March 22, 2017
Lead(H)er: Kiki Mills Johnston, Managing Director at MassChallege

At age seventeen, Kiki Mills Johnston had only left her home state of Ohio for family vacations to Florida.

In high school, she was interested in all things international.

“I always had this passion around international. I wasn’t sure what that really meant, but I wanted to study international and I wanted to work in international. It sounds silly but I guess that’s what you think when you’re 17 years old,” Kiki laughed.

Following her passion, she applied early decision to American University and was accepted into their international studies program.

“I’d never really been outside Ohio. To go to the nation’s capital and be in the epicenter of the federal government and international affairs was huge for me.”

After four successful years of undergrad, Kiki graduated in 1991.

“It was a horrible year to graduate. There was a recession and no one could find jobs. So here I am with this international relations degree and a hunger to go conquer the world, and I’m stuck temping in the basement of EPA answering phones.”

Looking for a way out, Kiki and a few of her friends applied for a program called BUNAC, which placed US interns in different locations around the world. Leaving the bleak job market behind, they went across the pond to the UK to look for opportunities.Kiki Mills Johnston, MassChallenge

“Three of us went over with a couple hundred bucks in hopes that we would get a job. I started out in a clothing store and my girlfriends were bartending. I ended up landing a job at a fashion PR firm as the Personal Assistant to the Managing Director. It was my first foray in my dream of international,” Kiki smiled.

After eight months of working abroad, the girls’ visas expired and they had to return home. Shortly after she was back in DC, Kiki started work with OPIC, the US government’s development finance institution, as an Investment Officer. While there, Kiki helped companies like Texaco, Eli Lilly and Caterpillar connect with entrepreneurs in foreign countries to form joint ventures.

“It was my first international job. I was matchmaking and helping large corporations understand the entrepreneurial communities in developing countries. What’s crazy is they weren’t even called entrepreneurs at that time.”

After five years at OPIC, Kiki decided to follow her heart to Boston. Moving up north to be with her significant other, she was also able to follow one of her other longtime passions — working at a publication.

“I loved international but I also had this other crazy dream of working for a publication. I moved up here for personal reasons and somehow I was able to steer my career to end up at the Improper Bostonian magazine where I became their first Director of Marketing and Promotions.”

During her time at the Improper, Kiki really got to know Boston and had the opportunity to have some fun. As luck would have it, her position also set her up perfectly for her next role.

“Back in 1997-98, a great deal of new technology and entrepreneurship was happening in Boston. At the time, Boston was actually even hotter than the valley was. The Improper was very wise and decided to do this profile around the Top 40 internet movers and shakers. Every year we would host this party at Bob Metcalfe’s house. We didn't realize it at the time, but we were in this room with some of the most prominent people in Boston — the pioneers for tech around the world.”

Through these connections, Kiki met some people from a startup trade association called MIMC, now known as MITX. In the spring of 1999, she left the Improper and started as their Director of Business Development.

“At the time, MIMC was this little engine that could that was around to help build and support this growing digital industry in Boston,” Kiki explained.

Kiki stayed at MIMC for the next eleven years, later becoming the Executive Director and then President.

“It was one of the most incredible experiences for me. I grew up professionally with so many people here in the community and I watched the industry evolve here in Boston. We banded together with the investment and tech communities to cast a vision of Boston becoming an innovation hub.”

At the end of 2010, Kiki moved again, marrying her husband in San Francisco, where he had accepted a new role. Looking to stay in tech but realizing she was also passionate about social impact, Kiki became the CEO of Full Circle Fund, a philanthropic network of professionals who provided funding and resources to nonprofit entrepreneurs.

“They needed a CEO and I just happened to land at the right time. I was really at the center of the two things I’d hoped to be at — tech and social impact. It wasn’t just about the money, it was about the time, the talent and the expertise that we could bring to these nonprofits.“

After two and a half years at Full Circle, Kiki and her husband moved again for her husband’s job. This time, they ended up in Austin.

“It was a bold move for us to go but it was good for my husband’s career, it was just the right thing for us to do. I took a year off after having a baby. Then, as luck would have it, another opportunity presented itself that was similar to San Francisco but in Austin. There was this really interesting organization called Mission Capital that was focused on capacity building for the nonprofit space.”

After her introduction to Mission Capital, Kiki landed a role as its Chief Innovation Officer. For the next two years, she worked with the business community and like-minded individuals that wanted to invest in nonprofits. She was also responsible for running an accelerator.

“We had a non profit accelerator where we took five nonprofit organizations through a four month program, modeled after programs like MassChallenge, which help promising startups launch and grow for zero equity.”

After two and a half years in Austin, the Johnstons decided it was time to move back to Boston.

Kiki Mills Johnston, MassChallengeUpon her return, Kiki immediately started to think about her next chapter. She promptly reconnected with MassChallenge and spoke with Scott Bailey, now the organization’s Executive Director of North America, about the open management role. They discussed his vision and quickly decided Kiki would be a great match.

“Again, it was perfect timing — an opportunity that I couldn’t have imagined. Just knowing where MassChallenge started and understanding where it was seven years later was incredible. We had a bunch of conversations and I officially started in January. I’ve said this a couple of times, but it’s very Rip Van Winkle for me to come back to Boston and see how the city has innovated over time, knowing what the original vision of that innovation ecosystem looked like.”

Kiki is now Managing Director of MassChallenge Boston, the organization’s flagship program which is accepting applications until March 28. She’s excited to be back in the Boston tech scene and raise her three year old in a city she calls home.

“When you get older, you start to reflect on the path that you make. I’ve always been about building ecosystems and communities. Whether it’s helping businesses find potential partners in foreign countries, working with nonprofit social entrepreneurs, or working with early stage, high impact early stage entrepreneurs with MassChallenge, I’ve always had that entrepreneurial theme throughout my career.”

Rapid Fire Questions

Brianne Shelley: What time do you normally get to the office and what time do you usually leave?

Kiki Mills Johnston: I get to the office anywhere between 9 and 9:30am and I leave at 5:30pm, and that’s because I have to get home to a 3 year old.

BS: How many cups of coffee do you normally drink a day?

KJ: One.

BS: Where are you the most productive?

KJ: I’m typically most productive in the afternoon, between the hours of 2-5pm sitting on a couch somewhere. It doesn’t matter where, just sitting on a couch.

BS: What motivates you?

KJ: Hope.

BS: What’s your morning routine like?

KJ: Cuddling in bed with my three year old, attempting to get a shower and then rushing to the train with the hopes that I have everything I need for the day. Usually, I’m disheveled because I’m rushing to the train after trying to give four kisses and three hugs four times in a row because he won't leave me alone.

BS: How do you handle stress?

KJ: I laugh.

BS: What do you like to do for fun on weekends?

KJ: Hike, cook and color with my son.

BS: Ten years ago, would you have predicted this is where you would have ended up?

KJ: No.

Brianne Shelley is a Contributor to VentureFizz and an Inside Sales Representative at NutraClick.  Follow Brianne on Twitter: @MuddleandMix.