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Volume 23 No. 24
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Forty Under 40: Katherine Johnson


courtesy of katherine johnson
Before hiring Katherine Johnson for her first job in sports marketing, former IMG executive Doug Pirnie recalls scanning her résumé. “Hmm … University of Michigan crew team: good; Olympic rowing: even better; 2004 Olympics rowing medalist: better yet.” Still, it was a relatively obscure reference that actually landed Johnson the job. Pirnie had been on bike trips run by Backroads, so when he saw that Johnson helped run a number of them, any doubt evaporated.

“For the leaders, those trips are all politics and problem-solving, so I knew she can handle anything,” said Pirnie, now an independent consultant. “She turned out to be the best hire I ever made.”

Eleven years later, Johnson is heading Visa’s top-shelf sponsorship portfolio, which includes NFL, FIFA World Cup, and global Olympic rights.

She led the University of Michigan to its first Big Ten rowing titles in 2000 and 2001, and won a silver medal in the women’s eight at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens.

HASHTAG YOUR LIFE
#jumpin
Johnson followed a job with IMG consulting that took her from New York to Toronto for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, and then to London to work on the 2012 Olympics, for brands including British Airways, Cadbury and GE. She started at Visa in 2013 as senior director/head of Olympics and became global head of sponsorships in October 2015.

U.S. Olympic Committee CMO Lisa Baird calls Johnson “smart, professional, and a creative problem solver.”

“She’s a very capable sports exec with a huge future,” Baird added.

Johnson is a devout champion of women in a business dominated by men, but she rarely pulls out her medal to prove her mettle. “I don’t talk about it as much as other people,” she smiles, “but it’s always [psychologically] in my back pocket, if I need to remember my survival skills.”

In the near future, Visa will face the challenge of its 3.2 billion payment cards being replaced by mobile devices. “Already, when you pay with your Uber or Starbucks app, it’s not clear that Visa’s the payment network,” she said. “It will be a transformation, getting our brand message across in that environment.”

— Terry Lefton

katherine johnson

visa | Vice President, Global Sponsorship Marketing
Age: 38
Where born: Denver
Education: University of Michigan (B.A., political science)
Family: Fiance, Jason Boynton; stepson, Alex (7)

What do you know now that you wish you’d known at age 20? Women are 50 percent more likely to go for a job they are 90 percent qualified for; men are 90 percent likely to go for a job they are 50 percent qualified for. If I’d been told that at the start of my career, I probably would have pushed a little harder.

Cause supported: I’m a global ambassador for Right to Play.
Guilty pleasure: Chocolate; usually Lindt Sea Salt.
Person in the industry you’d most like to meet: Sarah Robb O’Hagan.
2017 will be a good year if … : I can pull off my wedding, the Confederations Cup, and the Super Bowl, and a happy family all in the same year. The sports industry needs to do a better job of … : Getting women to the top.
You’d be surprised to know that I … : Was a trial participant on the Nickelodeon hit show “Double Dare” with Mark Burnett.