Jennifer Whitaker: “There is always a reason to hope”

As I continue to help women connect more deeply with themselves and their purpose, I’d like to begin integrating the voices of older women into my work. Our elders carry profound wisdom that can help us shape who we are and how we show up in the world. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Whitaker. […]

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As I continue to help women connect more deeply with themselves and their purpose, I’d like to begin integrating the voices of older women into my work. Our elders carry profound wisdom that can help us shape who we are and how we show up in the world.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Whitaker.

Jennifer Whitaker is a spiritual coach whose mission is to inspire women to heal the planet through inner transformation. Prior to launching her coaching business, Jennifer served as an executive for several of the world’s most recognized environmental and animal welfare organizations including the largest chimpanzee sanctuary in the world. She’s worked with countless women from public figures to stay-at-home moms helping them create fulfilling, meaningful, soul-centered lives.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My dad served in the Peace Corps in Uganda before meeting my mom. Growing up, he taught me about Africa, African wildlife, and women such as Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey who dedicated their lives to protecting Great Apes. From a young age, I knew I wanted to protect animals just like them. Inspired by their courage and passion, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in environmental studies with a concentration in primate conservation.

My education launched my career. I entered the primate conservation/animal welfare sector as the youngest executive in my field. I worked with Jane Goodall and served as an executive for several chimpanzee sanctuaries including the largest chimpanzee sanctuary in the world. I also had the privilege of being interviewed by NPR and featured in The New York Times.

To the outside world, it looked like I had it all. But after years of chasing funds, trying to convince others why they should support important causes, and seeing very little change in the world, I was frustrated. I kept asking myself, “Why are so many good people doing nothing?” As I reflected on this question and my own journey and inner transformation, I realized that we were approaching environmentalism and animal welfare backward. We were solely focusing on solving outer problems and ignoring how our inner state was affecting our outer state.

I was reminded by Gandhi’s quote that to see the change we must be the change. Rather than battling companies’ environmental and animal welfare practices, I realized that true change started from the inside. Upon that realization, I decided to become a spiritual coach. I spent several years training as a spiritual director and life coach to inspire women to heal the planet through inner transformation.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

The traditional way to solve a problem is to look externally at the perceived obstacle and either remove it or change it. That’s how nonprofits have been tackling some of our biggest problems. Nonprofits have done some amazing things. They’ve made progress and helped a lot of beings on the planet this way, but it’s been a difficult and uphill battle trying to change the world.

It’s hard because we are approaching things backward.

We must stop looking outside of ourselves for the solution and start looking within.

I’m disrupting the way we heal the planet by teaching women to first look within themselves. If we look at spiritual principles, we see that like attracts like. Our inner world reflects our outer world. If our outer world is a mess, it’s because our inner world is too. When we heal our inner wounds and align with our souls, our outer world will also transform. When we act from a place of alignment, we will experience greater ease while fulfilling our intentions and missions.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started working at Chimp Haven, I was forewarned by my colleagues not to walk too close to one of the chimpanzee enclosures. Cody, a male chimpanzee, was notorious for throwing poop at anyone who passed by. But Cody had a charming personality. When he’d see me walking towards him, he’d stand up bipedally like a human and wave his arms. It looked like he was waving hello. His waves always drew me in like a moth to a flame, and each time I ended up with poop thrown at me.

I learned a valuable lesson from Cody — if I pursue the thing that grabs my attention (i.e. the shiny object) rather than follows my intuition, I’m just going to end up with poop on my face.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Two mentors immediately come to mind. The first is my graduate school professor, Dr. Lenny Gannes.

  1. My graduate school required a significant amount of writing. I loved to write but didn’t believe I was a good writer. I convinced myself that I was a horrible writer after a high school teacher insinuated that to me. I felt out of my element in graduate school. I was surrounded by brilliant people with fancy titles who articulated their thoughts with poetic grace. Not only did I not believe I had the gifts to thrive, but I was also convinced I would fail. I spent weeks painfully stressing over every word as I wrote my first paper. Once submitted, I anxiously awaited my professor’s remarks. To my surprise, what I thought was going to be a horrible critique turned out to be one of the most encouraging notes I’d ever received from a professor. He told me that I had a gift for writing and later encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D. Lenny reignited my passion for writing. Writing has now become one of my favorite ways to connect with and express myself.
  2. Dr. Linda Brent, the founder and former President of Chimp Haven, has been and continues to be one of my most impactful mentors. Linda took a chance on me when she hired me. I was a young, mid-level manager, and recent graduate school grad when she hired me. She saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself — she saw a leader. She hired me to serve as the Assistant Director of the sanctuary, and eventually promoted me to Vice President. Over the years she has guided me to step into my full potential and become the leader she always knew I was. Linda has taught me how to look beneath the surface and see others for who they truly are. I too now possess the gift of seeing an individual’s full potential before they see it in themselves, which is an incredibly important skill set in coaching and sets my clients up for success.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disruption is good when it creates balance. It’s bad when it creates an imbalance. It’s really that simple.

