Suzanne Higgins Published

WV Values and Appreciation for Education Helps This CEO Empower Women Worldwide


She’s so beautiful that after retiring as a global executive for IBM, she was pursued by the Wilhelmina Modeling Agency as a mature model, appearing in numerous ads for national commercials.

But today Marilyn Johnson is one of the most high profile African-American businesswomen in the country.  She’s CEO of one of the most prestigious women’s organizations in the world – the International Women’s Forum headquartered in Washington, DC.

From the time she was very young, the middle child of 5 had a fire in her belly to succeed.  She wanted to succeed at everything

However, being from an African American family in the Kanawha Valley of the 1950s, there were hurdles to overcome.

The Kanawha County native is one of four national leaders profiled in West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s 2015 Inspiring West Virginians radio documentary, airing Dec. 28 at 8pm.

“If there was a spelling bee, I wanted to be one of the last ones standing. If we all had to go to the chalkboard to do math, I took my time to print neatly, check my work before they called on me to explain my problem,” said Johnson.

“I wanted to excel and I had educators that saw more in me than I saw in myself.”

After earning two Masters Degrees in education from Marshall University – while at one point working as the weekend weather girl at WSAZ-TV – Johnson taught briefly in Cabell County.  But then she headed for California to interview with IBM.

“I knew from the very first conversation with the very first manager at IBM that if I invested in my career the way I invested in my education in West Virginia, it was a meritocracy,” said Johnson.

“The better or more skilled you were the more responsibility you would get, the better performance that you delivered, the more opportunities that you would receive.  And with that comes leadership, compensation, escalation and success – defined by moving up that corporate ladder.”

Over a period of 35 years, while raising her two children, she went from showing customers how to use IBM business equipment, to Vice President in charge of developing  IBM’s strategy for marketing to businesses that were owned by ethnically diverse people, and women leaders around the world.

In that role, Johnson expanded IBM’s market share significantly.  When she retired in 2012, IBM had nearly 400,000 employees in more than 70 countries – and it remains an iconic leader in the IT industry.

“Marilyn is perpetually visionary, she’s a lifelong learner. She really is inspirational,” said Denise Evans, Johnson’s successor at IBM.  “She’s always uplifting. Even when giving constructive criticism, it’s uplifting.”

Then, in 2014, came the biggest challenge of Marilyn Johnson’s career.  She was invited to be the new Chief Executive Officer of the International Women’s Forum.

This global network of 6000 preeminent women leaders across all fields and professions not only comes together to help each other, but it also provides programs to develop future women leaders in law, government, business, science, education, media, sports and other fields. 

“Our leadership development experience helps women in 33 countries in 24 time zones on six continents find their voice, find their network, educate on expert topics and raise their influence level around the world,” said Johnson.

Another draw to the new position in Washington, DC was that it brought Marilyn Johnson, the little girl from the Kanawha Valley, closer to home, and family.

“My parents are in their 80s.  I can be HOME in just a few hours.  I can wake up and know that I can have lunch, or dinner, or both – with my parents in West Virginia,” she said.

“There is a true benefit to being from a place that wants you to succeed, and wants you to represent the best of its values.   So when I go home, I go to West Virginia.”  

Editor’s note:  Enjoy the stories of more than 2 dozen Inspiring West Virginians during an encore presentation of all 6 programs, Dec. 29 – Dec. 31, beginning at 8pm on West Virginia Public Radio.