Having joined New Eyes for the Needy as the Community Relations Coordinator in 2009, Jean was named Executive Director in June 2013. She is responsible for overseeing thedaily operations of New Eyes as well as managing grant writing and fundraising.
Jean, a graduate of Vassar College, worked in the banking and finance industry for many years, as well as serving in leadership positions on community boards, including the Board of Education of the Chathams and the Chatham Education Foundation where she was a founding board member.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up in an intact family but there was a good deal of emotional chaos in my childhood home. I always felt that if there was a problem or challenge, I would have to figure it out for myself, that it was up to me to find a solution. That self-reliance built upon itself and I found that I could be a help to others – whether it was being a default parent to my younger brother, tutoring other students or just taking charge of a situation that others would otherwise give up on. I also turned to reading to escape the chaos, which instilled in me a life-long love of learning. And that love of learning has always given me the confidence to explore, probe and investigate new ideas and directions.
How has your previous employment experience aided your current role?
My first job was as an economic analyst. It trained me to analyze disparate economic data and integrate it into an overall cohesive narrative. I gathered micro bits of information and organized it into a macro outlook – essentially putting puzzle pieces of data together to form the big picture. In all my subsequent work, as a bond trader or even as a member of my local school board, I have depended on that ability to look at the details, weave them together and draw conclusions, ideas, initiatives, etc. When I became Executive Director of New Eyes, it helped me re-imagine how New Eyes could change its business model without veering from its mission. It allowed me to hone in on the changes needed to meet our demand, deliver better services to clients and how to do it while retaining our core mission.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your current role?
When I started as Executive Director, New Eyes had a 6-month, 900-person waitlist for eyeglass vouchers. It was due to a confluence of factors that included our limited funding, the price we paid for eyeglasses and the long application process. The first order of business was to find the money to get eyeglasses for these financially struggling individuals. Within a few months I found a supporter willing to provide funding to eliminate the waitlist. Then I went to work on remaking our internal systems, recruiting new Board members in the business and optical industries, cutting the cost we paid for eyeglasses and finding additional funding to expand the number of people that New Eyes could help. Through all this work, New Eyes has been able to help 77% more people in need this year than during my first year as Executive Director. This year we are on track to help an additional 30% more than last year.
What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Nonprofit work is very similar to entrepreneurial work. You have to think creatively, stretch your resources and be willing to put in long hours to make your vision come true. It’s extremely rewarding work that tests your skills and resilience time and again. There are many intern opportunities within the nonprofit sector so I suggest that college students take advantage and apply to see what nonprofit work is all about. For those mid-career or mothers re-entering the work force, I advise volunteering at a nonprofit whose mission resonates with them. They’ll get a good feel for the organization and its people by engaging and working with them.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?
Embrace challenges and don’t be afraid to fail. We learn our most important lessons from our failures, from the things that didn’t work. Don’t be afraid to take an opportunity that may put you out of your comfort zone. Don’t turn it down fearing you might not be up to the task – you’ll never know until you try. Remember this is all a journey with bumps and side roads that sometimes lead to dead-ends as well as new highways. It’s surely not a linear trip from point A to point B.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
No doubt it’s hard to juggle family life and work. It’s easier for me now that my children are young adults and out on their own. But you can’t be good at any of it without taking care of yourself mentally, emotionally and physically. Taking the time to exercise, connecting with friends and yes, taking alone time (separate and different from exercise!) all helps to ease the stress of our hectic lives.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
We are not equally represented at the leaders’ table. Women must advocate for themselves as robustly and effectively as men do in the workplace. Speak up, be professional, state your case. We are smart, educated and creative and we should use our voices to our benefit.
How can we encourage more women to start their own business?
We can start by telling them that they can do it and be successful at it. Give them the confidence and support to go out on their own, whether it’s through mentoring, networking, investing or just plain cheer-leading. Newspaper columnist Thomas Friedman wrote several years ago that the cost of starting a business has dramatically decreased over the years thanks to technology and the internet, so what was once the biggest obstacle to starting a business is now quite financially manageable. So if you have that “idea,” go for it. I firmly believe that more women have to start their own businesses to escape the engrained inequality in much of the business world. If you can’t change that paradigm, then create your own paradigm and make your own rules. Let’s encourage our daughters, sisters, nieces, friends and female co-workers to strike out on their own.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have had people who definitely encouraged me but I do regret never having had a proper mentor, somebody who took me under his/her wing to give career advice and guidance. I do have someone now, who I call a “life-whisperer,” who gives generous, insightful, common-sense advice that helps me prioritize and balance my work and personal lives.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Two women I admire are Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and PespiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. They were trailblazers who never underestimated their intelligence, never hid their ambitions, have had phenomenal careers and raised families. I personally know scores of intelligent and creative women whom I admire and respect. I often wonder what kind of impact their intelligence, insight, empathy and sense of fairness would have made in business or government if they’d had opportunities to lead.
What do you want to professionally and personally accomplish in the next year?
Professionally, I would like to provide more financially needy individuals with the simple yet critical tool of eyeglasses. There is still so much need out there. As someone who has extremely high myopia (suffice to say that I cannot see clearly past four inches from my face) I don’t know how I would have been able to accomplish what I have without access to corrective eyewear throughout my life, so I advocate as hard and as best I can for those who don’t have access. To that end, New Eyes is currently looking at new partnering opportunities to further decrease our cost of glasses and we are fortunate to have secured a $100,000 matching gift from a donor who will match every donation New Eyes receives through January up to $100,000. Personally, I’m excited to be planning a trip to the Great Wall of China and Thailand with my college friends as we celebrate our 60th birthdays. And we might allow our husbands to accompany us to Tuscany if they behave well!
What are the top three tips you can offer to an entrepreneur starting out?
Do a thorough vetting of your business idea. Talk to others in the industry, your peers, family. Look for critical and objective opinions. It will only make your idea stronger in the long run – or reveal that it wasn’t a good one to begin with.
Take a full appraisal of your skills. Do a SWOT analysis: assess your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This will give you a solid foundation upon which to build your business by analyzing and acknowledging your strong points and your vulnerabilities.
Be brave. The fact that you are doing this is incredible. Be proud you have the courage of your convictions. You won’t be that person who looks back and regrets never having tried.