Jennifer Kryshka: “Having a specific career path is overrated”

Having a specific career path is overrated. I had no idea when I started out that I would become CEO of a philanthropic foundation. You go on interviews and the person across the desk asks you where you see yourself in 5 years, and you think you’re supposed to have an answer to that question. […]

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Having a specific career path is overrated. I had no idea when I started out that I would become CEO of a philanthropic foundation. You go on interviews and the person across the desk asks you where you see yourself in 5 years, and you think you’re supposed to have an answer to that question. I say follow your passion and be open to what crosses your path.

I had the pleasure to interview Jennifer Kryshka. Jennifer joined Jewish Women’s Foundation of the Palm Beaches in August 2014, became the CEO in 2018, and with a passion for feminism and Judaism is the perfect fit to lead the organization that supports and transforms the lives of women and fosters life-long social change. She is currently also the co-chair of the Florida Women’s Funding Alliance steering committee, a member of the Kol Tikvah Sisterhood Board of Directors.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Ever since college, I have been an activist focused mostly on women’s issues. I knew I wanted a career where my values were an asset and I could have an impact on the community. I tried law school, but that was not the right path for me. Eventually I discovered the wonderful world of nonprofits, and that’s where I have been throughout my entire career. I have worked in the Jewish nonprofit space almost exclusively and am a long-time dedicated supporter of reproductive rights organizations. I was connected to Jewish Women’s Foundation of the Greater Palm Beaches through a close friend who is involved with the foundation and I feel lucky to be part of such an amazing organization. JWF is the perfect blend of feminism and Judaism.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When I began working and leading at JWF, I found it interesting and unexpected that one of the best parts of my job was not just seeing the impact the foundation has, but also getting to know the incredible trustees (members) who support JWF’s work. These women are smart, generous, and passionate. As I got to know these wonderful women on a more personal level, I learned that many of them had survived sexual assault, domestic abuse, and other terrible circumstances. No community is immune to these issues. It doesn’t matter what your religion is, or socio-economic status. Our trustees are dedicated to empowering other women and girls and their passion always impresses me.

Everyone makes mistakes, even those impacting the world. Can you share a story about a mistake you made, big or small, when you were first starting out? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I think the biggest mistake was hesitating to apply for a position with JWF because I didn’t have the exact experience listed in the job description. Like many women do, I needed to find that full belief in myself to take on such a big leadership role. I have learned that underestimating yourself is a mistake, and you don’t want to regret the chance you didn’t take because of fear.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

The Jewish Women’s Foundation overall is dedicated to creating and supporting social change for women and girls, which means long term, cultural and systemic change, in and outside of the Jewish community. We provide grants to organizations doing all kinds of amazing work that furthers our mission, such as Women of Tomorrow Mentoring & Scholarship Program, She Should Run, and Futures Without Violence. At JWF Palm Beach, we also host community wide programs to educate the community about critical issues facing women and girls, and we run two leadership development programs that empower the participants to be better advocates for themselves and others.

Please tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by this cause?

JWF was one of the first funders of an organization called Unchained at Last, which focuses on helping women in forced and arranged marriages. At the time, the founder was working full time and running Unchained full time, and our grant allowed her to focus solely on Unchained’s activities. For the past several years, they have been working to pass legislation in the US to increase the minimum age for marriage to 18. In most states, there is no minimum age to get married, but because of Unchained’s efforts, several states have increased the age to 16 or 17, and 2 states have increased the minimum age to 18.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

1) Yes! Confront sexism and bigotry when you see it, even if it’s uncomfortable.

2) Learn about the needs of your local community — your entire community — and get involved. Run for office, write op-ed letters, attend town hall meetings. You can’t rely on other people to make the changes you want to see in the world.

3) Support the organizations doing the hard work to improve the community, like JWF. Volunteering is important, but so is financial support.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, a good leader is authentic, takes responsibility for their actions, and always does what’s right even when it’s hard. I think a true leader also believes that nothing is below their pay grade — when things have to get done, you do it.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1) Having a specific career path is overrated. I had no idea when I started out that I would become CEO of a philanthropic foundation. You go on interviews and the person across the desk asks you where you see yourself in 5 years, and you think you’re supposed to have an answer to that question. I say follow your passion and be open to what crosses your path.

2) Surround yourself with positive people. I am an eternal optimist who has often been called an idealist, which isn’t always meant as a compliment, but I can’t be successful if I don’t believe that things will change for the better. No one needs more negativity in their life.

3) Find a mentor. There are many women I’ve met along the way who provided invaluable education and guidance, and I still seek out the wisdom of other women who understand the stresses and challenges of running an organization. Find someone you admire and view as successful, whatever that means to you, and ask them if you can come to them weekly or monthly for advice and support.

4) Find ways to support other women. There are lots of women earlier in their career than you are, regardless of where that is, who need support, guidance, and resources, and if we don’t nurture them, we are failing each other.

5) Trust yourself. I think we usually know what choices are right for us, but we let outside influence create self-doubt. Trust your instincts!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think the idea of gender norms — expectations placed upon individuals based solely on their gender — is problematic and unhealthy. We need to move beyond the kind of thinking that says, “Only girls like X” or “Real men don’t do X”. We receive these messages as early as infancy, both explicitly and implicitly, from family, pop culture, and advertising, and they can inflict real harm. At JWF, we envision a world where gender is not a barrier to safety, success, or happiness.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Lucille Ball said, ‘I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done’, and this is something I try hard to live by. I think living a meaningful life means taking risks and doing everything you can to leave the world better than you found it. I never want to look back on my life and wish I had taken an opportunity.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Melinda Gates! She has done such incredible work through the Gates Foundation to focus philanthropy on gender inequality and women’s economic empowerment.

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