In a campus teeming with innovators and entrepreneurs, Erin Johnson stands out. The sophomore, who is studying business and international studies, wants to clarify, though: hers “isn’t some superstar story.”
“I feel like all these other people are going to have all these crazy stories,” she said of the rest of the Student of the Year nominees. “I just feel like I decided to take on this role and I took it on to the best of my ability.”
Johnson is the president of optiMize, a student organization on campus focused on helping student entrepreneurs materialize their ideas. Unlike similar organizations, optiMize is centered on social impact — a phrase that Johnson says guides what she does.
“I think it’s just looking at everything you do on a daily basis and trying to figure out the most positive way to do it,” she said. “So if you want to accomplish something or make something better, how many people’s days can you improve?” she said.
Originally from Orlando, Fla., Johnson came to the University after childhood visits to Detroit and the surrounding area. Having attended smaller schools her entire life, the University offered the opportunity for “something bigger.” And after a chance encounter with an optiMize poster that said, “Why not me? Stop waiting for someone else to change the world,” Johnson was sold.
“That resonated with me just because I had never really had something phrased like that before,” she said. “I never thought of service as social change, as something that could have a worldwide impact.”
Johnson joined as a core team member, but was quickly moved to the marketing team her freshman year. Team leaders try to identify each member’s strengths and move him or her accordingly.
OptiMize’s main event is the Social Innovation Challenge. Students who have ideas for social innovation and entrepreneurship apply in October, and over seven months, optiMize mentors and various workshops provide various resources to help turn these ideas into startups, student organizations or other. At the end of the year, a few of these groups are chosen for funding from optiMize.
This allocation of funding is based on each team’s ability to make a social impact, its cultural competence and its growth throughout the year. The organization is funded in part by the nonprofit organization United Way, and it also raises money from anonymous alumni donors. This year alone, Johnson and optiMize have raised $750,000 and have worked with more than 250 students.
Johnson is careful to note the difference between competition and challenge: teams that apply do not get cut; they just don’t get all the funding. She distinguishes this kind of structure as a “self-challenge.”
“If every team were to be successful, everyone would be better off, because every team is making social change,” she said. “I think that’s the main thing that differentiates optiMize and makes me love it so much.”
This summer, Johnson plans to help out with the optiMize Fellows program, in which she will mentor students who stay at the University over the summer and work on their projects.
Friends alternately describe Johnson as possessing “a kind of energy that lights up any room into which she walks” and someone who “would rather see someone else take ownership of a role and thrive.” It’s clear that Johnson, as optiMize’s president, is popular.
“We like to think of the environment and sustainability, but I like to think of sustainability as also sustainability of people,” she said.
After this year, Johnson will no longer be the president of optiMize, but her involvement with the organization will not stop there. Whether it’s being a future mentor or continually helping out and advising the group’s fundamental goal of social change Johnson has one main objective: “I just like making people feel important.”