By Stephen Wilson

Believing you can change your world, then creating an organization and career that does that, is no easy feat. Nor is it easy to inspire and teach next generation aspiring leaders to do the same thing. 

The former has been the life work of Marty Johnson. The latter appears in the role he played on campus as the inaugural Don and Lauren Morel Entrepreneur in Residence at the Dyer Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Marty Johnson in a white button down and blue blazer

Marty Johnson

As his tenure on campus comes to an end, the impact of his presence will be felt in the center, classroom, and community.

As a high school student in Akron, Ohio, Johnson felt the weight of poverty while trying to protect his family’s honor and dignity. The grandson of former farmers and sharecroppers who sought work in Akron’s tire factories during the Depression, he was recruited by Princeton’s football coaches. That experience and education pushed him to spend his life finding new ways to treat others the way he wanted to be treated.  

With no money or track record, Johnson and two fellow students formed Isles Inc. in 1981. The Trenton, N.J.-based urban sustainable development organization is now nationally recognized as the region’s largest community development organization, with a staff of 54 and annual budget over $6 million. 

As founder and CEO, he learned to be an entrepreneur for good. In 2013, he converted those lessons into courses and training in social entrepreneurship, and began teaching part time at Princeton while he continued at Isles. He retired, but quickly received a call from Yusuf Dahl, director of Lafayette’s Dyer Center.  

“He came to Lafayette two years ago without a job description per say, but listened and learned and added value in a space that thrives on developing new solutions rather than living within a structure,” says Dahl. “He played a critical role in the iterative nature of the center.”

Below, Johnson reflects on how his one-year commitment at the Dyer Center became two years, and all that he accomplished, or attempted to, even with a pandemic.

What is social entrepreneurship?

The world faces awesome, even existential social and environmental challenges. Caring students (of all ages) have a choice: get angry, get cynical, or become changemakers. The world has plenty of the first two. Social entrepreneurs explore challenges deeply. They attract and form teams, build impactful ventures (whether nonprofit, for-profit, or governmental), and find resources to sustain it over time. The best ones do more than start ventures—they change systems that cause problems in the first place.

Why is social entrepreneurship important in higher education?

Einstein was a pretty smart guy, especially when he said, ‘We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’ College offers a great setting to develop new ways of thinking. But theory and history are not enough. We must build our way to these new thoughts. These builders, like carpenter builders, need tools and ways to think across disciplines. Entrepreneurs need to layer three different mindsets: an engineering feasibility mindset to ascertain whether the idea works, an economic mindset to determine if it is viable, and a sociology/psychology mindset to understand if there is demand. Few students bring all those ways of thinking in one brain, so we encourage them to form diverse teams. Compared to business schools that tend to focus on management technique, Lafayette, with its strong liberal arts, economics, and engineering departments, offers competitive learning advantages for social entrepreneurs—if we can break down silos on campus. 

Can we predict who will succeed as entrepreneurs?

More research is needed, but for now, we know two attributes that correlate with successful entrepreneurship: education and, perhaps more importantly, intrinsic motivation. I don’t worry about the first—students get a world-class education at Lafayette. What I think a lot about is the second: What will you do when things get really hard? I have tried to find ways to help students discern that question, to teach it, and of course, most importantly, to model it. My goal is to get more students to try entrepreneurship. They learn deeply when they do, and they often find magic in starting something.

Looking back on your work here, what brings you pride?

We now have proof that students and the broader community want and benefit from this training and experience. In particular, I’m pleased that we created the social entrepreneurship course, developed the innovative D.Y.E.R. Fellowship, started the Lafayette Easton Alliance (LEA) along with students, and nurtured a team of my students who launched LafKids Connect, a student organization that benefits Easton students and Lafayette kids equally.  

Talk more about the D.Y.E.R Fellowship.

In college, clean semester schedules and typical curriculum constraints undermine serious entrepreneurship education. In the real world, it takes time to really understand problems, design and test new ways to solve them, form the right teams, and build a lasting venture. That rarely fits into 15-week schedules. The fellowship gives us four years to work with a select cohort of diverse, often first-generation student leaders who receive training, startup experience, and connections designed to help them succeed as changemakers. This is the first year of the fellowship, and we think we are on to something very important to Lafayette and to colleges and universities across the country. Instead of offering traditional student jobs, what if we funded motivated students to experience, learn, and add value to local organizations and businesses? Students benefit, but this also builds a bridge from the academy to the community.

Talk about LEA.

