Laura Kelly Johnston

At Home in Healthcare

Monday, June 18, 2018


Hometown: Hopkins, Minnesota

Program: Full-Time MBA

Current position: Senior business analyst, UnitedHealth Group

Previous career experience: Project Manager, Epic; Project Manager, Wolters Kluwer Health; Epic OpTime & Anesthesia Analyst, Hennepin County Medical Center

Undergraduate education: BA in East Asian Studies (Chinese), Northwestern University

Advice for current and prospective students: “Life is long; careers are long. There’s a lot you can do with your time and there are a lot of different directions you can go in, but none of those is going to be the be-all, end-all. You can learn a lot from each experience and grow and become a more interesting person because of having tried those things.”

Favorite classes: Strategic Management with Professor and Curtis L. Carlson Chair in Strategic Management Aks Zaheer; Competing in a Data Driven Digital Age with Associate Professor and McKnight Presidential Fellow Gordon Burtch

Hidden talent: Originally majored in clarinet performance at Northwestern; also plays the cello

Sure, Laura (Kelly) Johnston, ’18 MBA, brought five years of experience in the healthcare industry into the Carlson Full-Time MBA Program.

And sure, part of the reason she chose the Carlson School was its Medical Industry Leadership Institute (MILI).

But she says she genuinely came into the program with an open mind, prepared to consider switching gears and moving in a new direction if one made an impression on her.

“I always come back to healthcare, because at least for me, that’s where I can provide the most value,” she says. “There are these systemic problems, and I think in order to have any real improvement, you need to have people who really want to see it improved.”

After graduating from Carlson this spring, Johnston will push for that improvement as part of UnitedHealth Group’s corporate services group, rotating through projects for UHG and its two units, UnitedHealthcare and Optum.

“It’s a powerful company,” she says of UHG, which sits No. 5 on the current Fortune 500 list. “One of my friends mentioned to me, ‘If you really want to have the biggest impact possible, that’s a great place to start.’”

Devastation, then inspiration

“Everybody needs healthcare at some point,” Johnston says.

In the case of her family, that time arrived shortly before she headed off to college in 2007, when her mom, Patty, was diagnosed with an indolent form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The disease was treatable but incurable.

Johnston, her younger sister Rose, and dad, Dan, acted as the primary caregivers. The experience was both exhausting and enlightening: Her mom complained that food tasted metallic or like cardboard—a distortion of the taste buds that can be a side effect of chemotherapy.

“You know the fatigue happens and you know that these symptoms are part of the deal,” she says, “but the extent to which that affects the patient and the family was hard.”

The ordeal has inspired a business idea Johnston is now pursuing with her sister, who’s part of the incoming Carlson MBA class. They’ve started a company called Two Daughters that will offer frozen meals tailored to the needs of individual cancer patients, in terms of portion size, nutritional value, and taste.

Johnston received a Sands Family Social Venturing Fellowship to help her develop her idea and hire accomplished local chef Brenda Langton and an oncology dietitian to concoct some recipes. She used Carlson’s STARTUP: Customer Development and Testing to interview patients and conduct market research. And, at the urging of MILI Executive in Residence Michael Finch, she twice ran the business through MILI’s Medical Industry Valuation Lab, in which student teams conduct rapid analyses of medical products.

“I’ve had a lot of support from people here in the Ventures Enterprise and in the MILI Valuation Lab,” says Johnston, who recently learned Two Daughters has advanced to the semifinalist round of the MN Cup competition.

Leveraging MILI’s resources

Johnston has twice been on the other side of the Valuation Lab, too. In addition to taking the regular full semester course, she traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area for the Global Valuation Lab seminar.

“You look at market sizing, you look at regulatory considerations, you look at intellectual property considerations—you look at all these things that all have to come together into some cohesive story before you can understand whether it makes sense for this thing to move forward,” she says. “It’s very real. I mean, it is actually somebody’s invention, which is fun. You’re doing real work. It’s not just going to sit somewhere. It’s going to affect the inventor directly.”

Johnston calls Finch, who has helped teach the Valuation Lab course since it launched in 2008, “a great asset to this university” and a mentor who connected her with healthcare industry leaders in the Twin Cities. She also took advantage of MILI’s network to establish her own contacts, served on the board of the MILI Student Association, and attended just about every MILI event during her time at Carlson.

It all reaffirmed her inclination that healthcare was the right path for her.

“Basically, I think my broad goal is pretty simple,” she says. “I’d like to do work that I think is valuable, and I’d like to contribute more than I take over the course of my life.”