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Spotlight on Kristina M. Johnson

The CEO Talks Leadership, Lacrosse, and Lots More

Group of students

Dr. Kristina M. Johnson, the founder and CEO of Cube Hydro, a firm whose mission is to modernize hydroelectric facilities and develop renewable power at formerly unpowered dams, once dreamed of being an Olympian. Although she was a formidable lacrosse player who played on her high school boys’ team—Title IX had only recently been signed into law and there was not yet a girls’ team—she was realistic enough to know that she wasn’t exactly a world-class athlete.

But, as she told the large audience at her Spotlight Series event on October 21, she could, at least, still train. “Not everyone can be an Olympic athlete,” she asserted, “but it’s very valuable to test yourself and find out what you’re made of.”

If her Spotlight Series performance is any indication, Johnson, a former undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Energy, is made up of intelligence, determination, leadership skills, and a thirst for improving the world.

Johnson was participating in the Tandon School of Engineering’s Spotlight Series at the invitation of the Office of Student Affairs and the NYU Leadership Initiative, which co-hosted the event.

The Series was launched three years ago by the Office of Student Affairs and has featured such prominent guests as Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Sylvester Gates. Associate Dean of Student Affairs Anita Farrington explains, “Since its inception, I have always invited NYU partners for co-sponsorship, in the past Alumni Affairs, and for this ‘Spotlight,’ the NYU Leadership Initiative. It was a great opportunity to work with Bethany Godsoe, Associate Vice-President of Student Leadership Programs at NYU, and to incorporate the theme of leadership throughout the event.”

Interviewed on the Spotlight stage by Professor Kristen Day, Johnson met every question head-on—even willingly discussing what lessons she has gleaned from failure. She illustrated with a tale of a start-up she had founded early in her career. The thrill she felt back then when she sold her first shipment of optical components to the Australian Air Force quickly turned to horror when the entire shipment was returned destroyed. The problem: she and her colleagues had sold the Air Force a product that they had neglected to test under flight conditions. The obvious lesson: exhaustive product testing is important.

Johnson had other lessons to impart as well—each one relevant and inspiring to her audience of aspiring entrepreneurs, student leaders, and club members. Among them:

  • Be prepared to be challenged, because you will be challenged
  • Know every detail of the project or product being discussed
  • Show that you care about your colleagues and clients
  • It’s easy to be kind, so just go ahead and be kind
  • Make what people want to buy
  • If you refuse to lose, you will not lose

Johnson had a ready-made fan club at NYU: students had clamored to speak to her during the pre-event reception, and others eagerly peppered her with questions during the Q&A portion of the evening. “It’s very important for our male and female engineering students to be exposed to highly successful female STEM leaders and entrepreneurs, bearing witness to the importance of a diverse STEM workforce," Dean Farrington noted.

Johnson’s focus right now is on tapping the potential of the nation’s dams, but she’d probably agree that if our students’ enthusiasm and drive were sources of energy, they might even rival hydropower.