We recently spent a few minutes with Ginny Johnson, Chief Legal Officer, General Counsel, Corporate Secretary and Chief Compliance Officer at Aspen Aerogels, to learn more about her career story, the big moments that have shaped her personally, and her perspectives on in-house leadership and professional development.
Virginia (Ginny) Johnson was raised in a loving and humble home in Rhode Island. Her parents worked hard. And although money was often tight, she had a happy childhood full of love.
Ginny’s parents divorced when she was young. She took comfort in the close bond she shared with her grandmother, who lived with her throughout her childhood. But the divorce was Ginny’s first notable experience with loss — an emotion that would teach her resilience and one that would continue to shape her future growth.
Ginny is not one of those lawyers who always knew she wanted to be an attorney. In college at Boston University, she majored in political science and minored in philosophy and journalism. She knew she loved writing, and advocacy. As she contemplated her next stage of life, she remembered a game of hide-and-seek she played with her dad when she was little. She often found him in difficult-to-find spots and he complimented her analytical thinking skills. He said, when she was around eight years old, “You would make a good lawyer someday.” Reflecting back on it now, she says the compliment must have stayed with her.
By the time she graduated from Boston University, she was ready to take on the challenge of law school. She enrolled at Cardozo School of Law in New York City — a great choice for her and her then-boyfriend, James, who already had plans to move to New York to start a career as an investment banking analyst.
Ginny enjoyed law school even more than she enjoyed college. The classes were intellectually stimulating and she thrived on the challenge. She immersed herself in her studies, also working as an editor on the Law Review and an intern in Cardozo’s Innocence Project exoneration clinic.
After graduation and a previous summer associate position, Ginny landed a job in Weil, Gotshal & Manges’ New York office. She chose the firm because she was able to rotate through different practice groups, get experience in several areas of law and decide what would be the best fit for her. She ultimately chose securities litigation — not initially for the work itself, but for the people in the practice group she loved working with. That was the first career experience of many that, Ginny says, confirmed for her “it’s all about the people,” wherever you choose to work.
A few years after Ginny started working at Weil, she and James got married. They lived in lower Manhattan, near the World Trade Center, for several years, then moved to the Upper East Side, all the while focusing on building their respective legal and banking careers and supporting each other’s dreams along the way.
Tragically, in 2008, at only 31 years old, James died. Thirty-year-old Ginny was left devastated — now facing the most extreme sense of loss she had ever known. It was a shattering personal loss that forced Ginny to grapple with a shocking bereavement while still maintaining her demanding career and persevering through the deep pain of grief.
In the years that followed, Ginny would confront even more loss. Both of her parents and her beloved grandmother died while Ginny was in her late 30s and still piecing her life together after losing James. But through it all, Ginny grew stronger — pushing through the difficult times, honing her skills as a lawyer and practicing resilience in the face of adversity. All these attributes would lead her to the position she holds today as the chief legal officer of Aspen Aerogels, a technology leader in sustainability and electrification solutions.
Please tell me a little more about your career after law school.
After James passed away, I moved back to Boston to be closer to family in Rhode Island. Because the firm had accommodated my ask to transfer from the New York office to the Boston office, I continued to work at Weil Gotshal for several more years, handling litigation matters. Then in 2011, I had the opportunity to join a Boston-based firm, Prince Lobel Tye, as a partner. So I made the move, and continued as a litigator there.
How did you land your first in-house position?
While I was at Prince Lobel, I realized I was getting restless. I had always been somewhat intrigued by the notion of leaving private practice to join a business and go in-house, so I started to think about that more and more. I ended up reconnecting with an old friend who happened to work at Goldman Sachs Reinsurance Group. They had an opening in the legal department at one of the operating companies and my friend introduced me to the then-GC of that business, Scott Silverman, which ultimately paved the way for my first in-house role.
Scott offered me the job despite my lack of relevant industry background. He didn’t need a litigation lawyer. He mainly needed transactional support. But we hit it off and he took a chance on me. Although I wasn’t actively seeking it, I joined the company, now called Global Atlantic Financial Group, where I ultimately worked for eight years.
How did that first in-house job help shape your career?
It was a significant shift from private practice to an in-house law department. I went from being a litigator to doing very little litigation. Now, I was handling diverse areas of law like commercial contract negotiations, technology licensing, regulatory matters and M&A. It was daunting yet exhilarating, and it offered a lot of opportunities for growth. The department was so leanly staffed that if you wanted to do something, all you had to do was raise your hand.
Scott’s belief in my abilities allowed me to amass valuable experience, making me more commercially savvy, a practical communicator and preparing me for greater responsibilities. My time at Global Atlantic was a major training ground, leading to managing large teams and later becoming general counsel at Schneider Electric North America.
Tell me about your role at Schneider Electric.
Several years into my time at Global Atlantic, I realized that insurance wasn’t where I wanted to build my long-term career. I wanted to broaden my horizons within the business world and be immersed in innovation. During COVID, I discreetly networked — virtually, of course — exploring new connections and potential opportunities. That’s when I got introduced to Schneider Electric, becoming the GC of their North America business in 2021, thanks to a connection brokered by a friend and former colleague from my time at Weil Gotshal.
