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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.”

Time Well Spent: Michael Sims ’03 and Gash Clayton ’03

The founders of the sophisticated sports watch company Hook + Gaff are settling into their success — and their product’s higher purpose.Michael Sims '03 and Gash Clayton '03

“Watches have been made since the late 1800s. There’re a few that have tackled the idea with one or two models, but they’ve never gone all in with this concept.”

The concept that Michael Sims is referring to is a watch designed specifically to alleviate discomfort while playing golf or casting a fishing rod by having a crown placement (the small knob on the side of the watch face that adjusts the time) on the left side rather than the right. This way, the crown doesn’t dig into the skin on the back of the left hand when it’s bent or in motion.

When Sims first came up with the idea, he was playing golf.

“I’m one of those weird guys who doesn’t take . off his watch when playing golf,” he laughs. “At the end of the day, I’d have a callus on the back of my hand from the traditional crown placement.” In the midst of juggling his insurance company in Anderson . and helping with his wife’s Chick-fil-A business in Columbia, Sims started researching watches for a solution. The idea for Hook + Gaff began to take shape in his mind, and he knew he’d need a logo, designs and other assets to move forward.

So, he turned to his college buddy Gash Clayton. Clayton, a lawyer by day and artist by night, drafted the sharp, red logo for Hook + Gaff in just a few hours, sending it back to Sims, who was immediately sold. The partnership only grew from there:

“We give each other opinions,” says Clayton, “but at the end of the day, there’s no argument over who makes the final call.” Clayton controls the company’s designs and brand while Sims oversees the day-to-day operations. After launching the company in 2013 with 300 Sportfisher watches manufactured in Switzerland, Sims and Clayton entered Garden & Gun magazine’s “Made in the South” competition. The watch didn’t make the cut, but it was included in the Southern magazine’s gift guide, which “really jumpstarted the brand,” Sims says. Now, Hook + Gaff is growing rapidly with stateside assembly and celebrity ambassadors like Carter Andrews of National Geographic’s Legendary Catch and Brad Leone of Bon Appétit.

Durability is Hook + Gaff’s bread and butter. “We knew that our [customers] were really going to put these through the ringer,” Sims explains. Materials like titanium, scratch-proof sapphire glass and Italian dive straps are staples in each collection. Despite their high-quality product, the question Clayton and Sims get all the time is, “What does your watch do that my smartwatch can’t do?” Their answer may surprise you: “To get away from technology, every once in a while, is a good thing because what you’re going to remember down the road is the time you spent with family and friends, doing things you love to do. … Our hashtag has become ‘Time Well Spent’ over this last year as we try to push that message.

“What is time well spent for you?”

Rocket Woman: Vanessa Ellerbe Wyche ’85, M ’87

NASA is working on sending astronauts back to the moon in 2024. Wyche will be there every step of the way.VANESSA ELLERBE WYCHE ’85, M ’87

Excitement sneaks into Vanessa Wyche’s voice as she talks about the upcoming Artemis program, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s 2024 directive that will see astronauts set foot on the moon once again.

“Our intent is to go and have infrastructure in place that would allow additional capabilities on the surface of the moon,” she says. Those additional capabilities include setting up a small gateway platform that will act as a checkpoint for future missions to Mars.

As the deputy director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Wyche has a lot to do before then. One major priority is Orion — the spacecraft on track to return to the lunar surface.

“Having spacecraft that are able to withstand going from Earth to the lunar vicinity and returning is very important,” she says. “We’ve not done that since Apollo, so having the right technologies and the right testing are what our workforce is responsible for laying out.”

Aside from overseeing construction of Orion, Wyche’s responsibilities include monitoring the International Space Station and the Human Research program (which investigates how humans might survive for longer periods of time in space) as well as working with commercial partners, like Boeing and SpaceX, to develop vehicles that will transport astronauts to and from the space station. Wyche was named deputy director in 2018, but her career with NASA has spanned nearly three decades. After graduating with a bachelor’s and master’s in bioengineering from Clemson, Wyche headed to Washington, D.C., where she worked in the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Device Evaluation. When she and her husband moved to Houston, she found work at NASA as a project engineer, designing flight hardware. Since then, she’s held multiple leadership positions and earned two NASA Exceptional Achievement Medals and two NASA Outstanding Leadership Medals.

When she’s not at Johnson Space Center, Wyche is championing STEM in her community. For the past six years, NASA has partnered with The Links, Incorporated to bring a science fair to a local elementary school. NASA employees visit the school and mentor the children on their projects, while the nonprofit provides the supplies and resources to put on the fair.

“The carrot, the way to get all the kids to participate,” says Wyche, “is that if they do their project — no matter how good or bad — they get a field trip to NASA.”

Recently the program has expanded to another local school, which faces even more challenges. Many of its students are destitute.

“But the surprising thing is that those kids were the most excited about being able to do a science project,” Wyche says. “I’m hoping to be able to continue to support both schools, and my longterm goal is to see if we can expand this further.”

Wyche’s work in STEM outreach comes from a place of gratitude for NASA’s commitment to future generations — and also a place of reflection about her own career, one she describes as “awesome. I cannot begin to tell you just how awesome.”

Fort Bragg Family: Mark Pisano ’81

Pisano has spent his entire career serving a unique group of people: children in military families.

Mark Pisano '81

As a school psychologist, Mark Pisano has been helping military kids process emotion, cope with transition and do their best in the classroom for over 35 years. Pisano works in the Fort Bragg Schools in North Carolina, which includes nine schools on the army base, assessing children for learning disabilities and providing mental health services.

“Sometimes kids feel, and adults, too, that there’s something wrong with them because they’re upset all the time,” he says. “I help them understand that the feelings that they have during deployment — the fear, the sadness — there’s nothing wrong with them for feeling those things.”

After playing on the golf team at Clemson for four years and graduating in 1981 with a degree in psychology, Pisano began his first school year at Fort Bragg in 1982 and has been there ever since. He earned a master’s in 1982 and certificate of advanced study in 1984, both in school psychology, from Western Carolina University and a doctorate in education from Campbell University in 1992b.

Throughout his career, Pisano has not only been able to raise awareness about the unique experience of military kids but also further the resources available to them and their families. He has presented workshops across the country; traveled abroad to work with military kids in Uruguay, Bolivia and Cuba; partnered with Sesame Street, helping disseminate their literature for military families (even bringing Cookie Monster to the Fort Bragg Fair during the Month of the Military Child); worked with John Donvan of ABC News to discuss the intricacies of the deployment cycle and the way it affects kids’ development; and coauthored the Kimochis military families activity kit.

Kimochis, a California-based company founded after the Columbine shooting, creates stuffed animals designed to help children work through trauma and grief and build social and emotional skills. Each character is designed for different feelings and circumstances. According to Pisano, the military families activity kit (which includes the character Hero, a black Labrador) is now found “in every school building in the Department of Defense from Cuba to Hawaii.”

Military families live with abnormal amounts of stress, worry and transition. That transition means Pisano sometimes has to say goodbye to his kids when their families are placed at new locations. He says he often gets asked how he deals with getting too emotionally attached. Does he try to distance himself? His answer: “I welcome it. I don’t avoid it. I don’t fight against it. I welcome all of the friendships and the connections.”

Remaining engaged and connected is key in Pisano’s line of work; there’s always another project

to work on and another child to help. “I love the opportunity to make a difference,” he says. “That is really what’s driving the train, being in a position to make a difference for children, whether it be teaching them to tie their shoes or helping them get enough confidence to raise their hand in class.”