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Around the World: Heather Johnson ’11

From Shanghai to New York City, Johnson has seized opportunities that have led to her becoming a VP in digital wealth at Merrill.Heather Johnson '11

“I was nervous that I had made a horrible mistake.”

This was how Heather Johnson felt when she first moved to New York City in 2013 with no job prospects and no contacts. Today, she works as a vice president in digital wealth at Merrill, a division of one of the largest banks in the world.

But her journey to this position really began at age 14, when she visited Thailand with her father, where they worked with refugee groups in the mountains for five weeks. Traveling abroad inspired her to learn more about the rest of the world, so when it came time for college, Johnson minored in Chinese while earning a degree in economics at Clemson. That decision led to a life-changing opportunity.

“I got an internship my junior year where they paid for me to go and live in Shanghai and work at the world’s fair,” she says. “That was my first taste of China; I had never been there before.” Working together with 60 other students at the U.S. Pavilion, Johnson thrived in the international environment.

After graduation, Johnson moved back to Shanghai, where she began working with Liulishuo, an English language-learning app, creating and recording content. “Thirty million people have heard my voice and tried to replicate it,” she says about the app.

After working two years in China, Johnson decided it was time for a change. Looking to advance her career, she set her sights on New York City and working in wealth management. Four rough months of job searching passed before she landed a position as a research analyst.

“My first job was miserable,” Johnson says. “It was not fun, but I had to do it to build my name in New York and meet people.”

Meeting people paid off, and a position appeared that was exactly what she was looking for: building technology designed for financial advisers at Morgan Stanley. Johnson worked for two years doing just that when she received a surprise phone call at lunch: a job offer from Merrill. Johnson jumped at the chance.

Now at Merrill, Johnson uses her economics background to produce new technologies that close the gap between financial advisers and clients. “We are working on building digital tools that address the increasingly complex needs of a digital world,” she says.

More than a decade has passed since that first visit to Thailand, and Johnson is glad that her path has led her to New York: “It would have been easy for me to get a job in Greenville or Atlanta — pushing myself to live in China and then New York City was scary and difficult. But now, I think it opened up so many more opportunities for me.”

Surprise Chef: Suzanne Paraiso Cupps ’02

Suzanne Paraiso Cupps '02

No one is more surprised than Suzanne Cupps that she has ended up becoming a chef. She didn’t grow up watching “Iron Chef” or “Chopped” or “Top Chef,” dreaming of being head chef at a high-profile restaurant.

“It wasn’t something I dreamed of doing or something that had even crossed my mind,” says Cupps, who took over last April as executive chef at Untitled, a contemporary American restaurant located on the first floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Cupps is the only female executive chef with Union Square Hospitality Group, which operates Untitled and 14 other New York restaurants. Her name and title is blind-embossed on the bottom left of the menu, an understated claim that fits her calm, understated demeanor. She hasn’t gotten where she is by being loud and overbearing, but by being precise and detailed and thorough.

And she’s gotten there by being a mentor and a teacher, which is somewhat humorous given that was her original career goal. A math major at Clemson, Cupps was dreading student teaching her senior year enough to know that wasn’t the right direction. So she moved to New York and eventually landed at the famed Waldorf Astoria Hotel, working in human re­sources. When they needed extra help in the steak house, she pitched in and discovered a love of food preparation.

She didn’t know the difference between cilantro and parsley and had never held a knife properly, but she forged ahead and began classes at the Institute of Culinary Education. A lover of precision (a part of her math background, she says), she would take potatoes home every night and practice slicing and dicing until she got them perfect.

A series of kitchen jobs followed, and she landed at Gramercy Tavern (also part of Union Square Hospitality Group), learning from chef Michael Anthony. She moved to Untitled as chef de cuisine before taking the reins as executive chef.

She loves sourcing local seasonal ingredients and creating plates that are works of art. And she loves teaching, though in a very different type classroom than she initially envisioned. “My style is very much teaching,” she says, “and it’s funny that I didn’t become a math teacher, but I teach all day in the kitchen.

“I show cooks how to get better.”

Watch Cupps make an appearance in a New York Times Style Magazine video from 2015 that explores Untitled at the Whitney and really captures the restaurant’s style and appeal.

Here’s a more recent article from StarChefs that features Cupps as a rising star chef in New York City.