Alumni Profiles Series: Jennifer Gilbert (Part 1)
Jennifer Gilbert is a senior vice president and the head of marketing and communications at Jennison Associates, an investment management company. She received her Ph.D. in History from Duke in 1998. While finishing her doctorate, she worked part-time for a bank and volunteered to create an exhibit about the history of one of its branches. By bringing her skills as an historian into the non-academic world, she started a career that has since grown to include strategic project management and information technology.
What was your dissertation about?
My dissertation was on the National Organization for Women (NOW). I can’t remember now what I set out to write, but I ended up writing an organizational history. The project covered the first ten years of NOW, and how they did or did not navigate issues of diversity. NOW was founded by a group of affluent, generally white, women, many of whom had backgrounds in journalism or state government, although some of them were wealthy wives of rich men. They wrote a charter for NOW that was very democratic and envisioned an organization for all women. Within a few years of its inception, NOW, in conjunction with the women’s movement, became an inclusive site of organization: lesbian women, black women, and less affluent white women all joined. As a result, NOW quickly became an organization where there were internal battles for control of the language, the organization, the agenda, and the kinds of activities in which the organization would participate. By 1976, there was a “coup” in NOW, and a new, younger generation took over. But as you can imagine, the country in 1976 was very different from the state of the nation in 1966 when NOW was founded. Members had to deal with an anti-feminist backlash; the country was in economic distress; the Vietnam War was over.
How do the skills you developed and refined while writing your dissertation impact your current work?
The writing of that history, in a lot of weird ways, helped me navigate the corporate environment. What I realized was that any organization, whether it’s an academic institution like a university, a corporation, or an activist community like NOW, is made up of people: people have their feelings hurt, they have egos, there is internecine warfare, there are politics involved. I think that the experience of having written about this group of women actually helped me be more successful in corporate America in part because I approached my work as if every problem is a people problem that has to be negotiated in some way.
I am now a part of an organization that has been around for fifty years. It is very rooted in its history. Its behaviors and practices and the things that mattered in 1969, when the firm was founded, still matter today. It has been a great place to work partly for that reason. Marketing is about communicating who you are out to the marketplace. When you can understand your organization, not just in terms of the products that you sell but based on the people who work together to serve clients, you can translate that more easily into a meaningful message for the marketplace. That’s actually kind of fun.
How did you successfully transition into the business world from academia?
It’s kind of a crazy story. I moved to Boston to work with the NOW archive, which is at Harvard. When I finished my archival work, I found a job temping while I was writing my dissertation. The temp job sent me to BankBoston, which later became part of Bank of America, but at the time it was a regional bank here in New England. As a temp worker, I did admin work in a division called First Community Bank. It was essentially a bank within the bank, where they served traditionally underserved communities. They had branches in Chinatown and they had branches in parts of the city that traditionally didn’t have access to banking services. It was an interesting mission, but I was doing things like making copies—I personally wasn’t doing anything interesting.
One day, I was making copies, and happened to read the document I was copying, and it was minutes from a meeting where the bank talked about what they were going to do to promote the million-plus dollar investment they had made in a bank in Roxbury. If you know Boston, Roxbury had been a traditionally Jewish neighborhood, and is now a traditionally African American neighborhood. The bank really wanted to tout that they invested in this institution, and the building itself, in the hopes of bringing different banking services to the community. One of the ideas they had was that they could hire a historian to write about this bank branch, because the building had been a bank for 150 years. I thought, “Hire a historian? Hello! I am a historian. I can do this.”
So here you are temping at a bank, and you happened upon this opportunity. What did you do next?
With all the hubris that comes along with being 26—and becoming a Duke Ph.D.—I literally went to the head of this community bank, and knocked on her door, and introduced myself because she had never met me. And, I said, “I just happened to be reading this document, and I could do something for you. You’re already paying me as a temp, so you don’t have to pay me any money to do it—I would just like to do it because I could put it on my résumé.” She said, “OK, what are you thinking?” And I replied: “I don’t know”—I genuinely didn’t even know what I was proposing. So I took the bus to the renovated bank building in Roxbury. I walked in and introduced myself to the bank manager, who was like: “OK, random person, what would you like to see?” And I said to her: “This building has just been rehabbed. In the renovations, did you find documents that had been part of this institution when it was another kind of bank?” And she said: “Actually, we have all this stuff in the vault.” She led me into the vault, and in it, piled in the corner, were hundred-year-old ledger books, advertising material from the 1950s—just random things that had been found during the renovation, and that they shoved into boxes in the corner.
