If you are looking for a strong and zealous businesswoman, look no further: Jenny Whitener has lived her professional life with great tenacity and has used her God-given gifts of problem-solving and innovative thinking to serve and empower businesses all over the world. She is the founder and current CEO of Bridge Innovate, a business that strives to team up with organizations to help build leadership, strategy, innovation, and change capability. She is a seasoned facilitator and architect of collaborative design sessions for many organizations all over the world. I had the incredible privilege of sitting down with Jenny and experiencing firsthand the wisdom and passion she possesses.
Walk us through your vocational journey.
I graduated from the University of Georgia with a journalism degree and a minor in marketing and debate. I started my career with Delta as a flight attendant, and that was three years of really understanding and dealing with the public. I was not very close to my faith during that time—it was all about exploring the world, meeting new people and growing my career.
When I left the airline business it was difficult, I remember pulling into a job interview for a healthcare company and my car had just died. I sat in the car praying, “God help me out, I don’t have a job or a car, I really need this job. Help me to do well in this interview.” I went in and landed the job. So I worked for Kaiser Permanente in Sales and Marketing and it was a great experience. After three years I became Marketing Director. In those three years, we grew so much that the Kaiser Permanente medical director told me that we needed to stop marketing because we were bringing in so many people that they couldn’t recruit enough doctors to work in the clinic. I said, “Let’s talk about your physician recruiting problem.” Within six months I was working for him, reinventing their approach to physician recruiting and credentialing. Whatever problem the company had they would put me on it. By the grace of God, I could go in and figure out what the problem was and come up with solutions.
I was eventually recruited to Prudential Health Care where I ran physician recruiting and launched a Physician Leadership Institute. While attending a healthcare education conference, I met a partner from Ernst and Young, and after about two years, he approached me and told me I needed to work for them.
I had the opportunity to meet Don Sweeny, who was a partner at Ernst and Young and who ultimately hired me. He is a phenomenal Christian and has been a great mentor to me throughout my career. It was God’s blessing that I went into such a large firm under the mentorship of such a strong Christian man. I eventually got a global post and had an office in both Atlanta and Paris. It was very exciting.
Around that time I got married and at the age of 42 I had my first child and by 44 I had my second. Both were such special gifts. With that, I knew that I couldn’t continue consulting the way I was and be a mother. I remember my husband saying to me, “You should just launch your own business!” and I said, “You think I could do that?” With his encouragement, I had an LLC and within a month I had my first consulting project for $10,000. When these kinds of things happen in your life, it is so obvious that He is with you every day, every step of the way. I launched my business in 2002 and God has really taken care of us. It has always been the right balance of work and time to be a mother to my kids.
What was the experience like starting Bridge Innovate?
Early on, I think entrepreneurs experience a lot of fear around being accepted or wondering if they will be successful. Overcoming the fear of being rejected and having the community to talk with about that was huge for me in starting Bridge Innovate. Another part of it is experiencing failure and constantly saying “Lord, lead the way. If this isn’t the right project for me, open the next door; don’t let my bias and orientation close the door.” Having both of those things and being prayerful and open are so important. I wanted to be open enough to hear everything that God might be telling me, even if it was just a casual meeting because that could shape the next opportunity for my life. Often we engage with opportunities and we don’t see them, or notice that they are special moments that God has given us.
What has God taught you or shown you through your role at Bridge Innovate?
First is to trust Him. When you have payroll, or when you have a business, you know that there is risk associated with that and sometimes I find myself worrying about when the next new project is going to come in. We have all been given gifts, so it’s not like I can just sit here and wait for God to deliver, it’s really trusting him and knowing that I have to put my effort in. A lot of that is trust and prayer.
When it comes to weaving your faith into your business, one of the things that I do, especially when I’m really afraid, is I turn it over to God and I say “Your will be done. If I am here to help influence leaders, let my work be His extension.” That gives me the courage. I will wake up in the morning and think, “I have to go in and face this client and help them solve this problem today. Am I ready?” But I get that inner strength by having that conversation with God before an event. I’ve had people come up to me after a session and say “You’re a Christian aren’t you?” and that pleases me so much. It is the most celebrated moment when people can see it in your work.
