Alumni Services

Making a difference

Johanna Holtan from the Centre of African Studies in the International Office tells us how growing up as the child of university staff inspired her career at Edinburgh, and how she came to invent an innovative solution for female cyclists.

Johanna Holtan

Born in North Dakota, Johanna initially studied at Juniata College in Pennsylvania before receiving her Masters at both Roehampton University in London and UTECH in Kingston, Jamaica.

It was while studying that she first became involved in work close to her heart – women’s health and international development.

In Georgia, Johanna also became involved in community initiatives, including the first Race for the Cure, which raised awareness of the country’s primary killer of women, breast cancer, and a successful campaign that saw the government providing free screenings to women in the capital city, Tblisi.

I worked in a legal aid clinic in downtown Kingston and for an anti-violence against women charity in London. Then through the US Peace Corps, I worked in Kutaisi, Georgia with a network of women’s health organisations to raise awareness of breast cancer. After being evacuated due to the Russian conflict in 2008, I returned to Georgia to continue my work with these organisations and, on the side, started the Megobari Project to support young people and families in refugee camps.

Johanna Holtan

Fresh thinking and sharing ideas

It was then that she decided to move to Scotland, something which had not been in her original plans but which led her to another community initiative, CycleHack. Johanna's cycle commute in Edinburgh led to a conversation over coffee and a desire to bring people together to positively address issues in cycling and bring something different to the cycling world over and above conversation about infrastructure. This conversation led to CycleHack which has grown to become a global movement, running in more than 40 cities, that offers community-led design thinking to the cycling industry.

It was through CycleHack that Johanna and her colleagues invented the Penny in Yo’ Pants, a simple contraption that cinches a skirt into a pair of cycling shorts using a penny and a rubber band.  They made a short film about it which went viral, with over 4 million views on YouTube, and featured in Cosmopolitan, the New York Times and BBC’s World News.

Johanna also works as director of the community co-working and events space, Tribe Porty, and is founder of TEDxPortobello, a platform run by volunteers to allow the sharing of good ideas, skills and passion in Edinburgh’s seaside community of Portobello.

The best thing was that women all over the world were using Penny and we are currently working on developing the product further. And for each sale, we donate a portion of the proceeds to the women’s cycling team in Afghanistan.

Johanna Holtan

Academic opportunities

At the University of Edinburgh, Johanna’s role involves managing the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, which, over seven years, will provide full tuition to 200 undergraduate and postgraduate scholars from Sub-Saharan Africa who have great potential but very few academic opportunities. The scholars will also benefit from access to initiatives such as summer schools, internships and work placements. There are 12 scholars on the programme in the first year and Johanna has already been inspired by the experience so far and how much they have already brought to the Edinburgh community.

You can read more about the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program in the 2016 edition of Edinburgh Friends magazine which is available in print, or can be viewed online by following the link below.

African Aspirations - We talk to four recipients of scholarships on the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program

One of my favourite things about working at the University is the opportunity to work with people at such an important time in their lives.I’ve valued the chance to work on ideas, events, projects, and collaborations with students and help create a space that welcomes risk, playfulness, creativity, and social good.

Johanna Holtan

A positive difference

Johanna also appreciates the vibrancy and buzz of working in a learning environment, something she has enjoyed since childhood. Her mother was a professor at the local university and her father was the campus pastor, and she fondly remembers the excitement of spending time with students and academics at her parents’ workplace.

Looking back, I would have never thought I would end up in Scotland doing the work I do. Thanks to my parents, my career decisions have been driven primarily by service, making a positive difference to my community, and a chance to build and create new things. I don’t necessarily believe in five year plans, but instead to try and make decisions that feel right and align with my values.

Johanna Holtan

Related links

Centre of African Studies