Joining Schneider was a significant leap, transitioning from financial services to a global manufacturing conglomerate. My role there was fulfilling and provided valuable global experience. And I led a team of 50 people. However, after just one year at Schneider, I met the CEO of Aspen Aerogels, Don Young, and that encounter changed my trajectory once again.
How did you end up at Aspen Aerogels?
This is another example of the power of enduring relationships, mentoring, leveraging connections and taking bold steps that ultimately shaped a transformative career journey.
While at Global Atlantic, I had mentored a promising young associate named Natalie from one of the law firms we were sending work to, and over the years we became friends. One day, she called me and asked if I would be interested in meeting her dad, who was the CEO of Aspen Aerogels — a company I had admittedly never heard of (I also never knew that Natalie’s dad was a CEO!). He had been thinking about creating a diverse pipeline of potential board of director candidates, and had spoken with Natalie about it. Apparently she recommended that he meet with me. I was interested in learning more about Aspen and the notion of serving on a public company board, so Natalie made the introduction.
I met Don and we had several conversations over the course of the next few months. Then, one day, unexpectedly, he asked if I would be interested in a position on his executive team as chief legal officer. Although a tough decision to leave Schneider, Don’s charismatic leadership and the exciting growth prospects at Aspen compelled me to seize the opportunity. The chance to be the primary legal advisor to the CEO and the board, and design a revamped legal, compliance, regulatory and government affairs function — I just couldn’t refuse the opportunity.
What are some of your biggest priorities in your current role?
My top priorities as a chief legal officer are to continue to deeply understand the business and its revenue drivers, risks and opportunities. By embedding myself as a business partner in various teams, like R&D, operations, sales, marketing, finance, IT and HR, I can proactively address their needs and solve problems.
I have become a much better leader over the past few years as a result of taking risks and learning from my mistakes. And I strive to continue to mature as a supportive leader of my team, providing opportunities for growth and fostering empathy. I also love advising the board on corporate governance issues and conducting our board and committee meetings. I really value the engagement and support of our board members, who are all fantastic.
What do you love most about being an in-house lawyer?
I love being a problem solver and going beyond just wearing the lawyer hat. The rapid pace and constant learning via an agile mindset fuel my growth. Unlike law firm practice, as an in-house lawyer, I experience the beginning, middle and end of a problem. I get to see the real-life impact of my advice. Despite the often overwhelming workload, I thrive on helping to run the business and shaping outcomes for its benefit. It’s very fulfilling and rewarding.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
So many partners at Weil Gotshal helped shape my career. Irwin Warren, Greg Danilow and Miranda Schiller are titans of the practice of securities law and corporate governance. They taught me the importance of getting it right down to the letter. Joseph Allerhand, one of my key teachers and mentors, was a phenomenal securities litigator and trial lawyer from whom I learned so much. I learned from Joseph how to stand up and do an oral argument in court, how to take an effective deposition, and how to present myself with confidence and gravitas. He absolutely shaped my standard of excellence. And of course, Ira Millstein, an absolute powerhouse of corporate law and corporate governance. The man is a legend.
Patricia Gray was the general counsel at a nationwide retail clothing company I was doing work for early in my career at Weil Gotshal. She was the first woman GC I had ever met. She was very kind, and I was so impressed by how well she handled complex situations. She always took the time to chat with me and show encouragement. Her example really made a difference.
And of course Scott Silverman at Global Atlantic, who was a great manager, boss and mentor. But he was also a sponsor in the sense that he advocated for me when I wasn’t in the room. He set me up for success. He is still an engaged mentor and friend to this day.
Tell me about your life outside of work. What are some of your hobbies?
I married my husband, John Mara, on New Year’s Eve in 2018. John is the absolute best thing that has ever happened to me. We actually first met as kids and went to elementary school together, and then lost touch for many years. After I had moved back to Boston, we ended up reconnecting, which then evolved into an unexpected and amazing romance. We now have a home in Westwood, Mass., and share a great life together. We love to travel and explore the arts. We often go to concerts and live theater.
We’re also very into our pets. We have a cat (Ragdoll) named Django and a dog (Samoyed) named Coco Chanel. We got Coco just before the pandemic. We belong to a group of fellow Sammy owners and we all walk and train our dogs together in parks around Boston on most Sunday mornings. We’re kind of locally famous because we’re out there walking this pack of big fluffy beautiful dogs every week.
I’ve also recently recommitted to a good fitness routine, so I enjoy strength training, swimming, boxing and yoga.
I’m a member of Big Sisters Boston and work with the New Girls Network. It’s basically the Big Sisters program but the pairings are made between seasoned professionals and those just starting out in their careers. I’ve been paired up with four or five women in the past few years, and I mentor them as they start their professional journeys. I enjoy it because it is not limited to the legal profession — it spans all industries and types of roles. It is very rewarding. Similarly, I am a mentor in the Boston chapter of the Legal Mentor Network, which is geared toward law students and young attorneys.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC someday?
This question brought to mind two quotes that I think relate well.
The first is “to thine own self be true.” Essentially, know what you want to do. Don’t go into law for the money or because someone else expects it of you. You have to want to do it for yourself. There has to be something about it that drives your passion. Otherwise, you won’t be able to put in the hours and still find happiness.
The second comes from my favorite AC/DC song, “It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll.” Basically, it’s going to take you awhile. You have to grind it out. You need to work hard, and have a strong mindset and a lot of grit.