20 Questions with World Learning’s President and CEO Carol Jenkins

Held on March 8, 2018, International Women’s Day is an opportunity to showcase the achievements of women around the world and press for gender parity in all corners of society. World Learning will be celebrating all week long with stories showcasing the contributions of women in our global community.

World Learning’s President and CEO Carol Jenkins

World Learning’s newly appointed President and CEO Carol Jenkins has already made her mark on the organization. She first joined World Learning in June 2007 and has served in multiple positions over the years — including most recently as president of the Global Development and Exchange unit where she worked to define and demonstrate the impact of World Learning’s programs around the world. Last month, World Learning Board of Trustees Chair Lynne Maguire praised Jenkins’s leadership and track record, saying, “she embodies and lives our core values.”

But what else is there to know about Jenkins? In the following interview, Jenkins shares some key facts about her life from growing up on a farm to her impressive six-day-a-week fitness routine. And she shares advice for young people entering the international development field, including passing along some words from one of her mentors: “Don’t look for other people to solve problems. You should assume that you are going to be the one that solves the problem.”

What’s your favorite childhood memory?

One of my favorite memories is of my mother and my father when they came back from shopping in Des Moines, Iowa, which is where I grew up. My sister and I would stay at my grandparents’ house. They lived across the street, so they would take care of us when my parents were gone. My mother would come back from shopping at 9 or 10 o’clock at night and she had this black fur collar on her red coat and she smelled like second-hand cigarette smoke and Chanel №5 and she’d give me a kiss. I was so happy when she got home. I probably would have been three or four.

Why is that such a strong memory for you?

I’ve wondered that. When I worked at Columbia University Law School, I could take classes at Columbia University. I took creative writing class and they had us use this thing called “I remember” as a way to write what you remembered and that was something that really stood out. So I’ve thought a lot about that particular memory. And also, since you asked, the reason my parents were always leaving isn’t that they went shopping. My older sister, I had two sisters, my older sister died of leukemia. So what my parents were actually doing is they would drive the 20 to 30 minutes to Des Moines regularly to visit her while she was in the hospital. But I didn’t realize all that was going on.

What member of the Breakfast Club would you have been back in high school?

None. I’d have been a combination of the smart guy — was he smart? He was an overachiever or something with the blond hair — and the girl who Ally Sheedy played and the principal. I would be a combination of those three. I was the smart kid. I was not very popular. And I was very much about the rules.

What was your dream job when you were growing up?

I wanted to be an English teacher. I loved diagramming sentences. I loved that. It was so much fun.

What was your first job?

I worked at B&K pizza as a waitress in Nevada, Missouri. I was working so I could save up money to go to New York City. In high school, the speech and debate team and the music teacher got together and, for those of us who could go, we went to New York City for a couple weeks. That was fun. I did speech and debate and music — I played the piano and the French horn. I was in the band and the marching band, and I played the piano for the swing choir.

Why did you decide to study political science?

It was probably my experience in speech and debate. I went to a public high school and I was very fortunate, it was a great school. Every weekend, there would be different debates in the region and the state and the rest of the states. You had to become familiar with current affairs. If you did extemporaneous speaking, you had to be very familiar with any topic they could ask you to do. You have 30 minutes to prepare without notes on any topic and usually it was about what was going on in politics or the world. I think that’s probably how I got interested.

Tell us a little bit about your family. How did you meet your husband?

I met my husband when I worked at World Vision in Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1997. In May of ’97, there was a very violent coup in the country and we were both in that, experiencing it in different ways. I was evacuated by helicopter and he stayed and was evacuated on the USS Kearsarge by the U.S., who came and took the last expatriates out of the country. We both worked for World Vision. I was a regional program officer and so I traveled around the continent and he was based there. I wrote proposals for their programs.

What’s the best career advice you got when you were starting out?

One of the mentors when I was first starting out said to me, “Don’t look for other people to solve problems. You should assume that you are going to be the one that solves the problem.” So, don’t sit around and wait. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and dig in and do it.

I hear you’re an early riser. What’s your morning routine?

Feed the cats. Make coffee, have coffee with cream, and cereal — usually granola and yogurt. And get ready. I listen to the news while I’m getting ready. Probably the very first thing I do is check my email. Checking email happens throughout the routine. That’s my morning.