“Your will be done. If I am here to help influence leaders, let my work be His extension.”
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in regards to your faith and your business? How have you handled it?
Definitely ego. I have so much fun solving problems. It’s like if you are an athlete, and you are winning a race, for me, winning the race for consulting is solving the problem with a client. It becomes so exciting that I have to continue to remember, in terms of my earthly life, that the time with my church, family, and business is the order it should go in. That is the balance and trying to maintain that balance and not letting the thrill of solving a problem with a client overshadow some of the other more important aspects of my life.
Have you experienced any resistance or hardship being a woman in the role you are in?
Absolutely. It has been interesting in the press with a number of women coming out about the complexities they have faced with harassment because of being a woman. At a very large company that I worked with for years, I had a similar situation. I was being pulled into the national division and a man I worked with was upset that he wasn’t, so for a month, he tried to get me fired. Women have to be prepared to do their job and to earn their place, but they also have to be prepared to stand up when there is a wrong and do it respectfully. You have to decide what you are going to stand up for, and you have to have the internal strength to make that stand.
Also as a woman, you can’t expect to be a mediocre performer and compete in a male-dominated world. If you want to compete you have to know more, be more, and perform better, so that it is without question that you deserve the job. I don’t think it is right for women to sit back and say “based on my gender, give me the role,” but instead demonstrate that you can perform and that you should have it. That’s hard work, and you have to be willing to do that.
How do you feel like being a Christian has led you in your role as a leader and CEO?
I know that the future of my business is in the hands of God; it’s not in my hands and I recognize that every day. And for that, I am thankful to Him, and I know he will progress the business at the pace he wants, and when he thinks it’s time for me to stop, it will be obvious.
Do you think Christian Business Leaders across the country are doing a good job of leading our nation?
I hope so. One of the reasons I was so committed to Christian education for my kids is because I remember meeting with Chad Dirkse, the President of Chattanooga Christian School. He talked about how the role of Christian education is to celebrate and amplify the talents that God has given all children. That means whether they are going to work at Subway or to do open heart surgery. How they live their Christian values and how through their life they are a testament to Christianity—that has to permeate all they do. It starts in their schooling and then becomes a way of life.
I pray that for all Christian leaders. We need Christian leaders who are the mayors of cities, senators, and heads of non-profit organizations. We need Christians to be involved in leading our world, both in the ministry side but also in business and bringing that set of values and ethics and Christian world-view to how we make decisions in this very complex world. We really do need to foster that way of thinking for our children in all the different careers they will pursue.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to start their own business?
You have to be passionate and start your business with the mindset that failure is not an option. Wake up every day continuing to modify your approach and listen to the customers. Gather their perspective and continually adjust your approach to the market. Remember that for every contract signed, there are 10 or 20 that you lose. In the early stages, it is a numbers game, so you have to be tenacious and listen to the market, which takes an extraordinary amount of energy.
You need to continue to look at what your competitors are doing, continue to challenge your assumptions, and continue to look at new technologies. If you are not doing that you are not enhancing your entrepreneurial skills and someone else will beat you. You need to have zeal and drive to continue to challenge yourself to know more, and learn more, and be observant and to use that to shape your business.
If you could say one thing to other business leaders who are Christians or just in the business community as a whole, what would it be?
To invest in the next generation. It has been a great blessing for me to partner with the Chattanooga Fellows Program. God has given me the resources, and this is a great way for me to give back. It has been so meaningful to support and mentor the young professionals that are coming through the Chattanooga Fellows program; to see the excitement in their eyes and to see how different they all are and how passionate they are about their faith and connecting it to business. It is very inspirational, and I think it could be very inspirational to other business leaders like myself. It has been a long time since we were that age and it is exciting to reconnect with that level of energy and passion.
One thing Jenny learned from her parents was that if you were going to do something, you must give it your very best, and try to exceed people’s expectations. I believe Jenny’s parents would be proud. She has found the avenue where she can maximize the gifts God has given her and has excelled. She desires to engage and be faithful to not only her work, but to her family, her community, and to the next generation of leaders. Jenny’s dependency and trust in God have and continue to be vital in her success, and I pray for more leaders to live their lives in such a way, making God’s glory the heartbeat of all they do.