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Jill Klein Wins Tech Award—and Empowers the Next Generation of Women

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Woman in front of grass and trees.
Jill Klein was honored by Women in Technology, a professional organization focused on the DC tech community.

Jill Klein has spent many years advocating for women’s empowerment in business. And since she’s always been motivated to help others, her individual award from Women in Technology (WIT) was a pleasant surprise.

“I’m not one of these people who seeks recognition. It’s just not who I am,” says Klein, interim dean of AU’s School of Professional & Extended Studies. “I was very happy that they created the award. And then a number of people came forward and said, ‘Jill, you’re getting nominated. You can’t say no.’ And I appreciated that.”

Women in Technology, a professional organization for women in the Washington, DC, technology community, honored Klein at its 20th Annual Leadership Awards Gala in May. Klein was among ten women selected across different sectors. In a fitting nod to her work at American University, she was singled out for leadership in academia.

“My biggest contribution in WIT is that I really focused on, ‘How do I promote other women?’ Since I started at the university in 2001, I’ve really worked hard to get our students, especially our graduate students in the business school, involved in WIT. And I’m really proud of the fact that many of them have gone on to be leaders in WIT,” she says.


Taking Action

Klein got involved with WIT in the 2000s, creating a program called The First Five Years, which the organization integrated into its training for female MBAs in non-tech fields as well. “It was looking at, ‘What do you expect in those first five years? What are some of the opportunities and challenges that women face in the workplace that may not impact men in the workplace?’” she explains. “We asked, ‘How do you manage money? How do you manage transitions to family life?’”

In 2010, to gain greater understanding of women’s progress, Klein and WIT sought to ascertain how many women sit on corporate boards locally. It sounds like a simple request, but this information—especially with 2010 web technology—was quite arcane. Publicly traded companies usually disclosed a person’s name, job title, and home residence, but not their gender.

“We had to figure it out manually. That included getting on the phone to call investor relations and asking, ‘Is this person a man or a woman?’ So we started to do that count,” she recalls.

The early results were not encouraging. Even with a majority of college degrees earned by women, they held only 10 percent of DMV corporate board positions. This was a post-recession period, with widespread interest in improving corporate performance. For WIT, it was a moment to make an impact.

“WIT took this report and said, ‘What can we do?’ So instead of just reporting, we took action. And we created something called the Leadership Foundry,” she says. “The Leadership Foundry provides a nine-month program to help prepare women for board service. That includes training from the National Association of Corporate Directors, monthly activities around learning about board service, and learning how to network for board service.”

The Leadership Foundry produces an annual report on women’s corporate boardroom advancement, and Klein has enlisted numerous AU graduate students on the project. Those students present the research findings every November.

“They get the opportunity to stand up in front of a room of 100 people, all executives, and really talk about the work. And for them it has provided an opportunity for networking, jobs, and visibility.”

Recently, there’s been a broader national discussion about gender equity in business and tech, with specific allegations of sexism in Silicon Valley. Klein sees some progress —the percentage of female board members climbed to about 17 percent, locally—but she says women still face barriers.

“Most technology jobs, whether they are in tech companies or in any enterprise, are still dominated by men. But I think we find that women are playing very meaningful roles,” she says. “When we can get young women engaged in technology companies, they are very successful. They bring a balanced view into how we develop products and services.”


From Wall Street to Washington

Klein loves working in the technology space. Her interest was sparked as a teenager, when she automated the payroll system for her family’s milk processing plant in Upstate New York. After getting her bachelor’s at Cornell University, she worked on large-scale automation of financial services at JP Morgan in New York. In 1983, she relocated to DC and worked for IBM, then the city’s largest nongovernmental employer.

“Tech has always been a really important part of this community,” she says.

Klein held a variety of tech-related jobs, eventually becoming chief information officer for Riggs Bank. A temporary teaching position at AU led to a full-time gig and a newfound passion for higher ed. She has worn a variety of hats at AU, spending many years with the Kogod School of Business. She was Kogod’s Digital Dean and helped launch Business@American, the online MBA and MS in analytics programs. Klein, herself a Kogod MBA alumna, was interim executive director for the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning.


The Way Forward

Klein was appointed interim dean of SPExS in June 2018. She believes SPExS can play an integral role in AU’s future, and she notes that the new Strategic Plan emphasizes lifelong learning. Klein touts SPExS’s professional service graduate degrees and noncredit professional development programs, which help people in emerging, mid-level, and transitional points in their career.

“I hope the school helps create a gateway for the rest of the university,” she says. “What we’ve got to think about is, ‘How does the School of Professional & Extended Studies help advance that university mission of lifelong learning?’ So, the idea here is to broaden and deepen our capacity in those areas.”

After nearly two decades at AU, she’s learned much about the purpose of higher ed—and the value of working together. “We’re much better when we can work collaboratively. This isn’t a place where you’re going to succeed if it’s all about you.”