This is Part 2 of a 12-part “Transparency” series, tracing Jenny Rae’s slightly crazy life from her early (5-year-old) roots in business to her travels and then to Bain and beyond.
If you haven’t read it already, make sure you start at Part 1. Then, enjoy!
When I first went to UVA, I was one foot in and one foot out, holding on to the possibility of transferring to one of my first choice schools (Duke was #1 on my radar). I knew it was a defining time in my life, however, so I tried my best to get involved – but I also wanted to make sure my scores were good so transferring was an option.
Likewise, I wanted to keep my career and study options open, so I took a variety of classes that were mostly focused on preparing for medical school but that covered my bases on the liberal arts side too. I was obsessed with getting great grades, and when it came down to it, I took classes I knew I could score well in. UVA’s first year classes are mostly large lectures, so I worked to build community wherever I could – mostly outside the classroom.
My first year was defining, and I got involved with different groups on campus. I was a soul singer in First Year Players (a theatrical group), where my stiff dramatic style didn’t exactly capture the hearts and minds of the audience. I was also very involved in First Year Fellowship, a Christian group that discussed life and priorities when transitioning to independence. I was a rule-follower and a non-drinker, and my friends and I would consider it a win if we would go to a party, dance like maniacs, and be accused of being drunk while remaining entirely sober.
In my first year, I went with a group of people from different faith-based groups on an alternative spring break trip to Jackson, MS. On the trip, I bonded with a group of like-minded and similarly ridiculous folks who became my core group at UVA. When we returned, we would sing spontaneous karaoke in the dining hall and spend our weekends volunteering for local groups in Charlottesville that were working toward racial reconciliation and understanding. I finally found my people, spring came – and with it outdoor adventures abundant – and the dream of transferring faded away. I was at UVA to stay.
My dad worked hard at his job in human resources for a publicly traded company, and while we never wanted for anything important, we were also not wealthy. I didn’t take a car to college, didn’t go out to restaurants, and wasn’t bankrolled by my parents. I agreed to contribute half of my college expenses every year, and that meant working in summers and during school, eating at the dining hall and not out with friends, and in general living on the cheap. I applied for a multitude of scholarships and won enough that I didn’t have to take out loans for my share of school, and did everything I could to stay ahead. I had less than $500 in my bank account, and some years ran it down to under $20 by the end of the semester. I always had enough, but I had to count every penny I spent.
For my freshman summer, I wasn’t thinking about my career – I needed money, so I headed home. I did what I knew to do – taught swim lessons, babysat and coached a local swim team. I did want to get experience in business, so I hit up my parents’ network and found a stock broker (now known as a financial advisor) to assist. I’d wake up at 6 to ride my bike to the pool for swim team practice, shower and change at the gym so I could get dropped off from 10-5, and taught swim lessons in the evenings when we didn’t have meets. I worked 12-14 hours every summer day, and ended up with a few thousand dollars to show for my efforts – all of which went straight into my tuition payment.
In my second year at UVA, I lived off-campus with a group of girls and got a job coordinating volunteers for Saturday soccer clinics run by the Charlottesville area soccer league. I kept a bag of balls in my room and borrowed a friend’s car to do the work. I also started taking on leadership roles as a member of the University Guide Service (giving both admissions and historical tours) as well as Tuesday Night, a faith-based discussion group. In addition, I volunteered at the academic UVA hospital in the surgical supply unit – I got to watch surgeries while suiting up to offer surgeons medical supplies mid-process. I could handle the blood and guts, and it confirmed – if not for passion, but for importance – that I wanted to be a doctor.
Even though I had a full year of college credits from taking AP classes, I killed myself in the classroom with 18-credit semesters – my second year was Orgo, and Physics (with labs), and advanced math and even Computer Science. I wouldn’t let myself rest, and the only vow I made was that I would not drink coffee – if I numbed myself to how tired I was, I was afraid I’d just keel over dead one day. I began to joke that I’m naturally caffeinated – a joke I still use when declining coffee today.