The health of Easton and Lafayette are tied to each other. When COVID hit, we started asking, ‘Might students who now learn e-commerce, digital marketing, and team-building skills help train local businesses—and might those resilient small businesses teach students how to connect and buy locally?’ The Lafayette Easton Alliance (LEA) is designed to build that bridge, not just between town and college administrators but between students and businesses directly. As far as we know, LEA is the only student-led organization of its kind in the country. We presented our work at last spring’s International Town & Gown Association (ITGA) annual conference. Over 30,000 people live in Easton, but it is also ‘home’ to Lafayette students for four years. How do we learn to treat it that way?

What lessons have you taken away from this experience?

While it might seem scary to traditional educators, entrepreneurship education adds value in so many ways. Increasingly diverse Lafayette students want to solve big hairy challenges, but also smaller ones back in their hometowns and in Easton. Colleges that combine liberal arts and engineering offer awesome opportunities to meet that demand, but it requires a culture that supports it across academic silos and makes it ‘cool.’ The Dyer Center is key to that, and Yusuf Dahl’s vision, along with the support of Dyer’s board and interested faculty, make it possible.

What have you seen in Lafayette students?

Like my students at Princeton, they are smart, but they also bring drive and grit. A growing number hail from other parts of the world and under-represented groups. That diversity pushes us to be more relevant, since they want to create an impact back home. This generation expects that current problems require new institutions and organizations. We try to embrace that desire to build something new, while pushing them to innovate existing institutions too.

What do you see in the future for innovation at the College?

First, let’s be honest about the dirty secret to education: Despite all the attention paid to great campuses, expert faculty, elite student admissions, etc., the key to education is that a student chooses to learn something. How do we put students in the position to want to learn? Place them in roles that are consequential—where they can take thoughtful risks, innovate, and impact others, not just themselves. The Dyer Center experience can also inform other parts of the College. Entrepreneurship helps tear down walls, deepen learning, make Easton feel like home, and make the future more hopeful for all of us.

Any regrets?

COVID forced us to learn new ways of teaching, learning, and connecting that will undoubtedly stay with us. However, entrepreneurship education requires pressure testing ideas over time. For many ventures, that is more difficult when you can’t be face to face. Business marketing guru Peter Drucker once said that ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’  At Lafayette, changing the culture to support this evolution requires a challenging closeness, not distance.   

What’s next for you?

After 40 years of entrepreneurship and teaching, it is time to write the book on what we’ve learned—and why that matters. As I step down from Lafayette, I look forward to writing and building an off-the-grid compound in the mountains of northern New Hampshire. I am currently cutting and milling timber on our property to build a barn and writing studio.

Students Reflect on Johnson’s Impact

Riley Larson ’21
“Marty was a valuable part of my Lafayette education. Before working with him, I had virtually no experience in social entrepreneurship. He became a great mentor—available, passionate, and wanting to lead positive change. His work at Isles inspired me and our team to put our all into the Lafayette Easton Alliance (LEA). He valued active learning, which gave me the confidence to put myself out there, and then trusted me to go out in the world and make a difference. It is sad that we never got to meet in person, thanks to the pandemic and our distant education, but he still brought out the best in me.”

Remy Oktay ’23
“I pestered Marty to let me in his social entrepreneurship course when I was a first-year student, but it was designed for upperclassmen and filled with seniors. Still, he let me serve as a teaching assistant because he understood I wanted to see what students could do to create impact rather than memorize minutiae while the world was burning. He presented a big picture and talked about aligning head and heart. He focused on ethics: how what you do must align with the why, and how to focus on fixing problems rather than growing profits. What he taught me, both in the classroom and outside it, filled the gaps in my Lafayette education, bringing a mindset and mission together, and complementing what I was learning in classes.”

Dina Azar ’25
“As a D.Y.E.R fellow, our pre-orientation on campus had us sharing meals with Marty and the Dyer staff. During those meals, he always pushed us to go deeper, making us answer the so-what question. In our weekly fellow sessions, he has continued to push us as we focus on our passions. He has helped motivate and focus me as I dream of improving the lives of Lebanese youth. His perspective and views make my thinking better.”

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Categorized in: Dyer Center, Featured News, Innovative Teaching and Learning, News and Features

1 Comment

  1. Nancy De Vries Nicholas '76 says:

    As a Lafayette graduate who now calls Easton my home, I am thrilled to hear of the Entrepreneurship programs being available to the students. Presently as a retired Kindergarten teacher, I am working with a small group on a project to help families of low socioeconomic status with preschool aged children become better “first teachers” of their children. We will be presenting our project during the spring semester in the Social Entrepreneurship class. I am so excited about the possibility of partnering with a group of innovative, talented, motivated risk taking students to see if with their help, our project can be successful.

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