Many know David Johnson for his professional achievements as a business leader and his long record of philanthropic contributions.
But what’s behind the man who’s investment portfolio spans fintech, healthcare, spirits, and energy? What’s behind the man who helped raise more than $1 million toward relief efforts in the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the territory?
Those closest to him say it’s his research skills, photographic memory, and knack for rallying people together toward a common goal that make him successful. However, Johnson himself used an opportunity to motivate young athletes, at-risk youth and other USVI community members to share the lessons that have guided him toward some of the most pivotal moments of his life.
Johnson dropped six nuggets of self-development tips with examples from his own life during a motivational talk at the City of Refuge Worship Center’s annual “Level Up” Conference in 2023.
These nuggets offer valuable insights for those of us who want to “level up” in 2024.
#1 Some things are out of your control. Zone in on the things you can control.
“My dad was in the US Navy, so I grew up as a military brat – moving all around, never staying in one place long enough to plant roots,” Johnson said in an interview following the conference. “My mother didn’t work, and we were probably considered a middle class family.”
Those circumstances, which could be perceived as disadvantages, were beyond a young Johnson’s control.
But then came opportunities that he recognized could be both lifechanging and within his grasp. For example, he excelled in school and took advantage of scholarships that led him to undergraduate studies at the University of West Georgia. There, he nurtured his entrepreneurship journey without racking up debt.
“Although it was a smaller school, it was a great place to learn and to practice leadership,” he said.
At the Level Up Conference, Johnson told an audience of 300 that he was living proof of rising above challenging circumstances.
“Any single person in here can be any single thing they want to be,” he told the crowd. “I’ve lived it, and I’ve seen it, and I know it can happen. I’ve seen so many people that had nothing, and they made it…That is part of the American dream.”
#2 Build a tribe of like-minded and smart people.
Johnson’s second nugget of advice highlighted the importance of a strong network.
He hinted that successful people rely on a tribe of like-minded experts.
“As smart as I may think I am, there are so many people in this room that are smarter than me,” Johnson told the Level Up group. “And it’s okay…. You don’t have to know everything about everything. But you can get yourself with the right people that care, have soul, believe in the same things you believe in, and want to accomplish the same things you want to accomplish, and they can be experts in their field.”
But once you find your tribe, there’s an extra step. You have to be willing to take their advice, according to Johnson.
“Don’t ask people stuff, and then don’t listen to that. You’ve got to actually pay attention to what they’re saying,” he said.
#3 Take Risks.
Thirdly, Johnson shared tips for making calculated risks. This time, he zoned in specifically on those aspiring to be entrepreneurs.
He acknowledged that entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, but for those who are hungry for more than “a good wage” and “good benefits,” he said risk is inevitable.
“If you want to own your own business, at a certain point, you have to take that risk,” he said. “You have to know so much about a thing that you can do it better than other people…and then you know that is probably a good risk to take.”
Johnson recalled the first time he decided to “quit working for other people” and dive into entrepreneurship. According to the self-made businessman, those types of risks can be the hardest and the scariest to take, but they can also be the most transformative.
He then stunned the audience with news of one his most recent risks, publicly confirming for the first time that he was majority owner of the Port Hamilton Refining and Transportation facility on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.
And while the news of his role in the multi-million-dollar deal came as an unexpected revelation, Johnson said he felt compelled to share what he believed to be a relatable lesson in calculated risk for the group of young USVI athletes, at-risk youth, detainees from the Golden Grove correctional facility, and other community members listening at the time.
“I’ll share with you guys. I’ve recently taken a really big risk. I’m the crazy guy that now owns most of the oil refinery,” he said. “I haven’t made a lot of public comments, but I felt very compelled to speak about it right now to all of you — old friends, new friends.”
Johnson, who is also known for co-owning St. Croix-based fintech consulting firm Cane Bay Partners and for numerous philanthropic initiatives through the firm’s charity Cane Bay Cares, said he wanted the audience to know that it’s hard to achieve anything worthwhile without risk or difficulty.
“I’m fighting battles like I’ve never fought,” Johnson said during the conference.
But despite the hurdles, Johnson said in a post Level Up interview that he’s excited to take on the new challenge. He plans to leverage his experience as a seasoned entrepreneur as well as his knowledge of renewable energy in hopes of bringing what could be a huge economic opportunity to the place he now calls home.
Johnson said that after weighing the risks, the oil refinery venture made sense to him as a business man. But there was also a personal aspect in taking on the deal considering what it would mean for St. Croix if all goes as planned.
“Honestly, I’ve lived in St. Croix longer than I’ve lived in any other place,” he said while getting emotional on the Level Up stage. “That’s why this is my home.”
#4 Explore new things to zero in on your niche.
Many people struggle with narrowing down the skills that can make them feel fulfilled and that can be monetized in ways that bring financial stability.
According to Johnson, one of the ways to find a career that will be both meaningful and profitable is to keep experimenting.
“When I look at my career — my first jobs weren’t like super great jobs…. I worked in insurance, but it wasn’t the fun part…. I was running the mail room, basically,” he said. “Sometimes you’ve got to try some things just to find out: ‘I don’t want to do that.’ ”
It took Johnson a few stints in insurance, human resources, operations, and facilities jobs before he zeroed in on fintech and entrepreneurship.
Today he owns several, successful fintech consulting firms.
#5 Become an expert at whatever you want to do.
The next step after finding your niche, Johnson told the Level Up audience, is to keep honing your skills until you’re an expert in your field.
The goal is to become “so indispensable” that others will pay you for your quality of work.
It’s a point that Johnson often mentions when asked about secrets for success. In a Cane Bay Partners entrepreneur spotlight, he summarized it this way:
“The key to success is to simply understand some aspect of life or business so well that you can figure out a way to monetize that and to create enough value that other people would want to pay you to either build it, make it, or consult for them on how they could do it.”
#6 Find the right work/life balance.
In his final piece of advice, Johnson shared that while professional achievement is important, one’s personal life and family should be priorities too.
While looking over to his wife Jackie, he admitted that achieving work-life balance is something he struggles with at times. He credited Jackie, who he often praises as his greatest supporter, for reminding him how essential it is to prioritize family time.
“It’s very easy to get sucked into what you’re working on,” Johnson said, “and you forget you have a wife, or you forget you have two little kids, and you miss their sailing awards because you had a meeting, and you can never go back. So, it’s important to have that type of balance.”
Welcome to 2024. It’s a new year and a new opportunity to execute on the ideas we’ve been toying with and the habits we know will take us to another level of personal development. Whether that means taking the plunge on a new business venture, expanding our network, learning new skills, or spending more time with the people we love — may 2024 be our year.