Greg Johnson
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Greg Johnson

CEO, Bottom Line

It's the stories on college essays that motivate Greg in his life's mission—and also that of the organization he leads, Bottom Line: to help disadvantaged students get into college, graduate from college, and go far in life. For example, there's the student who could be caught in the midst of gunfire, simply by walking to the store. Or the student whose mother struggled to support her family as she grappled with a drug addiction. Or the student who was brought to this country and then left here by parents who returned to their homeland.

The powerful thing for Greg is that although his students' essays begin with adversity, they end "hopeful, proud, and unwavering," he says. He knows that their resilience stems from "the belief that they have a chance for a better life."

But Greg knows that the challenge is great to ensure that better life. After all, he points out only 41% of all Boston high school graduates graduated from college within six years, according to a recent study. The statistics are even more intimidating for black and Hispanic students, at 33% and 30%, respectively. Yet, nine out of every ten new jobs requires a college degree, and the wage difference between a high school diploma and a bachelor's degree can reach as high as $800,000 over the course of a lifetime.

For children from low-income households or those who are the first generation in their family to go to college, the barriers to graduating with that bachelor's degree are high. Many have to earn some income to support the family or help with childcare for younger siblings. Many are less prepared academically than their wealthier classmates, and most face financial hurdles.

Bottom Line was created not only to help these students get accepted into college, but help them succeed after they get in. As Greg puts it, "Our goal is to stay with these students until they finish their college experience."

From a science lab to social science
It was not a line of work Greg initially imagined he'd wind up in. Growing up in Enfield, Connecticut, a sleepy town located roughly halfway between Boston and New York, he attended public high school and went directly on to Brown University. "I went in thinking I'd be a chemist," he says. "But I realized that sitting in a lab is not where I wanted to be." He found himself attracted to the social sciences instead, and he praises Brown for an educational style that "allows people to find their own path."

That path first led to Springfield, Massachusetts, where Greg landed a job as Program Director for an AM radio station and gained on-air broadcasting experience. He enjoyed the work, but when he and his wife relocated to Boston so that she could attend graduate school, he found it next to impossible to break into local radio.

But this turned out to be a big break for him—and for the students he has helped prepare for a more successful future. His first job on this career path was with The Princeton Review, where he began teaching classes to help students "from all walks of life" prepare for the math SAT, or as he puts it, "beat the test." Over the next seven years, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the Director of Marketing for Massachusetts and northern New England.

It was through this position that Greg came to the attention of Dave Borgal, who had founded Bottom Line in 1997. The organization accomplishes its task through what Greg calls "high-touch" personalized one-on-one guidance and mentoring, from helping high school students apply to college right through to their receiving their degree. Counselors are full-time staff who maintain consistent support and also refer students to other resources if needed.

For Greg, it was "an immediate fit." He became Executive Director in 2003. He has since been promoted to CEO.

Bottom Line branches out
The organization has thrived under Greg's leadership. Since 2003, it has tripled the size of the staff at its Boston headquarters and moved into a larger office space. From helping 25 high seniors in its inaugural year, Bottom Line's Boston office served 880 students in 2007.

The following year, a satellite office was opened in the central Massachusetts city of Worcester. One hundred percent of the inaugural class of that new office was accepted into college. By 2010, Bottom Line was supporting nearly 1,400 students across both offices. And the organization was recognized as a national leader in the field of college retention that year.

The expansion of Bottom Line didn't end there. In 2011, Bottom Line launched an office in New York City, serving an inaugural class of 121 high school seniors. With placements ranging from Boston University to College of the Holy Cross to Brooklyn College, thousands of students are now earning their degrees thanks to Bottom Line.

It is of Bottom Line's expansion that Greg is most proud. "Kids were walking in off the streets," he recalls. "I figured, there's got to be a way to help more students." Even today, "more students want our service than we can serve," he says. It is his hope that creating a replicable program will one day offer help to every student who wants and needs a college education.

Lewis Family Foundation pledges $2.5 million to Bottom Line
"Bottom Line functions as an exemplary college retention model and a regional support network for low-income and first-generation urban students," says Bithiah Carter, Executive Director of Grand Circle Foundation's Community Advisory Group (CAG), a coalition of leaders from the Foundation and its long-term nonprofit partners in Boston.

Greg is a member of the group, which meets regularly to explore ideas for resolving issues they have in common, including handling budgets and fundraising, developing boards, evaluating programs, coordinating volunteers, and more. Greg notes that many of his colleagues in the group work with youths in the same neighborhoods from which Bottom Line draws much of its Boston clientele. "They're great organizations," he says. "Our goals are perfectly aligned."

Grand Circle Foundation co-chairs Harriet and Alan Lewis have been impressed by Greg, too. Their Lewis Family Foundation has just made a pledge to invest $2.5 million dollars in Bottom Line over the next five years, to help make its services eligible to all students in the CAG's neighborhoods of concern, to help double the rate of success.

"We are excited to partner with Bottom Line and our Community Advisory Group members to increase the college graduation rate for students in Boston's neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan," says Bithiah. "Our partnership with Bottom Line is particularly exciting because of their track record of success."

"Nothing is more rewarding than seeing a student make it through," says Greg. Students like the young woman who is on track to become the first doctor in Bottom Line history. Or students who have been on their own since age 17, and look to Bottom Line for the kind of nurturing support every child craves. Students who would have had a greater struggle for a brighter future if it weren't for his organization. For Greg—and for the Lewis Family Foundation—that's the bottom line.

Featured in our August 2012 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.