Janelle Duray on How Women Can Do Nonprofit Leadership Better

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Janelle Duray, Executive Vice President of Jobs for America’s Graduates.

  1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?
Janelle Duray
Janelle Duray, Jobs for America’s Graduates’ Executive Vice President (Image credit: Janelle Duray)

I always had ambitions to be at the table, but growing up on a family farm in rural Northwest Minnesota I didn’t have much exposure to those who had experiences outside of my own. Grad school brought me to D.C. and in my last semester, I started as an intern at Jobs for America’s Graduates, where I remain today (I know – rare these days to stick around so long, especially at the beginning of their careers). In the beginning, I couldn’t believe I was there and kept wondering “How did I get here?” The city, mission, impact, and access to people in power positions.  These new experiences had me second-guessing if my voice is valuable. But I knew that I had experiences that could provide insight. 

I later learned that everyone seated at the table had gone through similar experiences themselves. I wish there was an honest conversation about failure, and how that leads to experience. What people entering the workforce need to hear is, “Don’t be intimidated, get used to the table because you belong here.” The good news is we are getting better at it.

2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?

As you can guess, it’s related to the impacts of COVID-19 and managing change in a time of crisis.

In 2018 we launched a major initiative dubbed the JAG Advantage to enhance our services to respond to the needs of young people in the 21st century: enhancing our learner-centric models around project-based learning, providing equitable services through trauma-informed care, and developing skillsets that lead to better jobs and career pathways through employer engagement. To support this initiative we had to develop new roles and grow our team, and then deliver training and resources across a 40-state affiliated network. We were in the middle of our efforts to roll out new content, new approaches, new technology, and new partnerships when COVID-19 hit, and now our nation is in crisis.

Now, we’re in change management and considering how we immediately scale our new services, while scaling to meet the demand. It is absolutely critical to reach and re-engage the millions of young people who have been disconnected. Our Chair and Vice-Chair, Governors John Bel Edwards (D-LA) and Kim Reynolds (R-IA) wrote an Op-Ed for USA Today in June of 2020 titled COVID-19 puts our children at high risk of long-term hardship. Well, we’re here and it’s bad.  

At a time when everyone is exhausted, JAG has diligently been working on internal change management while putting energy into services and growth JAG’s team has grown rapidly over the last 18-24 months. With most of our team members in their positions for two years or less, the team has committed to building systems and cross-pollination points, creating new services, and preparing them for immediate deployment. Our line of work does not allow for the luxury of planning and pilot phases — we must implement Project Warp Speed now to best serve America’s youth. 

The challenge can be overwhelming, but then you pause, take a break and take it day by day. Crises management doesn’t give you much time to prioritize– the immediate challenges help make priorities clear based on need. A phrase I’ve heard from colleagues across all disciplines is “we’re building the plane while flying it.” I’d have to say we’re doing the same thing, but we can leverage 40 years of experience and lessons learned in real-time, so I’d say we have a good set of pilots. 

3. What inspires you most about your work?

Access to levels and levers that can make positive change – a combination of power and service to others – provides an incredible opportunity to make systems changes at scale. Let me explain: When I was a senior in high school, I was applying for scholarships left and right. My family didn’t have the means to financially support me, but they understood that education was my priority, so my mom kept her eyes out for scholarships for me to apply for. One served to be my lifeline – a $32,000 scholarship awarded to five seniors across the country. I won for the “Midwest” area and it basically paid for my college at the University of Minnesota and lessened the burden of taking out additional loans. In addition to the GPAs and letter of recommendations, I had to write a one-page essay on what “education means to me.”

I watched hours of cable news networks with my dad in the evening and I was fascinated by all these commentators and politicians who spoke about current events with such ease, and wondering if they knew what we all thought. To me, they seemed to have a lot of power. So, for my essay submission, I chose to write about how education provides access – and in my mind, access could empower, which meant a seat at the table to serve others who weren’t there.

I don’t remember every line of that essay, but I remember the closing because one of the reviewers repeated the line in the essay that stood out, “I don’t care if my name ends up in black and white, as long as the work I contribute to does.” I was (and still am) committed to something bigger than myself. I wanted to make an impact at scale, not just with my family or local community. I wanted to be at the table, putting in the work that could help thousands and millions of people as a result. 