I took the materials with me back on the bus. I went through it all, and just started doing basic research on my own, focusing on the history of Roxbury as a neighborhood. I discovered that there were still a couple of businesses that had been hundred-year-old customers of this bank. So I interviewed them, and then approached BankBoston’s Corporate Art Department and asked them: “Could you help me display some of these materials I found in the vault? I want to put together an exhibit.” We placed these materials in display cases, with poster boards of text that I wrote, and took everyone through 150 years of this bank in Roxbury, Massachusetts. For a newly minted, or about-to-be-minted, Ph.D. in history, it was a fun little project.
What impact did your historical exhibit have on your career?
The Boston Globe covered my exhibition, and the bank got great press from it, and they ended up bringing the exhibit back to the headquarters building in downtown Boston, where it was displayed in the lobby. About a month later, my boss approached me, saying: “What you did was so great—I met all these senior executives at the bank as a result. Are you interested in coming on board as a project manager?” I had essentially done this without any supervision, and gotten the project done on time. I responded: “Oh, let me explain: I’m getting a Ph.D.—I’m going to be an academic. So thank you. I’ll take a job for a small period of time before I launch my academic career.” And you know, I never looked back. That’s just serendipity combined with preparation and confidence: seeing something and raising your hand, and saying “I can do that.”
How did you continue to translate your academic skills to the world of banking and project management?
About a year later, BankBoston bought a bank in Nantucket called Pacific National Bank. You might ask, why is a bank in Nantucket called Pacific National Bank? Because it funded whaling ships that would go from Nantucket to the Pacific Ocean to hunt sperm whale. Just as I told the story of one bank branch, I told the story of another: I flew to Nantucket, and I knew this time to ask, “Can I go into your vault, and see what’s in there?”
At the same time, I was writing my dissertation and doing project management work at the bank. When I say project work, a lot of it was taking minutes, writing up project plans for people, and then holding people to account (for example, “John Smith is supposed to do task A”). I got my degree, and was still working there, and was enjoying it. I was married at the time, and my husband wanted to stay in Boston, so rather than do a national job search, I was really trying to find something in the city.
At a certain point, my supervisor went on vacation, and with little to do, I called the senior executive who was involved with one of our projects and asked: “Do you have anything else for me to do?” Within two weeks, he had me essentially working as his right-hand person. Frankly, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I threw myself into this corporate world, and found that just by being somebody who could analyze data, write about it, and communicate clearly with people, I could be successful. I could figure out that if you’re trying to go to destination A, there were 20 steps you had to take to get there. Then it was just a question of planning out and documenting how long it would take you to get there and what tasks needed to be completed. Nothing about it seemed that difficult to me. The process was intuitive, and I just had to learn the subject matter.
From project management, you transitioned into information security. What kinds of problems did you work on?
When I moved to State Street Corporation, they had been called to task by the German federal regulators for not having a system by which people could request access to systems, be approved to get access, and have their status reviewed on a periodic basis. As a result, I spent two years building a database, or more accurately, teaching myself how to build a database. Obviously, there were people around me who were also working on the project—it wasn’t just me alone. The way I approached this task was as an opportunity to overhaul our data and communication systems. Working internationally with colleagues on this initiative, I slowly gained the confidence that, whatever the subject matter was, I could learn it.
How does Ph.D. training in general help someone enter the non-academic world?
You, as a really smart person who is now getting their Ph.D. at Duke, can go into any corporation in American and learn the subject matter. That’s not the hard part. The hard part is: can you know how to work in an organization? Do you know how to get things done? Can you manage work and people? And I actually found that my training as a Ph.D. helped me with that. Teaching a class is not unlike running a meeting. You walk in, you have people sitting around a table, you have information you need to impart to them, you need to elicit thoughts from them, you need to record that, and you need to be aware of who is participating and who is not. Then, you go back to your desk, you take some of that data, you write something about it, and you communicate the idea to other people in the organization.
These are all things that Ph.D.s at Duke, or any school, are actually well versed in—but people get hung up on the belief that they don’t know the subject matter well enough in corporate settings. If they are studying medieval women in church communities in England, then often Ph.D.s think they need to find a job focused exclusively on that topic. The reality, however, is that you actually have skills in data collection, in synthesis, in communicating to students and others—and those are the skills that are in demand. You can learn about approval authorities in the federal regulatory system—that’s easy.
Editors' note: Read Part 2 of this interview with Dr. Jennifer Gilbert.
Patrick Morgan, Ph.D.
Ph.D. recipient, English
Patrick Morgan is an Alstott Morgan Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society, where he is researching the impact of geological time on nineteenth-century thinkers. He graduated in May 2019 after defending his dissertation, "Manifesting Vertical Destiny: Geology, Reform, and the Stratified Earth in American Literature, Long Nineteenth Century." Dr. Morgan is a 2018 winner of the Dean's Award for Excellence in Teaching from Duke Graduate School. In August 2019 he begins a position as Assistant Professor of English at the University of Louisiana Monroe.