Prof. James H. Johnson Jr. continues to broaden UNC Kenan-Flagler’s reach into social entrepreneurship and to live out in a pragmatic way the School’s mission to serve the state’s people.
Johnson is the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship and serves as the director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. He is also co-director of the Center for Sustainable Enterprise.
His portfolio of entrepreneurial ventures is even longer than his list of academic titles. At the moment, Johnson is helping the principals of failing North Carolina public high schools become better managers, launching a new experimental primary school for some of Durham’s poorest children and energizing university scholars who study women and minority business entrepreneurship.
Breakthrough education for Durham, N.C.’s Youth
Johnson is working with Durham’s Union Baptist Church to launch a new private school next fall for kindergartners through eighth graders. It will start with K-2 and add a grade each year. Johnson says it is the logical outgrowth of his Durham Scholars program, which for a decade has paired Durham’s poorest children with MBA students as after-school mentors and provided college scholarships.
“We learned a lot about educating kids from economically distressed environments,” Johnson says. “We learned that after-school programs are beneficial but not sufficient to make these kids competitive as they need to be. You need them in an extended-day school setting with consistently high expectations.”
Johnson’s business model calls for raising $30 million to endow the school, which will keep it tuition free and allow it to attract world-class instructors. His initial negotiating position on naming rights is $10 million, he says, and he’s asking corporations to pay for the rights to test new instructional technologies or even new foods at the school.
Once he has proof of concept in Durham, Johnson plans to replicate the idea nationally, with partial taxpayer funding in most instances. “What we’re thinking about here is: How do you create a franchisable model of public education?”
Leadership for Priority High Schools
Johnson teaches in the Leadership for Priority High Schools (LPHS) program, which brings the leadership teams of 18 failing schools to campus every other month.
“Our role is helping enhance their leadership and management acumen,” Johnson says. “We help them think about how you manage in turbulent times, in a time of uncertainty. And we help them think about how you generate additional resources to do the kind of programming that’s needed to raise student achievement.”
LPHS also sends consultants from the business school faculty into each school to do a management audit and recommend improvements that help each school draft a turnaround plan.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s Urban Investment Strategies Center hosted UNC Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for the third time July 6-8, focusing on women and minority entrepreneurship.
Scholars worked 7 a.m. to midnight each day to refine ideas and prepare themselves to write competing proposals for research venture capital. Two years later, they will return to campus and present the results of their projects, which will be published in a scholarly journal or edited book.
“The perception is that entrepreneurship doesn’t have the stature in the academy that accounting and other disciplines have,” Johnson says. “So this was designed to create a pipeline of talented scholars in minority- and women-owned business research who can move into the academy and get tenure and succeed.”