In my current role as Executive Vice President at JAG, I get to fulfill my mission each and every day — the opportunity to have an impact at scale. It’s not lost on me that I’m writing this for an article that will go to print – how’s that for irony?

You can’t catapult from novice to professional. Educating yourself while being open to life-long learning and taking notes along the way is a vital part of success. I admire leaders who roll up their sleeves and problem solve and are vulnerable enough to admit when they’re wrong. Sweat equity was my lifeline. I learn by doing – by trying and doing it wrong then doing it better again. Some of my favorite projects and biggest opportunities over the years were when I tried to create something new – a new operating procedure – and it didn’t work. Those lessons about what didn’t work is how you adapt and move toward excellence. That is how you achieve excellence – by learning through your biggest failures – and picking up and trying again. 

4. How does your gender identity inform your work? 

Fact: Women have not historically been viewed as the dominant sex in terms of power. Any individual who identifies within a non-dominant group knows this. They must work harder to prove they are enough. I believe that as a result of being perceived as inferior, women and especially women of color, have developed incredible skill-sets — problem-solving, awareness, resiliency, and advocating for yourself and others —are all needed to break through the glass ceiling. This is all in addition to being the primary caregivers of children and now increasingly acting as the primary financier overseeing savings and investments. Think of that combination, over generations, and how it has informed women and how it plays out and benefits places of work.

One of my best friends recently had her first child. She talked about the joy of motherhood and also the incredible responsibility it is, making decisions on behalf of another human being. Her son was born premature and now her doctors are recommending he go on a medicine that will help regulate the thyroid, which he must keep taking for the next 3 years. That’s a HUGE decision to make. She did extensive research, spoke to other parents and doctors, and eventually decided yes, they would do that. In her research, she spoke to her mother who shared a story similar about my friend’s younger brother, who has sickle cell anemia. When he was a baby, doctors recommended a growth medicine, and my friend’s mother, after doing her own research and soul-searching, said no. Now that boy is a healthy grown man 6’3” inches tall. 

Both of those situations were major life decisions that impacted not just the deciders, but another life. They required intense research, outreach to both peers and external experts, personal and financial benefit and cost analysis of immediate and long-term impacts and in the end, a tough decision was made. You know who also makes those types of decisions – the C-Suite. 

And women have been doing that for thousands of years – the skillsets developed as a result of managing multiple projects at once all while pushing the boulder uphill on behalf of others. I like to remind myself of the many women who have come before me and continue alongside me, and how we continue learning from each other to help not only each other but others who have been consistently left behind.

5. Do you think your gender identity has affected your career? 

I described some of the positives in the last question, now let’s borrow a term from Brene Brown and “embrace the suck.”

Being a woman, coupled with my culture, has presented challenges. I am a very independent person – everyone in my family is. We tend to be private in our feelings. We’ve all heard of “Minnesota nice”, but in my opinion, it’s an extension and positive play on privacy and passive-aggressiveness we’ve inherited from our Scandinavian heritage (hey, there is a lot of good, but if you don’t focus on the areas to grow, the good isn’t enough). When I left Minnesota and came to DC, I didn’t ask for a lot of help when people offered it; I thought people were just “being nice” and I didn’t want to be a burden. I remember at the beginning of my career when women in leadership positions would pull me aside or make direct eye contact with me in a meeting. They’d ask for my opinion and take an interest in my background. As a woman, I wish I would’ve leaned into the moment. I lean in now, but in my 20s, I didn’t want to be a burden. 

You see this play out in other ways that we’re getting better at calling out: Women over-apologizing, shying away from speaking their opinions, doubting their value. Women are making great progress and I’m so encouraged by the results of the #MeToo movement. The next generation will be stronger equipped with the knowledge and broader support those before us didn’t have. There is still much to be done, but we’re moving in the right direction.

This combination of my culture and my gender identity may have affected my career, but I’ll never know how. But, if you’re reading this and recognize these tendencies in yourself, I encourage you to learn from my mistakes. Take people up when they offer you help and actively build those connections!