I regularly slept 4-5 hours a night, but I also started the practice of a Sabbath – I took one 24-hour period each week completely off from work (mine was usually 6PM Saturday to 6PM Sunday). It was a lifesaver in my insane schedule, because I launched into each new week entirely refreshed. It’s a practice I’ve kept up for my entire working life with a few exceptions, and one I’ve found to be tremendous at helping me retain my sanity. The harder I work, the more essential it is.
Over spring break in my second year, I did an externship, working for NBC’s “Meet the Press.” I lived in Washington, D.C., got lost on my way home on the bus one night (no cell-phones, so I really freaked my family out until the bus driver took me off her route and drove me directly to the house), and handled current events research for the station. I put together an info packet for the host, and sat behind a desk to get my picture taken with the peacock logo. My work on the show was frankly boring, but I interviewed the news anchors and field reporters. They told me it was a long, slow road to a hard job, but it still seemed glamorous and exciting to me.
I applied and was accepted to UVA’s undergraduate business school, the McIntire School of Commerce, but decided not to go because everyone mentioned what careers you could get and how much money you could make but nothing about a passion for business (which I already thought was morally vapid). My classroom and volunteer work further confirmed that medicine was the way to go, so I applied for a Harrison Undergraduate Research Grant to give myself another little boost on the way to compiling my med school applications. I proposed a project studying AIDS in Kenya, and I won the grant. However, I had a nearly impossible time connecting with the group that had originally offered to host me, and 2 weeks before I was supposed to fly out, they asked me not to come after all. With my grant money in hand, I needed a solution – fast – so I emailed everyone I could think of to ask for someone working in a rural hospital somewhere in Africa. A family doctor in Ghana responded, invited me, and I bought a new ticket the next day.
I had never before been to the developing world – Jackson, Mississippi was the closest I’d ever come. I arrived in Accra, and was picked up by a driver from the medical base. On my way to the complex in Teshie, a suburb of the capital, I was overwhelmed by the extensive poverty I saw. There were beautiful beaches littered with trash, feral dogs doing their business in the gutters, men urinating everywhere, shacks made of tin, and smells to which I was not accustomed. I thought our simple upbringing in Pennsylvania was basic, but I had never seen basic before. I stayed in a simple concrete building in a bunk bed with other visiting doctors and nurses and no electricity, and prepared to truly live simply.
AIDS wasn’t a publically discussed issue in Ghana at the time, so I set out to define a new research project with the head doctor of the complex. He said malaria was the biggest medical issue facing his patients, so I decided to explore the use and effectiveness of both traditional bush remedies and pharmaceutical treatments.
I spent the summer reviewing literature on malaria as a clinical disease, the different phases and symptoms of malaria, and interviewing patients about the treatments they used. I even went up to the north of Ghana, where I both attended my first birth in a bush hospital (the women had ridden 10 miles on a bicycle in active labor and gave birth with no anesthetic, the absurdity of which I fully realized years later when I had my first son) and walked with elephants for the first time. I even traveled to interview 2 traditional healers in their rural village huts, which was a slightly terrifying but incredible academic experience.
On my way back to the south, we drove past a scientific center for herbal healing. After stopping to meet the clinical director, I discovered a fascinating blend between my 2 treatment methods – scientifically verified formulations of bark, berries and other organic products to treat malaria.
Although I was shocked and saddened and overwhelmed when I first arrived in Ghana, I left weeks later with a love for Africa (it wasn’t just the 10 cent pineapples – I promise). In fact, I had a new focus for my medical career – I was going to be a bush doctor myself.
My third year at UVA was incredible – like most juniors, I was at the top of my game, leading and pushing the envelope forward. It was also a lonely year for me, however, because while I had a great group of friends, I wasn’t dating anyone (and hadn’t since I’d been on campus) and was starting to think of the future so I was mourning the end of UVA long before it came. I also dealt with reverse culture shock – the previous importance of everything in my life paled in comparison with the suffering and poverty I’d experienced in Ghana. I didn’t know how to talk about it, so I retreated to my old friend – performance – and just got busy.
