by Melissa Lawmaster
Sometimes, success can't be measured by an ROI.
As a UCLA Anderson student with a concentration in non-profit organizations, Jennifer Jenson ('06) sought something different than a career measured solely by a spreadsheet. Instead she looked for ways to make a difference in the world.
Jenson is the executive director of Harvest Home, a non-profit organization dedicated to the support of women facing unplanned pregnancies. For Jenson, it's a cause she shares a deep connection with as she herself experienced an unplanned pregnancy as a young woman; an experience she endured with the help and support of her family in what she describes as "a healthy and warm environment." Her story (including placing her baby for adoption) prompted her to get more involved with women who didn't have the good fortune of a supportive environment, not to mention financial stability. "Harvest Home is all about a cause," says Jenson, providing her with work that is both "rewarding and challenging."
Harvest Home (according to its web site) is, "a large family home located in Venice (California)" with the ability to "accommodate eight women and their infants. The facility offers women a refuge when facing a crisis pregnancy, providing food, clothing, shelter and a program aimed at helping women regain their emotional and financial independence. Each resident may stay for a period of time after the birth of her child as determined by her need, then moves to a transitional program or to an independent living environment." These transitional programs include Upward Bound House in Santa Monica, California - a facility run by Jenson's fellow-UCLA Anderson alumnus David Snow ('00).
Jenson earned her undergraduate degree at UCLA in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and then found a job in computer support sales. But she wanted something more. She conceived the idea of opening a maternity home and through a personal connection met with the then-director of Harvest Home. That first meeting led to an offer, the opportunity to shadow Harvest Home's director with an eye on replacing her. Jenson ascended to the top spot at Harvest Home in 2001, the same year she was accepted at Anderson. She ended up staying at Harvest Home another two years before reapplying and entering b-school in '03. "I felt the MBA would help me make better decisions," Jenson said. "I wanted to be a better director and that's what an MBA is all about, how to make decisions in a more analytical way."
At the outset, 10 years ago, Jenson was heavily involved in nearly every aspect of Harvest Home from weekly meetings with the women in residence to orchestrating fundraising efforts. Now, a group of employees are delegated to help with the workload but Jenson says she "still likes to have personal relationships (with the residents and their children), it makes my job meaningful." As executive director, she is faced everyday with situations that require a little bit of improvisation. "No one's going to tell you how to do it", she says, which is why Anderson was so key in teaching her how to successfully make "really complex decisions."
From her Anderson experience, Jenson says she took away a business sense of communication, how to deal with a lack of resources, and working with people in general as well as refining her thought process in order to find a "better way to come to the best conclusion". "[I learned] a huge lesson about one variable that will never change - uncertainty. There's not a lot of formulaic answers." When dealing with human lives as your business, decisions must be tailor-made and quick thinking is a must. She is effusive in her affection for the organizational behavior classes taught by Professor Sam Culbert, who she credits with adding "real depth - Professor Culbert's classes were the pinnacle of my experience (at Anderson.)"
The work of Harvest Home is based on a "call to greater accountability" in regards to setting the lives of its inhabitants back on track. Harvest Home provides countless amenities and aid like infant care, parenting, financial management, developing healthy relationships, woman's health and nutrition, career counseling, Bible study classes along with intense case management and individual therapy. Jenson recalled the story of one woman with an IQ of 80 who recently landed a job at Disneyland. "She figured out what her challenges were, figured out her strengths, and [now] has a job. They have to want it [and] when they do want it remarkable things happen. To see (the residents) make progress is amazing."
Most recently, Harvest Home garnered national attention as a featured non-profit on the ABC television program Secret Millionaire. On the program, actual millionaires "go undercover" as volunteers at different charities then make personal donations totaling $100,000. On the series finale, Harvest Home showcased its works along with three other charities and received a donation of $50,000 from their "secret millionaire."
"It was crazy," Jenson says of her reality television experience, which was pitched to her as "a documentary". "On the last day of filming they told us it was not the documentary but a reality show and then we got this amazing gift." Beyond the donation, Jenson reports that Harvest Home has benefited from the attention. "The day after the show aired I literally had 300 messages. We've been inundated by calls, donations and offers from volunteers. The real gift of the show is that it motivated others to get involved."
The most satisfying aspect of her work, Jenson says, is the fact that "you really are changing other people's lives and generations after that." The stark contrast to the environment of computer sales support is refreshing to her. "I feel like I have a lot of input into the program and what we're doing here. I get a lot of say in where Harvest Home is going." Ultimately, sharing a legacy is what Harvest Home is about: "Seeing people succeed and meet milestones is very satisfying. Their success is our success."