By Sarah Trefethen
From the diving board to the golf course to the cutting edge of office design, Elyse Johnson doesn’t hesitate to jump right in.
Last year, the senior project manager at Jones Lang Lesalle left a Manhattan apartment and moved into her newly purchased two-bedroom condo in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
The next day, she went to her first community board meeting. She’s now a member of the board.
“Since I was a kid, my parents said ‘make sure you know what’s going on and stay involved in your community,’ “says Johnson, 36, who the National Association of Professional Women recently named a “VIP Woman of the Year” for 2012-2013.
Johnson studied architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic and has been with JLL since 2006. Before that, she worked with Corgan Associates and TPG Architecture, where she spent four years on the ground-up development of CNBC’s 350,000 s/f facility in Englewood, N.J.
Today, she has a number of balls in the air at JLL, including a project to expand Health First’s 100 Church Street offices, a project with Aspen Insurance, and a 500,000 s/f project for a law firm client.
An extra note of enthusiasm creeps into her voice when she mentions Medidata Solutions, a medical software developer.
“They’re fun and cool and innovative,” she says. “I can’t wait to see how that design comes out.”
Tech projects in general are among her favorites, she says. “They’re willing to push the envelope a little more.”
Johnson sees technology companies experimenting with more shared offices and living room-like common spaces, design trends that she thinks would also be well suited to advertising and creative firms.
In addition to a taste for innovation, the infrastructure demands of a modern technology firm give those projects an extra edge that Johnson enjoys.
“I like the challenging, complex projects,” she says.
And two or three months after a project is finished, she likes to go back and observe how clients are using the space, making note of successes and room for improvements for future reference.
Johnson grew up in Uniondale, Long Island, the third of five children born to Guyanese immigrants.
Her father is a dentist and her mother has retired from a career as a respiratory therapist.
She has three brothers: Clayton, who owns a martial arts school, Stefan; who is studying criminal justice and physical therapy and Sven, a principal in a website design firm. Her sister, Janel, recently completed a PhD in molecular biology.
“My siblings are my best friends, and every decision I make I talk with my mother about first,” she says.
She holds a lifetime membership with Habitat for Humanity in Nassau County, N.Y. and has served as an ACE Mentor Program, for teens interested in careers in architecture.
Women of color are very much in the minority in commercial real estate, but Johnson sees that as an advantage.
“I definitely stand out, but I like that. I embrace it,” she says. “It’s good because people remember you.”
The old boys’ network is alive and well, and Johnson says she still encounters men who don’t take her seriously at first meeting. But she doesn’t seem to let that stop her.
“I started playing golf because all the guys were playing without me,” she said. “I’m terrible but I still play – I broke 100 a couple of years ago.”
She makes a point of giving golf clubs to the daughters of friends, and is quick to share the statistic that more women’s’ golf scholarships go unfilled than any other scholarship.
“It’s a part of corporate America that isn’t going away,” she says. “You can learn a lot about a person in the four hours you spend on a golf course.”
Johnson travels for pleasure, and draws upon her diverse social circle to vacation off the beaten path.
Recent trips to the homes of college friends have taken her from the black sand beaches of Panama to Ghana, the nation where the forbearers of many Guyanese originated.
She is also plays the flute, recently took up Bikram Yoga, and is considering returning to competitive diving, a sport she participated in in high school and college.
An avid fan of science fiction, Johnson was also in line at 8 p.m. for a midnight showing of the Aliens prequel Prometheus on opening night.
Does she sleep?
“Not very often.”