Kimberly Jenkins Speaks at Greek Convocation


Kimberly Jenkins
September 16, 2016

Thank you for that introduction. I’m honored to be here tonight. I’ve been to the chapel before. I even got married in this chapel many years ago. 

But I’ve never been at this podium.

I teach classes, run programs and give speeches at Duke all the time, but I’ve never had a chance to speak to so many students at once and certainly not in the chapel. 

So this is a new experience for me. I mean it when I say I’m honored to be here tonight with all of you. 

I hope to honor you back by sharing with a few stories and lessons learned from my life.  I hope to give you something to think about, something to talk about with your friends and perhaps something that will influence your life here at Duke and life beyond Duke.

The story that resonates most with all kinds of people dates back to the years shortly after I graduated from Duke, a time when I was just a few years older than you are now. 

I was fresh out of Duke, had just moved to Seattle. I did not have a job, but I had a passion for mountain climbing so I moved to the best place in America to climb mountains. 

I needed to support my climbing and backpacking habit so I had to get a job.  That was a fairly drawn out process, but the bottom line is that I ended up at a little, no-name company called Microsoft. 

There were 300 employees at the time and I was hired as a designer of programs that would teach people how to use Microsoft software without opening up a manual. My office was in among all the programmers who were working on these products. 

After a few months there, something interesting evolved.  All the programmers had paper over their windows, even interior windows. They lived in a climate of secrecy because they were working on confidential stuff: the development of the first software for the Macintosh. 

Immediately, I saw how powerful this could be for a market I knew a lot about: colleges and universities.  I knew that software could be a powerful teaching and learning tool. 
Seems obvious today, but back then not one software company was thinking about the education market. Apple and IBM were but software had to be part of the solution. And I wanted to help Microsoft get there.

I used what I call my two manila folder strategy.  My boss was Steve Ballmer, who for many years was president of the company. 

I went in to meet with Steve and handed him one manila folder. In it was my one page proposal for starting an education division at Microsoft. I wanted to sell off the shelf software to colleges and universities. 

Well, Steve Ballmer is big in stature and big in personality. He listened to me for a few minutes and said “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. We’ll never make any money in education.” 

So I handed him my second manila folder, my resignation letter. 

Steve puffed and blustered a bit and told me to sit right there while he went in to talk to Bill, as in Bill Gates. So I sat there and in a few minutes Steve came back. 

He said “Bill thinks that’s the stupidest idea he ever heard.  Microsoft won’t ever make any money in education.” As I was getting up to leave, Steve said “But he loves your chutzpah. He wants you to stay. You can’t have any headcount. You can fly anywhere you want, but it’s just you.”

That was February of 1984. By the end of our fiscal year, December 1984, education sales accounted for 10% of Microsoft’s domestic revenue. With the salary of one person and a lot of airplane tickets! 

You can believe that Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer were happy that Microsoft was making money. They then gave me the resources to build a real team. 

I can talk for hours about how this illustrates key principles of innovation and entrepreneurship. 

But what does this story have to do with empowerment? In thinking about this, I remembered the questions students typically ask me about this story:

1. What do you do when your boss tells you your idea is the stupidest thing he ever heard?

2. How did I have the courage to resign a good job when I had no money and not much of a resume to get a new job?

3. What made me think I was smart enough and talented enough to put my job on the line for something I didn’t really know would work?

I’ve come up with a framework and a few stories that attempt to answer those questions and address the issue of empowerment.

1. I believe in myself

2. I live my own life script and don’t allow others to define me

3. I make intentional, deliberate choices about how to live my life


1. The foundation for being bold enough, risk oriented enough to put my job on the line with Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates was this: I believed in myself. 

A big part of my sense of self originated with my family.  My parents talked about and lived values that all of us in the family adopted.  Kinda had to in order to be at our dinner table. 

They consistently told me that I could “go for it” and “be anything I worked hard enough to be.” And they challenged me with questions about what I value in life and how those values translate into how I treat others.

I had to work hard to “own” all of this myself: the high school achievements, a Duke education, graduate school and experiences in all the jobs leading up to Microsoft and beyond. 

When I did the hard work at school and in jobs, leveraged my core values, and took in inspiration and lessons learned from others, I grew to know and respect myself.

