Written by Janece Shaffer Tuesday, May 01 2012
Snapshot: Jacki Zehner, activist, philanthropist, change agent
Gloria Steinem, left, and Jacki Zehner
She currently resides in Park City, Utah with her family.
Womenetics: Let’s start with a simple question: How do you define yourself?
Jacki Zehner: I would say that I am joyful -- it’s what I try to be every day – and multidimensional. I just sort of wake up every day with a singular mission in mind, and that is how to make the world a better place for women and girls.
For so many years now there has been such clarity for me, and that is such a blessing -- to know my purpose and to realize that my whole story, my history has led me to where I am now.
Womenetics: How did you find your calling, know that you were on the right path?
Zehner: It definitely was a process. It’s not as if I had a childhood, for example, where I was hit in the face with gender inequality and the implications. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I grew up in a small town in Canada, great parents who are still together. I had a great school, great childhood. In fact, I had been a professional bodybuilder when I was young, and I never really thought twice about girl versus boy.
It wasn’t until my early career…I had a career on Wall Street. I worked for Goldman Sachs for 14 years and entered the field of finance, which was a very male-dominated area and ended up with a career primarily in trading, where there are even fewer women. And because I was one of the few women traders and the first woman trader to be promoted into partnership, as a young successful woman in a very, very male dominated area I very much became a poster child for diversity – “See, women can make it because we have Jacki” kind of thing. I started to take the role very seriously and really asking myself why am I the only one? Why are there so few women in this industry?
Womenetics: What is the biggest professional risk you have ever taken?
Zehner: It was 1999, and I was getting ferociously involved with the firm’s diversity initiatives. I just became such a soldier in regards to what the firm needed to do to better attract, maintain and promote women in leadership. I remember I was taken aback by this article I read in The New York Times. It was written by then the head of Hewlett-Packard, a man named Lewis Platt. It was timely because Carly Fiorina was being appointed as the first woman to head a technology company, and Lewis Platt was credited for being a progressive kind of guy by putting her in this leadership role. The article told the story of how Lewis Platt was married and had two children and how his wife died when the kids were school-age and when he was really progressing in his career.
Because of his wife’s death, he had to really take a time out and be the parent and manage both career and family. He said the experience really opened his eyes to the politic of women’s lives. His response was, “Oh my Gosh. How do they do it?” Because of his personal experience, he made it a personal mission while at HP to be more work-life friendly and to promote women into leadership roles.
Well, I thought this was just incredible. That was my biggest issue with the leadership of Goldman – that most of the leaders were men with stay-at-home wives. They could focus 100 percent on their career and still have a family and very robust social life because someone else was doing all that part of it. So, I thought OK, they need to read this article. I wrote a letter to the every member of the management committee, which was pretty bold. I still have that letter saying “Read this article. This is what’s missing, and you know if we had a room full of Lewis Platts we would have a different organization.” Then I came up with a few suggestions for the company.
That was pretty risky. I was a partner at the time, but I still had a day job. It wasn’t that long after that I was actually invited to take a leadership role with respect to the human capital management efforts of the firm, leave my day job as a trader and join the executive office in that capacity. So it was very risky, but it really paid off.
Womenetics: Tell us about your work with Women Moving Millions.
Zehner: Women Moving Millions was initially a campaign that encouraged women to make million dollar gifts to foundations. It began in 2007 and ended in 2009 with a goal of raising $150 million for women’s foundations, and the effort ended up raising $180 million. I came in as a donor making a million dollar commitment to the Women’s Funding Network and other member funds back in 2009, and it was amazing. I found a community of women who shared the same values and passion around women and girls as I did. Women Moving Millions was originally meant to end, to be something that jump-started the development efforts for women’s foundations, but instead women said no, this is just the beginning. We need to continue in this work because so little philanthropic funding goes to women's and girls' organizations overall.
The organization is now in what we are calling a gestation period. As of about a month ago, we created a new 501(c)3, and I am in the incoming CEO and president. Our goal is to mobilize unprecedented resources for women and girls, so that is what I am doing all the time now. We will continue to invite women, men and organization to make million dollar commitments to programs for women and girls. Additionally, we want to be out there in the world under the broader scope in terms of mobilizing an array of resources to create a more gender balanced world. We are in the heat of start-up phase in many ways, and I’m right there as CEO.
Jacki Zehner, left, with Nicholas Kristof of
The New York Times
Womenetics: As you take this huge challenge on, what do you see as your biggest obstacle?
Zehner: I think just setting priorities. There is just so much to do when you think about it with a blank piece of paper in front of you – what could be done to mobilize resources for women and girls – you can make a very long list very quickly. Right now it's about sitting down and saying what is our best use today, tomorrow and the next day and sort of putting one foot in front of the other. We just have a heck of a lot to do, so it’s about not getting freaked out. I wake up some days and get so overwhelmed I just want to crawl back into bed – just putting one foot in front of the other, that’s the big challenge.
Womenetics: I know that you are working at the 10,000-foot level, but do you ever get to see how your work changes individual lives?
Zehner: Yes and no. I fund the Global Fund for Women, and my husband has done some projects in a village in Uganda. We‘ve done philanthropic projects as a family, where we are very hands-on, working in elder care facilities. But the work I feel called into is often the work that doesn’t have a feeling of personal connection. I am trying to create systematic change, movement change, which at the end of the day should benefit millions of people, but not necessarily any one.