I lost a University Guide Service election that was important to me, and needed to get reenergized. So while I took the remaining pre-med classes I needed and kept everything up I had done before, I also served as a Resident Assistant on a hall of incredible first year girls and picked up an increasing number of economics classes, where my fellow classmates were a bit more social than those in my science classes. I also started taking some upper level academic classes – still tentatively, mind you – and even completed a groundbreaking paper on CariCom, a proposed unified currency that was following after the new Euro’s model to open trade and expand the power of the region, for a Money and Banking class.
That spring break, I was hungry to do something truly meaningful again, so I went back to Jackson, MS. This time, my class was part of the leadership, and the trip was totally different – not as cohesive, much more fun-centered than service-centered – but still meaningful. I decided to apply for, and again won, another Harrison Undergraduate Research Grant to go back to Ghana and continue my research
Before leaving UVA at the end of my third year, I’d won the top undergraduate award – the Gray-Carrington Scholarship, which was a competitive full tuition, room & board scholarship given to one rising Fourth Year. I had been nominated by peers, selected by a student committee to a finalist group, and interviewed by the most imposing and impressive committee I had ever faced around the largest boardroom table I had ever seen (and still have, to this day). I found out I won months later at a ceremony, and my whole family attended. Here’s what was more amazing – I won 4 additional scholarships that year. I tried to give all of them back, but each committee said in turn that I should keep the money, use it for other educational experiences, and begin dreaming about my future. It was the first time in my life when I had so much money at my disposal, and the big dream – getting through college without debt – was finally a reality.
I started thinking about what I could do to start making a change in the world. I began a computer drive to bring old computers (I mean, truly old computers) donated from businesses to establish a computer lab and computer literacy classes at the medical center in Ghana when I returned. Much to my surprise, my dad and 2 friends decided to join with me, and we planned to take a small team to Ghana.
Like Jackson, this trip was different – the fruit-selling ladies told me (as a compliment, which I wasn’t sure how to take) that I’d gotten fatter since I last was there. I later discovered that being overweight in Ghana is the equivalent of being wealthy, so they were commenting on my good fortune.
My friends and father were amazing, but I also felt responsible for giving them a good service experience. The computer lab was a lot of work, and we set it up and gave some classes, but it was hard to see how the work we were doing was sustainable. The core medical family left while I was there, and there was so much change that in many ways it shattered my shattered, perfect world once again. Africa was messy, and I couldn’t yet embrace the mess.
For the second half of my junior summer, I didn’t have to work for cash to support my senior year spending, so I joined my best friend, Lawson, at a ranch camp in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Talk about culture shock! I flew straight there from Ghana, and after a few short days of orientation had to pick up kids who arrived on private jets to the small executive airport. I did my best to engage – after all, I was wrangling horses, turned 21 and went out to the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, and camped on long adventures in the shadow of the imposing Tetons. It was incredible – but I had trouble shaking my unforgettable desire to make a difference, and battling to see how that was it.
When I went back to school for my fourth year, I had been selected to live in a rustic original 1800s room on the Lawn – a backwards honor UVA began granting in the 1950s to students by a competitive process so that demand for the rooms would increase. I had a room right next to Lawson, and we put our beds in 1 room and made a lounge (in which I put a piano) in the other. We threw tailgates and parties for football games and hosted long chats with old and new friends. It was an extrovert’s dream – every day was an adventure living at the center of UVA’s campus.
In the fall, I should have begun thinking about med school applications – but I was finishing up my Econ major, and still had lingering doubts about medicine. I did my research, but I didn’t study for or take the MCAT, and decided to plan for a “gap year” where I’d work in a lab or medical clinic to confirm my interest before making the full investment. Plus, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my time at UVA thinking about the future – I wanted to enjoy what was happening in front of me in the moment.
The year raced by, and my chance to opt out of even lab work came when Lawson came excitedly to me to share what she had received for her birthday – a trip around the world! Her parents had both started their careers early and had never taken the time to do an around-the-world adventure with no agenda and no planned future. They had given the same trip to her brother, and he had visited Europe, Australia and Asia – even climbing to the base camp of Everest. It was fully paid, but they had some stipulations for her – she had to leave without a job to come back to so the trip could define her future, she had to visit at least 3 continents, and she had to take a self-defense class. Plus, they expressed a preference for her to take a traveling companion – but they didn’t offer to pay for the buddy.
