- September 25, 2013
Ross Johnston knows himself, and knows what keeps him moving.
The 29-year-old Marie Selby Botanical Gardens manager of visitor engagement has lived in Sarasota for some time and has spent that time trying to build a sense of community amongst other people in his age group. Anyone who’s met Johnston in person can attest to his high-energy, extroverted demeanor and his willingness to make new friends and connect existing ones.
He’s put much of that energy into the Sarasota Young Professionals Group. The organization — part of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce — connects local business figures in the hopes of promoting careers and new friendships for Sarasota locals.
Johnston has been at the center of that, helping organize monthly social meetups for members at local venues and making sure new members feel comfortable when they arrive. Nothing drives Johnston more than the feeling he gets when he brings people together — he values connections more than anything.
“Enthusiasm conquers all,” Johnston said. “”Everything is a fun learning opportunity, everything has the potential to be fun. There’s a reason to smile with every opportunity, and I’m happy to look for that.”
It’s an energy and collection of personality traits that haven’t been ignored by his friends and colleagues at YPG. The group recently awarded Johnston with a new title for his efforts — Young Professional of the Year. The award is given to a member each year for the winner's outreach and impact in the local community.
Johnston received the award during the Young Professionals Summit on July 23, an annual half-day event at the Embassy Suites Sarasota that has panels, debates and discussions to further careers.
It was an honor for Johnston, who appreciates being acknowledged for his volunteer work and engagement with the community.
“I leave YPG events more energized than when I arrive,” he said. “I leave with so many friends. If I can connect new friends then that’s even more exciting. I can be a catalyst for new relationships.”
Johnston grew up in California and quickly decided that nature and education would be the fields he’d pursue as a career. He says his breakthrough moment was working for AmeriCorps stationed in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, between undergrad and grad school and deciding he’d rather be out teaching and working with people rather than being stuck in a lab.
“I thought I wanted to be a hardcore lab student,” Johnston said. “Then I got to teach kids on the beach, and it refocused my career.”
He has spent the past 10 years working in education departments in museums, zoos and aquariums and most recently moved from Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium to Selby Gardens.
Johnston said there’s something about nature and its ability to equalize people and bring them together is something that’s always appealed to him. His favorite thing in his career is introducing children and people to their local environments.
It’s no surprise that he has the same approach of introducing new people to the community with YPG. He's served as the membership chair and is sure to check people into each event and retain their names and information. Nothing makes him happier than to learn people he introduced at one YPG meeting are out getting brunch the weekend after.
“I love ricocheting between people at all these events,” Johnston said. “Learning who people are and what they do and remembering this person is in the same career as this person, or this person is new. I get to go through my mental Rolodex of my friends.”
As for the Young Professional of the Year award, Fellow YPG members submitted their nominees to start the awards process earlier this year. That list of names was then trimmed down based on community participation and involvement with YPG and the Sarasota Chamber. The finalists — in this case Johnston, Lauren Tominelli and Jade Davis — filled out an essay and recorded a video that they sent to a YPG judges panel composed of council members and past winners.
Alyssa Barnsley, programs communications coordinator for the chamber, said the judges leaned towards Johnston as the ultimate winner for his constant work to bring a sense of community to YPG.
“He’s always at chamber events and is constantly reaching out to new members,” Barnsley said. “Ross is always looking to find great events for YPG and non YPG members, and is trying to create a sense of community.”
It’s not the end of the road for Johnston with YPG, far from it. He hopes to engage in leadership programs with the group and Sarasota County and maybe eventually see himself as president of the chamber down the road.
“Now that I feel I’m rough around the edges with leadership, I’d like to start investing in myself to see what a polished adult leader can look like,” Johnston said.