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MBA Gives Carlson A Splash of Color

Laura Johnson


But there are other effects to her painting that are at play here. Namely, creativity and innovation. All businesses are screaming about it, yet can’t seem to break free from the proverbial box where — outside of it — is supposedly where all the magic happens.

Johnson says as businesses continually ask themselves ‘How do we cultivate creativity in our employees?’ there’s almost always a disconnect. And she’s seen the disconnect play out first-hand.

In a recent commentary she penned for Minnesota’s Star Tribune newspaper titled “We Must All Make Time for Creativity,” Johnson shares an uncanny account of the differences she saw when teaching a painting class to a group of business execs versus a group of girl scouts. When given the freedom to be creative, the professionals were surprisingly outperformed by the young girls.


“A team of corporate executives stares up at me,” Johnson writes. “I tell them again, kindly but firmly, to pick up their paintbrushes and begin painting the blank canvases. Hesitantly, they obey. They insist that I explain exactly how to recreate the example painting — a colorful tree with flowers.

“These men and women make important business decisions every day. If I asked them to negotiate a multimillion-dollar deal, they wouldn’t blink. Paint a tree? They balk,” Johnson quips in the commentary.

“A week earlier, I had taught the same painting to members of a Girl Scout troop, ages 9 to 11. I needed to race through my introduction, because they were so eager to start. Their eyes gazed longingly at their blank canvases, fingers twitched to grab brushes. Once they began, the girls asked me only for more paint colors.”

Reflecting on this experience, Johnson says making space for creativity is the answer to the lack of it we often complain about in business. “When you’re first starting your career, you think you need to follow this straight and narrow path. Always being available for meetings, checking emails, being hyper-organized. What that doesn’t allow room for is the fact that sometimes you just need blank space to get lost in thought and being creative. Making the space for it is where it happens. It’s part of the way you energize yourself and, to do that, you have to make space to either be creative or or to experience creativity in action.”

In other words, Johnson says that for employees and organizations thirsting for more creativity, maybe all that’s needed is to take in a good show, make some art, or go see the opera to revitalize creative juices and quench the thirst.

“The solution might just be waiting for you there and you just need to go to a place that makes you feel more open — and emotional too. Arts help you feel more open to the human condition and we know that business leaders who are more in touch with humanity can relate better to consumers.”

Laura Johnson completing the 15′ x 18′ “Business as a Force for Good” mural


As artistry has been a part of this Carlson MBA’s life for as long as she can remember, she says it was an important identifier for her when she came into B-school. Last year she started the Arts & Business club that she says came out of conversations with people in the arts community saying the biggest challenge they face is trying to find art enthusiasts and future patrons.

“I’m saying to myself, they’re in the MBA program! Many of my classmates had heard of the rich arts community in Minneapolis, but didn’t know how to get involved. Since launching the Arts & Business club, we’ve been immersed into the community, gone to the opera, museums, and more. The arts community has been really receptive to 20-30 MBA students who could potentially sit on boards, become ticket holders, help with marketing, etc. Then for us as business school students, we get to tap into the arts world and do something so different than what business people are doing on a regular basis.”

Johnson says the Arts Club, combined with the soon-to-be unveiled mural, is more than she could have ever imagined about attending business school.

“I think that I wasn’t sure, going into business school, how well I would fit in. What I’ve found in my time at Carlson is that the administration, my fellow students, everyone is so receptive to making the arts a greater part of their lives. And the idea that this painting will live on long past when I’m there, it’s an accomplishment that I couldn’t have imagined. But I’m honored to be able to create a bridge between the art world and business world. It makes me really excited about the direction business is heading and that the subject matter of business being a force for good is a commitment that businesses are making; and that it starts in business schools.”