After all of this, I finally realized and embraced that I know what I know. In this situation, I knew how the needs of educators could turn into a major opportunity for Microsoft to make money.  I believed enough in myself to work hard and realize the pretty clear goal that Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer put out there for me.  I knew my passion for education. 


2. I create my own life path, I don’t let others define me.

There’s a universal need to belong and to be loved.  We all want to be heard, known and accepted by others.

This desire to be accepted exists within the very real context of powerful cultural forces. We live with strong messages about what it takes to be liked by others and to belong to the group.

This is especially true when it comes to what it takes to be a “real woman” and a “real man.” Too often we give up our true selves and yield to cultural forces that might allow us to be accepted by some, but often at a huge cost to ourselves.

Carol Gilligan of Harvard and James Mahalik of Boston College, in separate research work done over the past decade or so, point out the fairly strict demands that all of us live with in this culture. 

The script we give boys starts super early in life. Typically around the age of five boys are told what it takes to be a “real man.” 

-Masculinity often implies a willingness on the part of boys to stand alone and forgo relationships in order to maintain power and voice.

-Men are valued for money, status, power

-They have to fit into a norm of being all knowing, successful, financially ambitious, and dismissive of others who are “lesser than,” especially women.

-Boys and men must show confidence. They can’t cry, can’t ask for too much nurturing, can’t have too much empathy. They must sacrifice self in order to fit in with the group.

-Boys and men must have a physically imposing presence, show some athletic ability or be avid sports fans.  Boys and men are punished for being perceived as “weak” which is typically associated with being feminine or gay.

Last fall I co-taught a course at Duke called Media and Innovation.  One day at the end of class, the students wanted to talk openly about life at Duke.

One guy said that whenever he interacts with girls here he is almost always impressed. They tend to be smart, fun, engaging people he’d like to know better.  He likes a lot of the girls at Duke!

But when he goes back to his fraternity, he engages in group-talk that dismisses, demeans and degrades those very same girls. But here’s the part that’s most interesting to me: he really doesn’t like being that way.

This guy was courageous enough to say to a class of his peers that too often he regrets how he talks and behaves when he’s with the guys in his fraternity.

Other guys in the class agreed. They too had the strength to say that they don’t feel better about themselves when they denigrate others.  

As you might imagine, the girls don’t like this deal either.

Everyone is feeling like the stakes are incredibly high in the social environment here at Duke. So we go on behaving in prescribed ways that don’t really work for anyone.  The guys, the girls, everyone is feeling pretty disconnected and bad about themselves in this environment. It’s a losing proposition for all. 

Girls are given a few more years than boys to be whomever they want to be, but by the age of 11 or 12, acceptable female behavior means girls are:

-nice or sweet
-relationship oriented
-nurturing to others
-physically attractive and continually focused on looking thin and pretty
-submissive, and
-deferential to men

As I mentioned earlier, I had a desire to fit in and find acceptance and love just like everyone else.  I had enough of the required feminine qualities and attributes to belong and be accepted as a woman.

But somehow I didn’t get the memo on being silent, submissive or deferential! 

I didn’t spend too much time on my hair, make-up and clothes. I spent my time being an athlete, enjoying real friendships with men and women alike, and building companies that make a difference in the world. 

I didn’t engage in self-deprecation that is so common among women. I embraced who I am, including my imperfect body or bad hair days or whatever.  When I liked myself “as is”, I found that others, including men and other women liked me better too. 

I refused to be silent. I spoke up when I had something worthy of saying.

When someone said the “b-word” to my face or behind my back, I wasn’t without some feelings, but I tried hard to let it roll off my back. I saw this as a reflection of their insecurities or their own sense of inadequacy.  I refused to give my time or energy to people who stoop to name-calling or criticizing others for sport. 

I didn’t defer to men, I gravitated to the really good men who are out there and collaborated with them.

I wasn’t submissive, I made a point of working with, dating and marrying men who valued me as an equal and wanted to connect with me at a real level. 

The payback that I’ve enjoyed by following my own path in life is this: I’ve enjoyed money, power and choice in what I do with my life. 

I have respect in the business community and a lot of freedom about what I do professionally.

I have great friends who are there for me and vice versa.

