Jennifer Jones will be the first female president of Rotary International in the organization's 115-year history. She says beginning her tenure in the midst of a global pandemic presents unique challenges and opportunities.
BY SARAH SACHELI
PHOTO BY DYLAN KRISTY/UWINDSOR
Jennifer Jones is nothing if not resilient. A breast cancer survivor and entrepreneur who founded an award-winning production company, Jones BA’91 knows how to pivot and adapt to change.
So, as she prepares in the midst of a pandemic to become the first female president in Rotary International’s 115-year history, Jones has people around the world looking to her for leadership in unprecedented times.
“At Rotary, we are people of action,” Jones says. “We’ve all become more flexible and nimble, and we’ve learned how to respond in real-time.”
Jones is proud to be part of a global collective focused on making the world a better place. Rotary is a powerful force. It boasts 1.2 million members, more than 200,000 Rotaractors who are in affiliated clubs and hundreds of thousands of youth participants in 200 countries and regions throughout the world. They work in a non-religious, non-political, and non-partisan way, tackling the world’s most pressing problems, vaccinating children against polio, planting trees, building schools, and bringing clean water to impoverished areas.
Last year, the international service organization revisited its strategic plan and seemingly presciently added a new goal for 2020— to increase its ability to adapt. Jones was doing interviews and delivering speeches on this theme in late January. Only weeks later, COVID-19 forced her to put those words into action.
“When we went into the lockdown that became our North Star.”
Rotarians around the world shifted their focus to COVID. They began sewing masks by the tens of thousands and raised money to buy personal protective equipment and ventilators for hospitals everywhere.
The service organization quickly moved $2 million into its disaster relief fund and had that money on the frontlines within days. It backed that up with another million soon thereafter. Jones estimates the money raised by individual clubs and districts for COVID relief would total in the hundreds of millions.
Co-chair of a Rotary campaign raising $150 million for polio eradication efforts, Jones says the club had to temporarily halt vaccination projects when COVID-19 became a global pandemic.
“Overnight, our polio workers became COVID workers,” Jones says. “We knew we had the capacity to do this because this was the same infrastructure that was able to shut down Ebola.”
Vaccination projects resumed in July, and by August, polio was eradicated in the last regions of Africa, allowing the World Health Organization to declare the entire continent polio-free.
“This happened in the midst of the pandemic,” Jones says triumphantly. “We should be telling this story from a bullhorn.”
There’s a saying that everyone is connected with just seven degrees of separation. With Rotary, it’s just one or two.
To illustrate, Jones tells of getting a frantic text message early in the pandemic from a Rotarian in Wisconsin who was trying to help friends in Nigeria procure ventilators. When she got the text, Jones happened to be on a Zoom call with a Rotarian in Jamaica who had just arranged to get ventilators through a Rotarian in Hong Kong.
Jones connected the Wisconsin Rotarian with the one in Jamaica who in turn made the connection with the Rotarian in Hong Kong. The ventilators arrived in Nigeria in short order.
“This global network that we have is unstoppable,” Jones says.
Jennifer Jones, president-nominee for Rotary International, administers the Polio vaccine to a child in India. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Jones)
Jones was first introduced to Rotary as a novice reporter at Windsor radio station CKWW. Working there while studying communications at the University of Windsor, Jones would be dispatched to Rotary luncheons to cover speeches by political luminaries and business leaders.
“That was the first glimpse I saw of it. I was intrigued, but I remember feeling very intimidated.”
At the time, Rotary was a male-only organization. It took a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1987 to force Rotary to accept women as members.
Jones joined in 1997 at the invitation of Ross Milne, who managed the local cable television station. She had started her own television and video production company – Media Street Productions.
She had changed, and so had Rotary.
“I walked through the door and it was men and women, people I admired.”
Jones is now the standard-bearer not only for women but for all under-represented segments in the organization.
“I believe that diversity, equity, and inclusion begins at the top,” Jones says. “It’s something I will be giving a lot of voice to, while never losing sight of our entire family.”
She relies on a cadre of friends and mentors to bounce ideas off of and get things done. One is Tunji Funsho, a Nigerian cardiologist Time magazine has named one of the world’s 100 most influential people of 2020.
Dr. Funsho, as chair of Rotary’s Nigerian polio committee, is credited with helping to eradicate polio in the region. “This guy is a rock star, but he is the first to say that his face represents all our members and the work we do,” says Jones.
Jones gives credit wherever it’s due. With stints as the chair of UWindsor’s Board of Governors and the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce, Jones also knows how to build consensus.
Jennifer Jones poses with Past Rotary International President John Germ on World Polio Day at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on World Polio Day. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Jones)
Jones has organized telethons and peace conferences. She has made public appearances with Mexico’s former first lady and works alongside representatives of the United States Centres for Disease Control, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
She credits mentors in Rotary with helping build her confidence to take on positions of increasing responsibility.
“I slowly started seeing beyond my club-level experience,” she says. “They opened doors for me that were non-traditional for women in our organization.”
She became district governor for southwest Michigan and Windsor-Essex in 2007, then joined the Rotary International communications committee in 2009.
Her early career was in hospitality, first working at a resort in the Caribbean, then running the housekeeping department at a hotel in Manhattan. She learned the intricacies of labour relations and developed a sensitivity toward the plight of racial and ethnic minorities.
“It was a fascinating education in human relations. I had to earn their trust and their respect. I learned how to lead and also how to empower.”
She has also had to learn when to let go.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, she was fully immersed in Rotary and running the day-to-day operations at Media Street. Facing a regimen of chemotherapy and doctor appointments, she knew something had to give.
“I had to take a step back.”
UWindsor alumna Jennifer Jones delivers a speech to an audience of Rotary members at the 535 District Governors election. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Jones)
She handed over the reins of Media Street to CEO Kelly Blais. Jones is still the company president, but Blais “runs the show.”
She marvels at the personal growth of the entire staff. “My team really stepped up.”
COVID has also changed the way Jones operates. Fielding hundreds of requests for interviews and speeches since becoming president-elect, she has set up a studio in the basement of her LaSalle home, complete with lighting and a teleprompter.
“We’ve broken down barriers in how we connect,” she says.
In some ways, she says, the pandemic has expanded her reach.
“When you eliminate the travel, I can visit India in the morning and the Philippines after that. I can be in Scotland in the afternoon and California that same evening,” Jones says. “Working from home provides incredible flexibility."
Under normal circumstances, Jones would be travelling back and forth to Evanston, Ill., where Rotary International is headquartered. She will move there in July when her two-year term as president begins. To help presidents with the logistics of moving from other parts of the world, Rotary International owns a condominium in Evanston where new presidents and their families can live.
Jones is reticent about leaving behind Gracie, her beloved mini-Golden Doodle. A family friend is moving into her home to take care of the dog and the house.
Her husband, Nick Krayacich, will join her in Illinois. A family physician, Krayacich has found a young doctor to take over his practice for the two years he and Jones will be away. The new doctor is Osman Raza BAS ’14, who graduated with a bachelor of arts and sciences in biochemistry and political science from UWindsor before attending medical school.
Jones says the pandemic and her impending move have taught her to embrace change.
“I’ve had to become very fluid. We all have.”
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