Jacki Zehner: one wonder woman, moving millions

The visionary CEO of Women Moving Millions shares the inspirational story of how she went from finance to philanthropy.

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According to the Center for Women’s Business Research, women own about 40 per cent of businesses in the United States—and those rapidly growing businesses generate trillions of dollars per year in sales. However, only three per cent of women-owned firms earn revenues of $1 million or more compared to six per cent of those owned by men.

As of 2009, women made up 48 per cent of the work force, but at this point progress seems to have been stalled for a number of years. And when it comes to corporate boardrooms, women still account for only about 15 per cent of board member positions at Fortune 500 companies.

“I think we’re kind of living in this space of contradiction, at the moment, which is one of my sources of frustration and activation,” said Zehner.

“The frustrating part is that you still have all the statistics around women making 70 cents on the male dollar, women being only three per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs, women being somewhere between 15 and 17 per cent in Congress in the U.S. or in leadership positions at all. Women are multiple times more likely to experience violence. I mean, all the bad stuff, you have that side of the equation.”

“And then you have the other side, which is all about women’s power. We are half the work force. We’re starting small businesses at an increasing and higher rate. So you go, well, what’s wrong with that picture? You have so much power and potential on one end, and still so much missed opportunity and lack of opportunity on the other hand,” she continued.

Women Moving Millions

This dilemma is part of the reason why Zehner was so drawn in by the work of Women Moving Millions (WMM). Established in 2007 by sisters Swanee and Helen LaKelly Hunt, the group is focused on “raising the bar” for women’s giving. The first phase of the initiative was launched in collaboration with the Women’s Funding Network, and sparked over $182 million in donations to groups supporting women and girls.

“When I heard about the Women Moving Millions campaign, I was inspired to make a million-dollar commitment to the Women’s Funding Network and other foundations, granting a million dollars over four years,” Zehner recalled.

After donating her million, the former trader became one of the WMM community’s most active and dedicated members, which eventually led to her new role as CEO. Now she says the group is trying to strategize new ways of engaging would-be female philanthropists, before launching its next phase as a registered charity this coming September.

While this new gig with the organization may seem like a dream job for someone with Zehner’s skills and passion, she says the inherent difficulties involved have made it both a blessing and a curse.

“I would say it’s been the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do, these past few months,” she explained.

“I was joking with a friend that it used to be really easy when I would go into work. Not that it wouldn’t be stressful and hard in some ways, but your job was to go in every day and make as much money for the firm. You didn’t have to change the world for the better, you didn’t have to rewrite the banking regulations, you didn’t have to ponder a global economic crisis. You just kind of went in every day, and you tried to do your job and do it well.”

These days Zehner’s job still involves making financial deals…but these deals aren’t just for the benefit of clients or businesspeople. Instead, she and her colleagues are making a difference in the lives of thousands of women and girls around the globe. It may not be an easy task, but it’s one that comes with incalculable rewards.

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”

Zehner describes giving, particularly at one’s capacity, as not only a generous act, but also a powerful one. It’s a lesson she says she learned early in life, from her family in Kelowna. Her father managed a grocery store and her mother—who worked primarily in insurance—was always doing as much as she could to help out those in need. Whether that meant delivering pies to elderly neighbours or spending time with people who had nobody else, there was always a way to provide support for others less fortunate.

With caring parents who nurtured such values, it comes as no surprise that Zehner’s favourite quote is one from Theodore Roosevelt, who once said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”.

The quote is apparently plastered all over her home in Park City, Utah, where she now lives with her family. And those same wise words, she says, are key to the efforts of Women Moving Millions.

“The work that I do is really trying to encourage and support women using their power, and primarily their economic power in terms of starting businesses, in terms of their giving dollars, in terms of their investment dollars and their consumer choices,” said Zehner, emphasizing that not all economic power comes in the form of a million-dollar cheque.

“We’re calling everyone to be a superhero. We’re calling everyone to be Wonder Woman, which to me means using all the resources that you have at your disposal to try to make the world a better place,” she added.

“It’s about just using everything you can use. We are all blessed with different types of resources, different talents. So whatever it is for you, it’s just putting it in service of something bigger than yourself.”

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