Lawson asked me if I would join, and it took me less than 24 hours to say yes. We put a world map above our beds and began to dream about the trip. I had money from my scholarships and thought this would be a worthy pursuit. We didn’t just want to wander, however, so after lots of discussion we set out goals for ourselves. We would visit the developing world. We would serve and adventure. And we wanted to learn, so we decided to focus on language immersion and historical study. We abandoned the terminology “Gap Year” and the trip became our “Leap Year.”
We decided to leave at the end of the summer, so when I finished my double major (Echols Honors, a make-your-own major with a thesis on Malaria treatment, and Economics), we graduated, walked the Lawn with 3 good friends who also had absolutely nothing on but their graduation robes, and turned over the keys to the university (and my epic costume closet) to the incoming class, we headed off for separate summers. I had attended an internship career fair that spring on a whim, and I had done what everyone said to do – I “stood out” by wearing a full African headdress and head-to-toe pink and gold printed outfit.
Ironically, I got 3 top internship interviews out of it, one with Goldman Sachs for investment banking in New York. I watched the recruiter put my resume to the side after I talked to her, and got a call within a few hours inviting me to interview the next day. I wore appropriate attire to the interview, but was a bit mystified by the seeming indifference of my interviewers. One guy, when asked why he did banking, said – “The money is really awesome.” On top of being a bit of a jerk in general, he also asked me multiple questions 2-3 times without remembering my answers.
When Goldman called me to schedule my final round interview in New York, I politely told the interviewer that I wouldn’t be completing the process. She asked why, and I explained briefly, “I don’t think Goldman will be a good fit for me.” When pressed, I explained that I’ve always wanted to work with people that I want to become more like – I will, after all, become more like them when we spend so much time together, and that I had been sorely disappointed in the depth of the interviewers I had met.
It was insane and clear but also immature, and I’d guess one of the only times she’d had someone say no to a final round. I decided then and there that investment banking wasn’t for me, and neither was consulting – I’d always lumped them together because the Comm School shared about consulting and banking careers in one breath. I wanted passion for my work, and I said I wouldn’t compromise.
I decided to spend my summer trying to find this elusive passion in the workplace, because I was planning to go to med school later anyhow, so I completed the other interviews for jobs. One was with a PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, in Washington, DC, and after 2 phone interviews I had the job – working as analyst and making little more than minimum wage. I hustled my way into a home stay with a family in DC and set up a carpool with a fellow intern.
The summer was interesting. We worked on 2 primary client campaigns, one for U.S. Airways and the other for the Washington, D.C. bid for the 2012 Olympics. It was one part writing, one part event planning, and one part admin – but I liked the people. They were funny, articulate and caring, but the staff worked insane hours. In the middle of the summer, my mentor confided that they thought I was an African-American woman because of my interest in Africa and racial reconciliation – we had a good laugh about that, and about how phone interviews leave so much to be desired! I got trained in professional conduct, worked hard, and got an offer to return – which, when it was delivered to me, was accompanied by advice from my mentor to decline it and go do something ridiculous with my life.
I should have picked up on a theme by then – I could do anything I set my mind to, even if I hated it, because I had ironclad willpower. I didn’t catch the insight, but I did take her advice as I prepared for my most ridiculous caper of all – my trip around the world with Lawson. We had 1 air ticket purchased per continent, about 1/3 of our volunteering sorted, a Lonely Planet guide, and insanely overpacked backpacks.
To use the time before we left wisely, I couch surfed and grabbed a job at the UVA bookstore serving all the incoming students. On a dare from a friend, I shaved my head – I had been musing it for some time but she called me one night on being all talk and no game, so I had her do it then and there – and in mid-September 2002, Lawson and I set off to leave behind banking, consulting, PR and even med school so we could go do something meaningful – like conquer the world with kindness.