I hope the work I do inspires others to do what they can to make a difference. I miss that connection sometimes, and so I do what I can to reconnect locally and serve Saturdays at the food pantry because you have to stay connected with your feet on the ground. However, I think the work I am called into is much more systematic.
Womenetics: What’s it like trying to make that kind of change, feeling called to do your life’s work?
Zehner: Right now my work has no boundary. I love it, and I hate it. I love it because I am so connected to it, and it is such a part of who I am. There is no space between who I am and the work I do, and that is a blessing and a curse.
Womenetics: It sounds like you are what you do – completely aligned with who you are as a person.
Zehner: My passion is Zumba. I have a friend who takes classes with me – she is goddess that stands in front of me – and she's not been in class lately. We decided to go have coffee and talk. She said she has a job in technology, and she likes it, but it is really about supporting her family. She said, “It’s such a job. I really wish I had a job that was more aligned with my values.”
I totally relate to that because the good part of that kind of job is that you can leave it at five o’clock and feel like the other part of your life kicks in. You have those demarcations. For me it just kind of the opposite, which is generally speaking a good thing, but there is just never an end. I have files and folders in stacks, to-do lists that are 14 pages long, endless people to talk to and things to write about -- and sometimes it just feels completely overwhelming.
Womenetics: Sounds like there is no end point.
Zehner: That’s what freaks me out. There is never an endpoint. I’m never done. Never. That is exhausting.
Gloria Steinem has become such a friend and mentor. I am still in shock and disbelief that I can say that. Every once in a while I will send her an email where I’m like, “Gloria!!!” I look to her. I think she’s 78 now, and there is not a “done.” When you are a movement builder, when you are part of that – something so big and so complicated – you know, gender inequality, women’s rights, there is just never an end.
This is true for anyone who works in human rights, especially people who work with trafficking on the ground. I know people who work with 11-year-old girls, bringing them out of sexual slavery in Cambodia – how do you keep your energy up? There are jobs like that, so I am not complaining.
I think for callings that are so big… How do you keep going every day and not burn out? I don’t know. I need to go to that workshop because I have only been doing it hardcore for five or six years, but I think you just have to pace yourself and get small wins, so it feels like you are making progress.
Jacki Zehner,left, with Chris Grumm,
former president of the
Women's Funding Network
Zehner: Amen to that. I get my energy out. I take my 12-year-old daughter with me. I am so big on being who you are, and I am kind of a crazy, somewhat embarrassing personality to her because I really let it loose in Zumba. It’s that or maybe drink too much alcohol. My daughter is like, “Oh my gosh, Mom. Can you dial it down a little bit?” And I’m like, “Ah, no. Thanks for asking.”
Womenetics: How does your daughter and your mother, your family respond to your work?
Zehner: My mom is really a very important part of my life. She lives in Canada. She’s great. She is really supportive. I wouldn’t say she is a big feminist activist like me, but she is certainly very active and service-oriented in her community.
My daughter is 12, and I have a son that is 15. My son teases me all the time because he used to have this thing, “Mom, what do you do? I don’t get it.” And I’m, “Well, I’m a feminist philanthropist.” And he’s, “No, you’re not.” And I’m like, “Matt, yes, I am.” “What does that mean?” “I kind of work for women and girls... blah, blah, blah.” And he’s like, “I really don’t believe you.” And to just kind of be a 15-year-old boy, he actually wants to get the t-shirt that says, “Make Me a Sandwich” because he always jokes that a woman’s role is in the kitchen making sandwiches, but I think he and my daughter are excited.
We’ve had Gloria stay at our house for Sundance. I’ll just never forget the day she got up in the morning and had her tea. She was sitting across our kitchen table with our son Matthew, in her red pajamas having tea. With Gloria in our house, my son said, “OK Mom, I believe you.”
Womenetics: You seem to be a huge Wonder Woman fan. Where does that come from?
Zehner: It’s been a theme. I heard this great line yesterday, and I want to give it justice – let me find it in my stack here – “Get out of the story and into the narrative.” That’s the line I wanted to connect this to.
I always had a love of Wonder Woman when I was young. Saturday morning with superheroes and “Super Friends”. Of course we had the Linda Carter Wonder Woman, and I just loved her. I would dress up as her on Halloween.
In 1999, I had taken on this leadership role at Goldman and I was asked to give a speech for Take Your Daughters to Work Day. I had just seen a Superman movie and thought whatever happened to Wonder Woman? So I decided to weave this speech around a Wonder Woman theme. I came in with Wonder Woman music. I didn’t dress up, but I was wearing a red leather jacket.
After I left Goldman, I took a screenwriting course, and it expounded into a leadership principle. I started holding myself accountable for trying to act like a superhero. I started collecting things from Wonder Woman, and it’s become a narrative in the sense that, can you imagine a world full of superheroes? A world where everyone worked for the common good, and it wasn’t about themselves and it wasn’t about self-interest?
I’m certainly not holding myself out as that kind of person, but I aspire to be that kind of person. There is such a lack of female superheroes in this world and part of the work that I am doing now is to help the real superheroes, the women and girls I know who are really stepping up as leaders to change the world.
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Janece Shaffer, senior editor of Womenetics, is also an award-winning, professionally produced playwright. Her plays have been produced in theatres across the country including the Asolo Repertory Theatre, Alliance Theatre, and Taproot Theatre. She also has more than two decades of experience in the communications field and has held communications positions at Emory University, The NAMES Project Foundation/AIDS Memorial Quilt and the Alliance Theatre. Shaffer holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in communications from Georgia State University.