Entrepreneurial benefactor finds synergy with VCU’s da Vinci Center
Thomas “T.J.” Johnson, III, wasn’t always a VCU fan. In fact, before his daughter Addie enrolled in the VCU School of the Arts, he had no idea it was the No. 1 public art school in the nation. But after learning of the innovative education and experiences his daughter received during her four years at VCUarts and the da Vinci Center for Innovation, Johnson became an enthusiastic VCU benefactor.
Recent gifts by Johnson will endow an annual scholarship for a da Vinci Center student in the name of Bill Bishop, author of The New Economy Thinker, and provide seed money to catalyze a new innovation space for students across the university to sell their own inventions and products.
“The students at the da Vinci Center don’t artificially force themselves into one box and say, ‘I’m just a business student,’” says da Vinci Center Executive Director Garret Westlake. “They can express, ‘I’m interested in business. I’m also interested in design. And I’m fascinated by engineering.’ I think that’s why T.J. finds such synergy, because he’s always his whole authentic self and he finds students at the da Vinci Center who are also their authentic and curious selves.”
VCU’s da Vinci Center is a partnership between VCU’s School of the Arts, College of Humanities and Sciences, School of Business and College of Engineering. The Center aims to advance innovation and entrepreneurship through cross-disciplinary collaboration.
“The da Vinci Center excites me,” Johnson says. “I’ve always suggested to my children that they learn how to become problem solvers. That’s how we will make positive change. I believe all the world’s problems can be solved by innovation and people who are motivated to find solutions.”
Addie Johnson certainly heeded her father’s advice. In May of 2019, she graduated from VCU with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design and a certificate in Product Innovation from the da Vinci Center.
During the first semester of her senior year, she was a member of a da Vinci Center team assigned to work on a real-life problem for Pfizer. The following semester, Pfizer invited Addie and one of her da Vinci teammates to collaborate on a second project. Following their graduation, Pfizer employed both young women as contractors in their New Ventures department.
“Addie had such a great experience at VCU,” Johnson proudly recalls.
Networks & relationships birthed by a single innovative book
In more than 40 years in the investment business, the now-retired Johnson took a decidedly entrepreneurial approach to his work as a financial advisor and branch manager. In 2018, after reading The New Economy Thinker by Bill Bishop, Johnson was inspired to co-found the first chapter of The New Economy Thinker Network outside of Canada.
Johnson found a kindred spirit in da Vinci Center Executive Director Garret Westlake after Westlake was the featured speaker at a forum that Johnson regularly attended. Johnson gave Westlake a copy of Bishop’s book and invited him to speak at the inaugural meeting of Richmond chapter of The New Economy Thinker Network held at the Science Museum of Virginia. Immediately after that event, Westlake joined the Network and offered to host future network meetings at the da Vinci Center, provided da Vinci students were welcome. It was the beginning of a meaningful partnership.
Johnson became a regular visitor to the da Vinci Center where he served as a mentor to students participating in the Center’s Pre-Accelerator (Pre-X) Program intended to identify, support, and launch high growth and high potential startups and founders.
During the summer of 2019, Johnson also mentored students involved in Lighthouse U – a new project by nationally ranked Richmond startup accelerator Lighthouse Labs and da Vinci. The project received a $1 million grant from GO Virginia to train and support entrepreneurial college students across Virginia interested in launching startups.
“When T.J. shows up to mentor students, he doesn’t hold back,” says Westlake. “He’s not doing it for the prestige or the ego boost. He’s truly doing it to help. In his ongoing support of the da Vinci Center’s programming and its students, he really resonates.”
Providing scholarships “makes me happy”
Perhaps the most powerful way Johnson connects with da Vinci Center students is through the scholarship he created. Johnson makes it a point to meet his scholarship recipients.
Carlos David Jimenez Morales learned that the VCU School of Business had awarded him the scholarship in May of 2019. Immediately upon receiving the news, Morales called his mother. “This honor has a significant positive impact, not only for me, but also for my mother who has always worked hard for me to achieve my goals. We are tremendously grateful for this opportunity.”
Morales earned his undergraduate degree in psychology from VCU and is pursuing his master’s in Product Innovation. “In psychology, I learned a lot about mental health disorders and want to help those affected by them. One of my goals is to someday develop an application to help first-generation students like myself to location resources that assist them with their mental health and wellness.” He also hopes to one day provide a scholarship to another deserving student.
Johnson understands this sentiment. His great aunt and uncle paid his tuition at an all-male boarding school during his high school days. The gift changed Johnson’s life. Even so, providing scholarships for others – at universities and secondary schools in Virginia as well as other states – isn’t something he feels obligated to do. “I do it because I want to do it. It makes me happy,” he says.
Five years ago, Johnson – a Vietnam era Air Force medic – also created an endowed scholarship at the VCU School of Nursing in memory of the wife of a dear friend. Johnson also provided financial and mentoring support to VCU’s 2018 Hyperloop team that was one of only 18 teams in the world selected to compete in the final round of the international competition at SpaceX headquarters in California.