Huffington Post featured Jennifer Dunn, the Director of Special Events and Corporate Sponsorship for the VH1 Save The Music Foundation, in an exclusive Women in Business Q&A. Dunn is responsible for handling all events, strategic partnerships and corporate fundraising for the foundation. In her candid responses, she discusses her career at Viacom which spans 15 years, provides her perspective on work life balance, women in the workplace and even gives her take on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement. Check out snippets from her Q&A below or click here to read the full article.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
When I was a senior in High School, Colin Ferguson boarded the Long Island Railroad and went on a deadly rampage, shooting 19 people, including Amy Locicero Federici. This event would shape my future forever as Amy’s mom was my English teacher and in honor of Amy’s life her employer MTV Networks offered a 4-year scholarship in their Summer Associate Program to one of her mother’s students. A dream job for any teenager and a huge honor to represent such an amazing woman, I won that scholarship and spent the next four summers learning from the best people in the entertainment business, making life-long connections and researching an “idea” for a music charity that would later become the VH1 Save The Music Foundation. The knowledge, wisdom and experience that I gained as a Summer Associate would eventually develop into a job that 15+ years later has heralded me awards including a Peabody and an Emmy, found me on the set of national morning shows, landed me part of big concerts with even bigger Divas and taken me to the White House, to movie houses and all over the country working with amazing partners. I am an extremely lucky woman and excited to be part of a group where I continue to grow and thrive as a leader today.
How has your previous experience aided your position at VH1 Save The Music Foundation?
In the early days of the Foundation, the staff was made up of a group of employees with communication degrees and experience in cable television production trying to navigate the formal landscape of charitable giving. We were a small staff (and still are), so we all had to pitch in where needed and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that at some point over the years I have held pretty much every position within the organization – some of these jobs I have liked and some not so much, but I’ve always known that VH1 Save The Music is something that I am really passionate about so I’ve stuck to it. Since I have held these various positions, I am able to directly relate to my co-workers’ day-to-day activities and objectively share my first-hand experiences, ideas and suggestions with them as they relate to advancing our vision and mission. I have learned so much by having the opportunity to “own” all of my projects from inception to completion and I believe the VH1 Save The Music Foundation is one of those rare organizations that values pushing the envelope. From my interns to the staff who report to me, I try to empower everyone to take a project and run with it just like I was able to do starting at MTV Networks so many years ago – this includes the good, the bad and the in-between. Having executed hundreds of high profile special events over the years with celebrities and major donors, I know that problems arise along the way, however it’s the “make it work moments” that truly define my experience and have allowed for true career growth.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
In the beginning of my career there really wasn’t much of a work/life balance because my work was my life. Now that I’m a mom finding time for family, friends and other obligations can be a serious challenge and honestly sometimes I can’t do it all. I think that asking for help, delegating out responsibilities and hiring the very best people at home and on the job helps alleviate some stress. At the end of the day, I love going to work and I value the time spent with my daughter Audrey and my husband Sean so I make an effort to do as much of both as possible – I also always try to remember that scheduling some time for myself that is a key ingredient to being happy.
What advice can you offer women who are seeking to turn an internship into a paid position?
I am in my position today because I turned an internship into a career by problem solving, working hard and proving myself as an invaluable member to the team. I would suggest applying for an internship somewhere that truly speaks to you and not just somewhere that sounds cool. While interning, make the most of it: ask for more work, solve problems, sit-in on meetings as a silent-observer and take notes…and most importantly use this time to network. I am still great friends and cross paths with some of my fellow interns to this day. Ultimately, I do believe that timing is also a big factor in turning an internship into a paid position, so be pro-active and you’re more likely to have someone remember you and your work ethic in the future.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your time at the VH1 Save The Music Foundation?
I am extremely proud to be part of an organization that recently celebrated passing the $50 million dollar mark – having donated nearly $51 million dollars worth of new musical instruments, to 1,900 schools in 192 districts around the country, directly impacting the lives of over 2.33 million public school students. We are a small staff, doing big things and at the end of the day seeing an instrument in the hands of a child and the smile that it brings to their face is a constant reminder of why I work at the VH1 Save The Music Foundation.
This milestone is especially amazing given the challenges brought on by our current economy and the influx of charities and public service initiatives that we are barraged to give to every day. While music is the universal language that connects us all, it is a constant challenge to remain true to our mission, refresh our messaging and stay relevant and at the top of mind with our donors. Additionally, I find the need to continue to evaluate our fundraising efforts, as some of our tried and true traditional models aren’t standing the test of time.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The biggest obstacle for women in the workplace is ourselves. I have been with the Foundation since it’s practical inception and that can be a blessing and a curse since as I am so invested in the program’s success, that it really takes a concerted effort to leave my first “baby” at the end of the day and focus on my family. Thankfully technology and a supportive staff make me able to maintain a semi-work/life balance but I need to remember to ask for help more often.
What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book and movement?
Like Sheryl I believe in creating a supportive group within my organization. I admire her idealism of not counting yourself out just because you are a woman or a mother but I have also recently had conversations with my peers who love their jobs and what they are doing but that don’t necessarily want to Lean In as much as maintain and take on that leadership role in a formal capacity. I think that’s okay, as we all have to find the balance that works for us.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I’ve never had a formal mentor but I believe that we can learn something from each and every person that we encounter. I have had a handful of bosses and they possessed extremely different styles of managing and conducting day-to-day operations. Their mentorship, taught me to step up, take charge and make decisions, skills that I believe make me the well-rounded leader that I am today.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are a lot of amazing and successful woman in my family, but the most influential person in my life is my mom. She took the time off from work and her career to raise and teach me and my sister’s Allison and Katie all of life’s essential lessons and then re-entered the workforce almost twenty years ago. Since that time she has continued to rise through the ranks of her company and today leads an extremely successful nationwide sales force. I believe that the measure of a good leader is the people that you surround yourself and if I can be anything like my mother it will be well worth it.
What are your hopes for the future of the VH1 Save The Music Foundation?
I believe the future of America depends on how successful we are at connecting young people with what they love and excel at through education. As hard times demand hard choices, the arts are still continuing to lose their place in schools and ultimately, we are not only depriving our children of an outlet to be creative but we are inhibiting their ability to develop important leadership skills including self-expression, problem solving, and the strength to work in teams. It’s a fact, young people who have access to comprehensive instrumental music education are more engaged in school and less likely to drop out so they do significantly better in all of their academic endeavors while gaining a lifelong appreciation for the arts. Imagine if there was no music what this world would be like.
The work of the VH1 Save The Music Foundation is vitally important and it is my hope that we can continue in our mission so that one-day we can ultimately provide all children with a complete education that includes music.
Laura Dunn is a Social Media and Communications Professional, Founder and Editor of Political Style, Journalist and Author, Lean In Circle Manager. This article by Dunn (no relations to Jennifer Dunn) first appeared on Huffington Post.