A Leadership Story. Meet Jennifer Jones, President at Toronto Public Library Foundation

As children we’re taught the tale about the tortoise and the hare. Jennifer Jones’ story reminds us of the moral of that tale: slow and steady still wins the race. Jennifer shares that it took her over a decade of living and working in various countries across different companies and industries to find her place- but when she did she was able to be more thoughtful and strategic about her career. We love her story because it reminds us all that our careers are more like marathons than sprints and we can give ourself permission to think and act long term. Before taking the helm at Toronto Public Library Foundation she was the VP at Indigo Love of Reading Foundation and had stints at CIBC and Ontario Centres of Excellence. Her story also reinforces the importance of having a strong network (but not for what you may think) and the power of dreaming big. Read on to find out more about Jennifer Jones, advice she has for others and how you can have a career like hers one day.

When did you know you wanted to work in social impact/nonprofit?

The light went on for me when I was at CIBC Small Business Marketing and owned the sponsorship portfolio. It was energizing to be able help fund not for profits and work as a partner with smart, passionate people on strategic opportunities; I realized then that this beautiful blend of work that captured my head and my heart was my new vocation.

How did you get your current job and how did your previous work / life experience prepare you for a career in social impact?

Like so many people, my career path was organic, often more directed by what I didn’t want than what I knew I wanted.  I’m not a sprinter in anyway – I’m definitely built for endurance and my career is another example of that. It took me over a decade of living and working in different countries across many industries and companies and doing my MBA to find my place. When I did figure it out, I was able to be more thoughtful to lay down stepping stones to get to where I am now.  I was lucky to have many smart, sophisticated and ambitious people in my life who challenged me to be more, be better and not to set limits on myself. As for life experience: in many ways I have often been the underdog and deeply appreciate that people often need a strong community and many chances to help them succeed.

For the last 10 years you’ve dedicated your career to organizations supporting reading and books. Why is this cause important to you? 

Leading the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation was the golden ticket at that stage of my career. Indigo is an incredible brand with employees who really believe in the brand and it’s inspired by a very charismatic leader, Heather Reisman. Being able to build a corporate foundation is a rare opportunity. All that combined with my life long love of reading made it the perfect role for me. I learned a lot about the state of literacy in Canada – how critical it is to build early years literacy which is an indicator of self-esteem and future success — and was really rewarded with the meaningful connections I built with employees across Canada who actively delivered on our mission, and the librarians, teachers and students who benefited from our work. It was a glorious run.  

Moving over to the TPL Foundation was such a seamless and natural next step.  It’s a real privilege stepping into this role to represent an institution that is the busiest in the world and serves more than 70% of Torontonians. And while books is still a core part of its raison d’etre, there are literally thousands of other reasons why the demand for our libraries continues to grow. There’s a gravitas to that that I like to remind myself and my team of on a regular basis. 

What advice would you give a leader of a social impact organization on her/his first day of work ?

Hire an amazing coach to have a safe sounding board for all the questions you can’t ask the Board or your team.  Build a strong peer network for the same reasons and to share best practices. Invest your time and energy in your team (first!), Board (second!) and donors (all the time!) to get to know your business so you can make thoughtful changes as quickly as possible.

What advice do you have for people interested in having a job like yours one day?

Build essential business skills and disciplines. Establish a strong network across all sectors of peers and people more experiencedFind a mentor that will invest in you. Learn from every experience – good and bad.  Know your values and find a company that lets you live them and bring your whole self to work everyday. Fight for what you believe is the right thing to do for the business and team. Make your word your contract. Have a strong vision for the work you’re doing, no matter what level you’re at. Take pride in your work and how you engage with the world every day. 

Do you have a philosophy you live/work by?

Openness: I try to lead and live with an open mind and open heart. Pretty sure I’m not always successful!

Kindness: Treat everyone (including yourself) with kindness and respect. 

Accountability: Admit when you don’t know something or made a mistake; find a solution.

Health & wellness:  Own it. Don’t apologize for what you need to be your best self.

Life-long learning: Be curious. Never stop growing and being your best self. 

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