Much of society has applauded innovations and disruptions that put profits over people and the planet. The result? Imbalance. Just look at our world’s forests. More than half of the world’s tropical forests have been destroyed since the 1960s because we’ve prioritized greed (imbalance) over the wellbeing of all (balance).

Nestlé, for example, was initially praised for being the first to introduce condensed milk to the market, which helped reduce the rate of infant mortality. Over time, their intention shifted to maximizing their profits leading to countless claims of child slavery, deforestation, and pollution.

Theo Chocolate is approaching the chocolate industry differently. They are disrupting the market by creating chocolate that is fair trade, sustainably farmed, and their company financially supports social and environmental organizations. They are proving that you don’t have to harm others to thrive.

The intention is everything. When we begin to disrupt the market, we must ask ourselves, “What is the intention behind what I am doing? What is driving the action?”

When an intention is aligned with our soul, balance is imminent. That is why alignment is one of the core principles I teach my clients.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  1. My mentor, Linda once said to me, “Compared to men, most women don’t ask for what they deserve. Pay, benefits, promotions, opportunities — whatever it is that you desire in your career — ask for it, go for it. Always ask for what you want.” I followed her sound advice and as a result, was granted every salary, benefits, and promotion request I made.
  2. “There is always a reason to hope.” Jane Goodall said this to me years ago. She also wrote a book with this title. When she gave this advice, I was in the throes of compassion fatigue. I felt burned out and overwhelmed from seeing so much harm being done to our planet. If she — someone who had lived a long life seeing horrific devastation to communities, animals, and the earth — could give this advice with true sincerity, I too could find hope. Her advice renewed my optimism and motivation to make a difference in the world.
  3. Years ago, I shared with a life coach that I wanted to go to graduate school to study primate conservation but felt like it was too late to start something new. I tried sweeping my deep desires out of sight, but she saw through my fears and said something I will never forget…

“On your deathbed, do you think you will regret going to graduate school when you were 33 versus 23, or do you think you will regret not going at all?”

Those words snapped me out of my despair and allowed me to clearly see that it didn’t matter when I followed my dreams. It only mattered that I followed them.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

As I continue to help women connect more deeply with themselves and their purpose, I’d like to begin integrating the voices of older women into my work. Our elders carry profound wisdom that can help us shape who we are and how we show up in the world. Ages ago, older women taught younger women how to be women. We’ve lost that connection with each other and with ourselves over the years. I intend on creating a space for generations of women to exchange insights, guidance, and wisdom. I believe weaving in elders’ voices will enable us to heal, grow, and thrive in powerful ways in which our culture is currently lacking.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Compared to men, women are typically judged for disrupting the status quo. I recently read a quote from Jane Goodall who said, “It actually doesn’t take much to be considered a difficult woman. That’s why there are so many of us.” She’s right. We’ve heard women disruptors being called “difficult” and “nasty” far too often.

Judgment creates isolation. It severs the natural connection between humans and pushes the disruptor onto her own island. The island can be a very lonely place. I believe many women don’t pursue their dreams for fear of ending up on this island.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

One of the books that shaped my thinking and how I live my life is, “Discover the Power Within You” by Eric Butterworth.

The premise of the book is that we are all divine beings who possess the inner power to create our reality. When we align with our souls, anything is possible.

Upon reading this book and applying the principles, I embarked on a project…

I scattered my dreams on the floor.

I had selected each and every photo for my vision board — a map of the southeastern U.S. because I wanted to live closer to my family; pictures of apes because I wanted to work at a primate sanctuary; the words “Assistant Director” because that was the title I wanted for my next position; a fake check is written out to me for my dream salary; and “April 15, 2011” written on a piece of construction paper because that was my desired deadline for securing my dream job.

As I glued my hopes and dreams to the poster board, I reflected on the responses I had received from others when I told them I wanted to work at a primate sanctuary — “How can you make a living doing that?!”

Those comments made me chuckle. It didn’t bother me that they didn’t believe I’d succeed. I knew with all my heart that this was my calling and the money part would work itself out. I didn’t know how, but I knew it would.

April 15th came and went. Still, I remained focused on my dream.

On April 18th — three days after my desired deadline — I discovered that a chimpanzee sanctuary in Louisiana was looking for an Assistant Director. I immediately applied. That day they responded and told me that they were about to offer the position to someone else. When they saw my resume, they decided to wait to make the offer and asked me to fly to the sanctuary. I flew there, met the team, and was offered the position a few days later.

Everything on my vision board came true — the location, title, job, salary, and date (just shy of a few days).

Since then, I have not allowed anything to disrupt my faith in what is possible, not even what appears to be an empty hand.

You are a person of great 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. 🙂

To help women remember who they are and why they are here — to shift the planet and heal the earth.

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

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As [one] changes [their] own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards [them]. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” — Mahatma Gandhi

This is a guiding principle for my life and coaching. If I want to fall in love with my life and embrace the world around me, I must start by connecting with my soul.

How can our readers follow you online?

Facebook: @jenlwhitaker

Instagram: @jenlwhitaker

LinkedIn: JenniferWhitaker

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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