I have the love of my husband, sons and extended family. 

People know who I am because I engage with people as authentically as possible, with all my warts and wonderfulness.

They don’t all think I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread, but they relate to the real me. And if they don’t, I move on to focus my time and energy on the many kind, fun, authentic, simply awesome people who are out there.

I feel compelled to say one more thing about all of the cultural pressures and hoops that women and men jump through.  In fact, I get pretty wound up about this stuff. 

After more than a few decades of wrestling with these standards and expectations myself
as well as watching my sons, husband and good friends deal with all of this,
I’m convinced that this is utter nonsense. 

It’s nonsense to buy into these concepts, to try so hard to please others, to aim to be perfect at standards that are ridiculous from the start and to give up who you really are in order to fit in.  To all of you I say: please don’t engage in nonsense.  Life is truly too short. 

3. I’m intentional and deliberate about the choices I make in life.

My life has not been one series of great adventures that have hugely happy endings. 

Some of this wisdom is hard earned stuff and I rarely got it right on the first pass.

The best way I found to get through the tough times is to be as thoughtful and intentional about life choices as possible.

I have one more story for you.  In the last few years, especially in business circles, the power of teamwork has become celebrated.

Many leaders are now fond of touting the NOAH rule. For those of you who haven’t heard this one yet, it translates to “No A-Hs” allowed on the team. 

Since I’m in the chapel, I’ll go with the phrase “no jerks.”  Jerks can be disruptive and sap the life out of any team.

I recently met with a friend who is an experienced venture capitalist and all round great human being.  I often turn to him when I want either business or life advice. 

Just a couple of weeks ago I was pitching my next new business venture to him and with some confidence I said “I’m all about building a great team of people. Of course, we’ll follow the NOAH principle.” 

He stopped me cold with a brilliant response. “Kimberly, it’s not about ‘no jerks.’  It’s all about choosing to be with only awesome people.”

That’s a seemingly small change of words and it took me awhile to really get it.  But once I did, I realized this is what it’s really all about.

I won’t waste my energy focusing on the negative like how to avoid jerks. I intentionally surround myself with awesome people.

-I intentionally look for and focus on the positive

-I listen and really hear others

-I have empathy for those who don’t feel good about themselves but I don’t give them my energy or attention if they aren’t interested in being open and fair to me or others

-I try to give myself a “timeout” and self correct if I’m not being my best self

-If I blow it, especially if I blow it big time, I take a close look at my mistakes or whatever pain I’m experiencing and I work hard to move beyond that.

I’ve been here for a few minutes sharing my stories and my lessons learned in life.  Now it’s my turn to ask something of you. 

I’m asking you to take a few minutes, ideally soon, maybe even tonight, to find a place where you can be by yourself.

For a few minutes put aside the grades, the groups you belong to, what people think of you, what you think of others, the aspirations you have here at Duke or your goals for the future. 

Ask yourself three questions:

1. Who are you inside?

2. What are your core values?

3. How does your behavior align with who you are and what you value?

It might help to get a little more specific on that last one:
What jokes or stories do you tell?
Do you laugh along when others tell stories that bother you?

Do you participate in the parties your sorority or fraternity holds with themes that don’t really reflect who you are? 

How about rush? 
Does your sorority or fraternity go about rush in a way that is aligned with who you are?

Do you ever drink so much alcohol that you no longer take responsibility for who you are? 
What would it feel like to socialize in ways that allow you to be true to yourself and still have a good time?

These days there's a lot in the news about rape on college campuses across America.
How do you feel about creating a campus free of rape here at Duke?
What might your fraternity or sorority do to put an end to date rapes? 
What might you do as an individual?

Who are the awesome people in your life right now?
Make a list and think about them for a few minutes.  
How might you avoid the jerks in life and focus on finding more awesome people?
How might you build deeper relationships with those awesome people?

The way you go through Duke is formative for the rest of life.

It is much harder to change the bad habits you build here than it is to develop and cultivate effective and positive ones to take with you after Duke.

How you treat others now does matter. The choices you make now powerfully influence the choices you are likely to make later.
If you can be courageous at Duke, you can be courageous anywhere.

Thank you again for this honor of sharing some time with you tonight.