visit our programs next week. I wanted Emerge to be bigger than me, to last beyond me and have local leadership that could sustain it long-term. This has been a year of learning how to let go, learning how to support and facilitate something but not drive it.

In the process of learning to let go, I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on myself and who I am outside of the areas I have worked so passionately for so long. It was quite honestly scary to imagine myself without Emerge. But, I realized it was critical (for me and Emerge) that I became comfortable existing as just me, not needing to be defined entirely by what I ‘do.’  I want to be intentional in the moment, to be a good neighbor, a good family member. Before, I wasn’t making time for myself, I felt scattered. So I took a few months between running Emerge and joining McKinsey to pull everything back to my core through traveling, reading, salsa dancing, meditating, and exploring being on my own; it was such a wonderful gift to myself.

Rhodes Project: Do you have any role models?

Alia Whitney-Johnson: When I think about role models, I think about the girls I work with, particularly those first few girls who inspired me to start Emerge. Any time I am struggling or confronting an obstacle in my life, there several girls I think about and I have their pictures on my bulletin board. Their hope, their ability to pick themselves up, the dreams they have for their children and their country, despite all odds, are a constant inspiration for me.

Rhodes Project: What do you like most about working at McKinsey?

Alia Whitney-Johnson: I have been here now for 5 months and it has been great. I am enjoying having some time to learn about the private sector, getting to wear lots of different hats and seeing a variety of situations that businesses encounter day to day. I see this as getting my MBA without going into debt so that I have greater liberty later on.  I am really interested in the intersection of business and social impact, specifically creating financially sustainable models for change that aren’t dependent on donations. It was really frustrating as a small nonprofit to not know if we were going to still exist the following month. There has got to be a better way to do it. So, I am looking forward to doing a couple of years here in “business boot camp.”

I also see this as a chance to get some mentoring. I started Emerge when I was 19 and I never had a boss. I was learning how to do performance evaluations before I was ever evaluated, how to lead a team before I had ever been a part of professional one. I am getting lots of feedback, support and coaching as a leader here. But, I definitely see myself going back into something entrepreneurial after McKinsey.

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