6. How can philanthropy support gender equality?

In three ways, I think:

First, by not just calling out inequity and inequality, but by supporting organizations by meeting them where they are at. Help organizations have these conversations. Fund consultants, trainers, workshops and advocacy so they can develop their organizations from the inside out.

After the killing of George Floyd, we received a lot of inquiries and requests from our National Network. In our 40 years of operation, our president noted it was the most significant response we’d ever received from our Affiliate staff and Specialists, and the young people we serve. Nearly 60% of the young people we serve identify as Youth of Color. Our Specialists are as diverse as our communities. They wanted to talk about it in a safe space, but they also wanted and needed us to learn from it. Where are we in our individual journeys and our awareness of racism? How does racism play out today in indiscreet ways? How we can we recognize it and be an advocate? I’ll never forget those weeks of talking with philanthropic organizations – asking for help, funding, support, etc. Some wanted concrete plans while ours was a working one, others were skeptical we didn’t have them in place. I sometimes got the feeling that young people get when they apply for a job – they need the experience to be eligible, but if you don’t provide experience, how will they be eligible? We need help.

Enter a Chief Diversity Officer from a global company. She said listen, I can’t fund you right now, but what I can do is provide training pro bono for your entire national network tailored to their needs. That’s our Board, National Staff, Chief State Affiliate officers, Affiliate leadership team members, our Specialists. I was so appreciative I teared up. That is exactly what we needed. We had recognized there was a problem, stated the problem, but we needed help to open up that conversation to all. And the work continues today. 

Second, by reaching all communities. My mom works for a small nonprofit in my home community that provides shelter, mental health support, and training and rehabilitation for women and children fleeing sexual and domestic abuse. Domestic abuse against women and the LGBTQ community is especially high, statistically, in rural America where the resources and support circles aren’t readily available. For many of the clients at my mom’s place of work, gender equality may start with survival. Resources for basic needs and rehabilitation in rural communities are a must. Once you establish the services, begin leadership development programs within the communities that don’t have active support systems. 

Third, listen to your grantees. Ask them questions about where they are at in the gender equality conversation. When you ask them that question, do you get a pause or look of uncertainty? They may not know where to begin. Ask them how they are supporting women, LGBTQ, and other systemically marginalized communities. Get to know where their organizational culture is at so you can better define where you can meet them in the journey.

7. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equality movements taking us?

Onward and upward. According to a study by Accenture, 70% of leaders believe they foster a workplace of inclusivity and innovation, yet only 40% of employees feel they are operating in such an environment. We must close that gap.

The majority of leaders, in all sectors in our country, are white men. Only 37 Fortune 500 CEOs are women, which is an all-time high in 2020. Women make up just 8% of CEOs on the Fortune 500 list this year and for Women of Color it’s less than 1%. About a quarter of our U.S. Congress are women. There is a lot of work to do, but when I think of some of the points I made earlier, I’m inspired by the collective power we can harness from smart, strategic, visionary women.

A Time Magazine article spotlighted the critical mass of female influence: when women reached 20% in the Senate, they advocated for the Pentagon to reform the military’s sexual-assault protocol. When women reached 25% of Hollywood producers, they took down Harvey Weinstein as a sexual predator. When women comprised a third of the White House press corps, they capsized serial harassers in the media. Studies show that when women comprise 20% to 30% of an organization, positive, meaningful change begins to happen.

It has also been proven that more diverse organizations outperform those that are less diverse. A recent study from S&P Global Market Intelligence found that public companies with female CEOs or CFOs were often more profitable and had better stock price performance. A Catalyst survey of Fortune 500 boards found that companies with female board directors had significantly higher financial performance, on average, than those with males leading their boards. 

All the research is there to make the case, but let’s not forget – it’s simply the right thing to do. We do better when we bring each other along – at all levels – and we must remind ourselves every day to not just believe in that, but to act if we are to become better and get to where we want to be today, tomorrow, and in ten years. For me, I want to see less about the problem and more about the solution. I hope we all take for granted that inequality is completely unacceptable. I look forward to celebrating equality, not 25%, and that’s where I think we are going.


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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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