I like to sleep in a little bit later on Sundays. But it’s kind of the same. Email, cats, coffee, maybe lattes, jogging, putzing around the house. That’s Sunday. Of course, I should say on Sundays I really wish I would get to church more often. But that’s just a little religious guilt.

And what’s your fitness routine?

I’m 52, so about 12 years ago I started going to the gym and I’ve been religiously going to the gym since then. I’ve had the same trainer now for probably six years. Every Saturday at 10 o’clock, I do that strength training then twice a week on my own for about an hour. And then I jog… I try to work out six days a week, so I do four miles a day jogging and then three days of strength training.

What do you do to relax?

I don’t really relax, as my husband will tell me. I’m always doing something. I love to watch British shows. I love Doc Martin and I like Janet King — I guess that’s actually Australian. I love Wallander. My cell phone ringer is Wallander. They’re all mystery things. I love Law & Order. And then Midsomer Murders, I like those too.

Do you collect anything?

I’ve collected political campaign buttons since I was a kid. They’re primarily presidential buttons. And now every year I make sure I get one. I have one older than Eisenhower. I don’t know how I got into it. Maybe because my mom had a few of them when I was little, and it interested me. My husband would say I collect cats.

So you do have pets. Is it just cats?

Cats. I want a French bulldog and a Boston terrier, but we can’t have them yet because we travel too much. And I love cats. So we have two yellow boys and one 20-year-old girl. We always had cats growing up. We had dogs too. But we mostly lived on farms, so it was easier.

Can you tell me more about growing up on a farm?

Yeah. When we left Iowa, I was in fourth grade. My dad had two different farms. He raised beef cattle and soybeans and wheat. It was nice.

Koshari, one of Carol’s favorite dishes

Do you have a favorite international food memory? Or is there food you crave that you can’t get here?

The guy who does my hair in Old Town is Egyptian and I was just talking to him about koshari. That stuff is awesome. It’s just everything awful that you could put in one thing. Listen: rice, macaroni, and lentils, topped with chickpeas, onion, and tomato-vinegar sauce. It’s known as a poor man’s dish. It was really delicious. It’s just a comfort food.

My favorite meal, though, when I was in London and I took some time to myself, I booked at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant and had one of those multiple-course meals. It was really fun.

And if you could teleport anywhere, where would you go right now?

Stellenbosch in South Africa. It’s just beautiful. I would love to live there.

What’s your favorite book to re-read?

I don’t really re-read any books. I re-watch movies all the time but not books. The movie that I watch, this is just weird, it’s “Live from Baghdad.” I travel with it. It’s about when CNN found their way in the industry during the first Gulf War. What’s his name is in it, Michael Keaton and Helen Bonham Carter. I love that movie.

What women do you admire?

Julia Child, Audrey Hepburn, and Katie Couric. And of course, Ros Delori. She used to be our board chair. She’s on our board now.

Carol (far left) with students from World Learning’s Egypt STEM Schools Project

What does gender parity mean at World Learning and our programs around the world?

Yeah, it’s very important. Gender is one window into ensuring that there’s access and equal opportunities. In our programs, of course, that’s a very serious issue because so many of the places where we’re working, you can’t find what you call the level playing field. As difficult as it can be for people in this country, in many cases there are laws, there are regulations, there are conversations, there is a media that’s holding people accountable, whereas in other countries that doesn’t even exist. The laws aren’t in place. There isn’t the will. There isn’t the conversation. There isn’t media holding people in positions of power accountable and so it’s even more difficult to try to provide equity and parity in the communities that we’re working in.

That’s something we always have to be mindful of. It’s not just at a transactional level, at an activity level, ensuring that there’s opportunity and access and inclusion and consideration for everyone, but it’s looking at the systemic issues that can make it possible in the long term. Because we’re not always going to be implementing a program or engaging with those people.

Finally, what career advice would you give someone starting out now?

Have a healthy balance of patience, eagerness, thoughtfulness, and being solutions-oriented. That’s critical. At some level, have the big picture and the long game in mind, not just the immediate. It’s hard to be able to see when you’re just starting out, but don’t give up. Just keep on moving forward.