A modern Wonder Woman: Jenny Dearborn, chief learning officer at SAP

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle (by Carolyne Zinko) — She has auburn hair, wears a golden cuff on her wrist, flies to 20 countries a year, meets with world leaders and is on the list of the 50 most powerful women in technology.

No, Jenny Dearborn, chief learning officer at software giant SAP, can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. But the married Silicon Valley mother of four is considered something of a Wonder Woman for battling injustice surrounding disabilities that threatened her success and for turning her Kryptonite into a force for good instead.

Dearborn, raised in Davis, was an articulate child but struggled to read or sit still in school. She was placed in special education and told to run laps around campus to burn off energy.

“Teachers would say, ‘You’re dumb,’ and give you busywork and just moved you along from grade to grade,” she said. “But if I could listen to things, I could repeat it back. Visually, nothing was connecting.”

She narrowly graduated high school. In junior college, someone suggested she might have learning disabilities, and tests showed that she did: dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Comic books had allowed her to follow a story line without reading. Armed with new tools — books on tape, and textbooks — she began to read for real, listening and training her eye to look at letters and patterns to anticipate what words might be formed.

She formed a purpose for her life, too. “I became filled with rage and bitterness and anger at all these wasted years and how I was treated,” she said. “I became so focused on how I would never let this happen to someone else that I decided, ‘I am going to be a teacher. I am going to fix the world and save every child.’”

She transferred to UC Berkeley, majored in English and obtained a master’s degree in education from Stanford University. At Woodside High, she taught English, public speaking and drama. But with her ADHD, “my nature is that I get restless,” she said. “I knew I needed to tackle something bigger.”

That something was corporate education at Hewlett-Packard Co., Sun Microsystems and several startups. Today, as chief learning officer at SAP, she is responsible for classes and training for nearly 80,000 employees worldwide.

It’s the type of challenge for which dyslexics might be well-suited, said Jeffrey Gilger, a UC Merced professor of developmental psychology and a former board member of the International Dyslexia Association.

Jenny Dearborn (left) teaches personal branding to sophomore students Jennifer Hernandez (seated, left) and Karina Ramirez at Sequoia High School in Redwood City.
Photo: Liz Hafalia, San Francisco Chronicle
“In my experience with people with dyslexia, they often think more holistically — they can see things in a big-picture format,” he said. “They aren’t so caught up in Westernized, linear-style thinking,” he said.

Dearborn has come to see her “disability” as an advantage. “I feel like I can see around corners,” she said. “I can see in the past and the future. Yeah, you have a hard time reading, but your brain is wired differently. And that’s a gift. And I am thankful for it.”

She still reads with audio recordings. Her staff makes sure her reports are pristine so she doesn’t obsess over spelling or punctuation errors. (In line at the bank, she has no qualms about picking stray hairs off of strangers’ clothes.)

As she travels the globe, thriving on the variety of her experiences, she visits SAP branches to educate, and foreign governments and schools to advocate.

Worldwide, there aren’t enough girls and women studying for careers in science, technology, engineering and math, and computer science curricula — now very theoretical — needs to be more practical, she said. Students are coming up short in job interviews in which they’re asked to take a problem — like, “not enough clean water” — and explain the collaborative tools and design thinking processes they’d use in a solution. “It’s very hard to adapt and change in the academic environment,” she said, “as fast as the world is changing.”

On a recent weekday, Dearborn led a personal branding class with computer animation students at Redwood City’s Sequoia High School, where 59 percent of the student population is Latino and 41 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals. She flashed Starbucks, McDonald’s and Nike logos on a screen and asked students how they perceived the brands. Then she asked how they portray themselves on social media.

Next, she led them in creating a personal branding plan that would not only help them clarify their goals but also help them think about the messages they post — and possibly increase their earning potential by focusing on the long term, not just the short term.

“It’s how people remember you,” Dearborn said. “It can affect future opportunities.”

Rosie Franco, a sophomore, said she’d been considering a career as a probation officer or a kindergarten teacher before the class but now was considering technology or graphic design. “It was eye-opening,” she said.

So were Dearborn’s revelations about her own disabilities and accomplishments. “It showed she went through a lot,” Franco said, “and could still achieve.”

Yes, Dearborn is a fighter for truth, justice and the American way. Even the walls of the 100-year-old Victorian that she and her husband, real estate broker John Tarlton, are renovating, are filled with portraits of Wonder Woman — oils on canvas copied from her old comic books, painted in her spare time.

“I love superheroes,” she said, perched on a couch and unfazed by workers with electric saws and hammers renovating the house around her. “I love what they stand for, what they represent — the values of justice and helping the underdog and overcoming adversity.”

Original article available here: https://www.sfchronicle.com/living/article/A-modern-Wonder-Woman-Jenny-Dearborn-chief-6885425.php