Alia Whitney-Johnson

United States of America

  • Program Year
  • 2011-12
  • Country of Current Residence
  • U.S.A.
  • Current Position
  • Founder, Co-Founder
  • Organization
  • Emerge Global, ATHack
  • Profession(s)
  • Consultant, Social Entrepreneur

  • Sector(s)
  • Business, Entrepreneurship (including social), Gender equality, Women's rights
  • Language(s)
  • English, Spanish (moderate)
  • Mentor
  • Professor Karl Moore, Associate Director Advanced Leadership Program, Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University
  • Interest(s) / Expertise
  • empowerment of women, gender equality, hackathon, social entrepreneurship, sustainability, technology
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Impact Statement

Having launched her first venture at the age of seven, through which she became an internationally commissioned jewelry designer, Alia has always had a passion for design, entrepreneurship, and organizational development.


Alia’s greatest passion lies in her work in Sri Lanka with young women who have survived sexual abuse. After traveling to Sri Lanka in the summer of 2005, she founded the Emerge Beads-to-Business Program to enable Sri Lankan teenage mothers who had survived rape to develop business and life skills through jewelry design. As the program grew, she formed Emerge Global. Her work with Emerge Global led to numerous speaking engagements at a variety of venues, including universities, conferences, professional women’s groups, leadership trainings, high schools, libraries, and a rape crisis center.

In 2012, Alia made the transition from executive director of Emerge, while remaining on the board of Emerge Global and and Emerge Lanka Foundation. She joined McKinsey & Company in 2013 and has enjoyed “learning about the private sector, getting to wear lots of different hats and seeing a variety of situations that businesses encounter day to day. I am really interested in the intersection of business and social impact, specifically creating financially sustainable models for change that aren’t dependent on donations.”

Alia has engaged her passion for development in refining a process to convert agricultural waste into charcoal for use in Haiti, conducting tsunami relief work in Sri Lanka, and developing appropriate technologies for infrastructure in Guatemala. She has also been a consultant to the World Bank and worked for the MIT School of Engineering, where she was the first Project Coordinator for the MIT Global Village Project, a project that aims to connect the MIT community with meaningful service projects around the world.

Alia has also received a number of awards and honours including her selection as one of Glamour Magazine’s Top Ten College Women, a Truman Scholarship in 2007 for her commitment to public service, and was one of 20 young social entrepreneurs under the age of 30 to be a YouthActionNet® Global Fellow through the International Youth Foundation. In 2010, she was a finalist for a Do Something Award®, which recognizes young world-changers who are pivotal “do-ers” in their field. In June of 2011, Alia was elected to MIT’s board of trustees, for a 5-year term.

In March 2015, Alia and her team successfully launched the #Lean-In Together campaign for gender equality. In 2016, Alia co-founded ATHack! to bring activists and technologists together to source, fund, and launch innovative data-driven solutions to major social issues. This social impact venture works as a bridge between the tech and social justice communities to foster ongoing collaboration.

In August 2016, Alia launched the Emerge Center, a trauma-informed residential empowerment center for young survivors of sexual abuse as they transition from shelters into their independent, adult lives. The Emerge Center was established to provide a creative, experiential, and healing space that inspires self-discovery, cultivates a growth mindset, and equips participants with tools needed for independence. For a virtual tour of the Emerge Center, click here.


Alia holds a B.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Oxford, where she studied as a Rhodes Scholar. Her Masters research focused on how human resource management within Sri Lanka’s apparel industry affects women’s empowerment.


As a Fellow

Having spent years developing and refining strong educational programs for Emerge, Alia spent her time as a Sauvé Fellow refining the  business strategy, financial model, and operational plan for Emerge Global the non-profit that she founded at the age of 19 so that it might continue to grow in a sustainable way. Emerge empowers young women around the world who have survived abuse to rediscover and celebrate their personal beauty, develop their self-sufficiency, and become leaders within their own communities.