Jenny Dearborn, recognized as one of the top 50 most powerful women in tech five years in a row, is a Silicon Valley overachiever, but her success has less to do with working 80-hour workweeks than it does with working smarter, and that’s a feat. Consider this: When she was growing up in Davis, she was labeled not only “dumb,” but “retarded” by her teachers, she says, who put her in special education classes and forced her to run laps outside to burn off fidgety energy.
Dearborn had always been able to listen and communicate, but when learning to read, she found comic books easiest to follow. After barely graduating high school, she was diagnosed in junior college with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She was later diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. Armed with specific learning tools and books on tape, she learned to read by anticipating words and thoughts by the shapes and patterns of the letters on the page.
Jenny Dearborn, who suffered in school before being diagnosed with dyslexia, says comic book heroes are a symbol of her crusade against injustice.
The mislabeling sparked within her a desire to teach. “I had a jetpack on my back full of rage,” she recalls. “I was going to prove everybody wrong who told me I was stupid and worthless, and made me feel small.” With a degree in English from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in education from Stanford University, she taught at Woodside High for two years before moving into corporate education. She was employed at Hewlett-Packard Company, Sun Microsystems and a startup before landing at SAP, where, as a senior vice president and chief learning officer (and, later, an executive vice president in human resources), she was responsible for the overarching workforce strategy for 95,000 SAP employees worldwide. She traveled the globe advocating for more girls and women in science, technology, engineering and math, and for more training of workers in problem-solving and collaborative work skills. A year ago, she left SAP to form her own consulting firm, Actionable Analytics Group.
Today, Dearborn and her team use data and analytics to help companies boost employee productivity and performance, a line of work that was borne of her own experiences. “I grew up really struggling to prove what I did well,” she says. “As a professional, it became my mission to help companies figure out what are their strengths, and what are the strengths of their workforce? When people lean into the things they do well, they are more productive and engaged and joyful.” The future of work, Dearborn believes, lies not in eliminating jobs, but in changing the work that people do. She urges clients to take the monotony, the drudgery and the soul-crushing tasks off the plates of humans and shift that to software and robots. “Work that involves problem-solving, creativity, innovation, critical thinking, empathy and emotional intelligence,” she says, “is work that only humans can do.”
Speaking to The Sales Conference, a recent gathering in Sweden that focused on the future of sales and marketing, she told the crowd that, as sales leaders, they should complete a detailed task analysis to see how much time sales representatives were actually spending on different components of their work. They might well find that only one-third of their time involved selling a product to a customer, while the other two-thirds were taken up by administrative and corporate busywork. If tedious tasks are outsourced to software programs, sales reps could have more time to interact with clients. The result? “When you have staff that is fully engaged,” she says, “you have higher levels of productivity, and lower levels of workplace stress, burnout and turnover.”
As a futurist, she also urges companies to retrain their workforces because data suggests that, although there are more jobs today than in decades past, there are not enough people with the right skills to do them. She told a conference of building industry leaders who sought to boost recruitment of young talent to the trades—an industry young workers consider nonlucrative and nonprestigious—to focus on what is important to
younger generations: purpose in their work. “They want to use the latest technology; they want to be a part of the future of work and to know that they are constantly learning and growing and advancing,” she says. “If you were born today in North America, you have a 50% chance of living to 105. These people will have more than a 60-year career. You look at the oldest leaders today, and they will have a 40-year career. This idea of lifelong learning and constant change—it’s hard for them to get their minds around that.”
Diversity of ethnicity, gender and ability is also central to workplace success, says Dearborn, because companies are increasingly gathering data on customers to understand their behaviors. “We need more women and people from every background in tech,” she insists. “They need to be part of the decisions about how technology impacts peoples’ lives.”
It’s these types of insights that leads Michael Ross, an investor and former Visa executive who worked with Dearborn at HP more than a decade ago, to call her a “unique talent—she can see where the trends are forming.” Venture capitalist Robby Peters met Dearborn a year ago while she was working with some of the companies he advises at his PeopleTech Partners. “People were raving about her and the support she gave them,” he says. “Jenny is extremely hardworking and is very forward-thinking in her views of where the world of work is going. … I always feel more educated after spending time with her.”
On the topic of disabilities, Dearborn is blunt: She doesn’t like the word disabled and wants society to stop using it. “Why start in a negative place?” she asks. “Just because you’re not good at something doesn’t mean you’re not good at everything. There are probably some things you’re awesome at. People excel when their strengths are identified. It’s a matter of being differently abled, not disabled.”
Unsurprisingly, comic book heroes have taken on symbolic meaning in Dearborn’s life. She may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but she is a wonder woman to those around her, including four children (three out of the nest); her husband, real estate developer John Tarlton; colleagues on various company boards; and the young CEOs she mentors during occasional panicked midnight video calls to go over impending pitches and presentations. She paints Wonder Woman canvases as talismans for her home. “It’s about bringing truth and justice,” she says, “and fighting for the underdog, being a part of something bigger than yourself.”
Photography by: Photos By Drew Altizer