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A legacy of 'proving it'

Having overcome her own obstacles, SAP's Jenny Dearborn now mentors others

Jenny Dearborn, senior VP and chief learning officer at SAP, stands by portraits of superheroes she's painted in her Palo Alto home. Photo by Veronica Weber.

On four- to six-hour conference calls, Jenny Dearborn, senior VP and chief learning officer at Palo Alto-based SAP, is almost guaranteed to have a paintbrush in hand, working on a large-scale canvas of her latest project — a DC Comics superhero.

Dearborn, whose first canvas was of Wonder Woman, has since painted around 35 "gigantic" portraits, many of which grace the walls of her home in Palo Alto.

"The way my brain works, I have to be doing a couple of different things at the same time," she said. "I listen to books on tape and paint, listen to conference calls and paint, so that I can really concentrate on what I'm hearing — keep my hands busy."

Dearborn said that she paints superheroes because "they feel to me quite pure": They're selfless champions for the underdog with a sense of justice and equality. Her paintings are also, in a way, an homage to her childhood.

Dearborn grew up in Davis, California, with undiagnosed dyslexia and ADHD. She taught herself to read "quite late compared to most kids" by reading comics. Because of her undiagnosed conditions, though, people criticized her during her childhood and throughout her life.

"I generally grew up being told by lots of people that I wasn't good enough, and I wasn't smart enough," she said. "Anytime I wanted to contribute to whatever was going on that was an intellectual exercise, of whatever kind, what I was told was to prove it."

Dearborn said that "proving it" became her mantra — one that she took with her into the corporate world, and one that has helped her become a recognized leader in learning, leadership and business culture. Her work has earned her numerous accolades, including recognition as one of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Tech by the National Diversity Council. And on Oct. 17, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce will present her its prestigious Athena Award for her leadership in community service.

Before entering the corporate world, Dearborn studied English at the University of California, Berkeley, where she met her husband. Then she received a master's degree from Stanford University's Teacher Education Program and worked as an English teacher at Woodside High School.

After Dearborn tired of teaching "Macbeth" for the umpteenth time, she sought a career that would satisfy her need for a dynamic, fast-paced environment.

"I think the way my brain is wired, I need a great deal of change," she said, adding that she found that in the corporate environment.

To find her new career, Dearborn did quite a bit of research, eventually discovering a field called corporate education — teaching personnel- and HR-related courses — and becoming interested in Hewlett-Packard Company. She spent a school year driving from Woodside High to Hewlett-Packard during her lunch break to conduct informational interviews with people there.

"From September to June, I think I met, like, 45 people at Hewlett-Packard, and I graduated my seniors. They walked across the stage on Friday, June 16, and I started working at Hewlett-Packard on Monday as an instructor. ... It was absolutely seamless," she said.

While at HP in the early '90s, Dearborn pursued a part-time MBA and discovered a love for statistics. For Dearborn, who had always had felt that she needed to prove herself, math and stats offered a way to do that.

"What I loved more than anything else was statistics. And math and data. And analytics. Because you could prove it. It was evidence; it was irrefutable. It was the single source of truth. There was no emotion; there was no opinion. It was just the facts, and when you had the facts and data behind you, everyone was like, 'Of course,'" she said.

As her career progressed, she became responsible for the training, readiness and capability building for sales representatives.

"From there, I learned that there were some learning interventions for sales that had fantastic results and some that had terrible results, and there didn't seem to be a lot of science in the industry about the best way to prepare sales reps to be the most effective and the most efficient they could be," she said.

Dearborn figured that if she could "crack the code" of exactly what the gaps were in a sales reps' performance, knowledge and skills, she could better implement the right learning or education intervention.

This is exactly the problem Dearborn and her team sought to solve, and her first book, "Data Driven," outlines their findings and process.

After "Data Driven" was published, Dearborn found that people questioned the applicability of the model to work areas other than sales. Here was another challenge — something on which Dearborn thrives.

For her second book, she chose to prove the validity of her model by tackling "the hardest place to prove that learning and development makes a difference in a corporate environment: ... leadership." "The Data Driven Leader" will be published in November.

Whether through her books or through her management of more than 85,000 employees worldwide, Dearborn's goal in her endeavors is to help people be better in their jobs.

"The greatest service that I can do in my life is to help other people. So I have lots of mentees. I will do everything in my power to help other people be successful and achieve their dreams and their potential. I think that that's one of the most humbling things that I can do," she said.

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