At 5 years old, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D., fell in love with the ocean. “On vacation in Key West, Florida, my family went to an aquarium with a touch tank,” says Johnson, 38, founder and CEO of Ocean Collectiv in Brooklyn. “I held a starfish with hundreds of tiny little tube feet and was blown away.”
Johnson and her team are busy engaging with coastal communities and tackling plastic pollution issues. Ocean Collectiv provides nonprofits and companies with new ideas on policy and commerce.
How she pried open a door: As an undergrad, Johnson took a graduate-level course in environmental economics where she met an Environmental Protection Agency official who was also recruiting.
She signed up to interview with him and got the job: “That opened the door for graduate school because although I didn’t have field experience, I had a background in policy. So I applied for an interdisciplinary program to do marine science and policy.”
Her advice to Black women interested in the profession: Just do it! She says when it comes to disasters, “from Hurricane Sandy affecting poor communities of color along New York City’s coastline to Caribbean islands needing access to healthy seafood after a storm, we need to have people at the table who understand the science.”
What we don’t know about the ocean: “More than half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean and the plants that live there,” Johnson says. “I enjoy that I use every part of my brain to think about science, economics and policy, and I get to be creative and do work that protects coastal communities.”
Learn more about Black women working “dream jobs” in the November issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands everywhere now!