After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law in 1971, Judy Kleinberg entered a world of law that simply "was not ready for women."
An experience at a firm, which Kleinberg said will remain unnamed, "ruined law practice in a firm for me," she said. "It was the early '70s and a lot of the big law firms had very, very, very small numbers of women — mostly relegated to probate."
This may have soured her on where to practice law, but it did little to stop Kleinberg from using her background to pursue a career in education, journalism, nonprofits and politics as a city council member and mayor of Palo Alto. And after nearly three decades of service to the city, Kleinberg is being honored the ATHENA Award for leadership by the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce for her outstanding contributions to the community.
The ATHENA Awards is an international program that began in 1982 to recognize exceptional leaders, particularly professional women and women in business. Nearly 8,000 people have received the award since its inception. Locally, women tech executives, a health advocate, a police chief and nonprofit leaders have received the award in recent years.
"It's such a tremendous honor," Kleinberg told this news organization. "The professional women who have been recipients in past years even before I was at the Chamber are just such a stellar, accomplished, phenomenal group of women. I wouldn't have imagined that I would be in that group."
A basic philosophy has guided the attorney's kaleidoscopic contributions to Palo Alto ever since she moved here in 1984.
"It was something as simple as giving back," she said. "I was raised in a Quaker parochial school in my childhood in Rhode Island, and the Quaker commitment to community service and ethical living permeated me. I also had a mother who devoted herself to community organizations. So I was raised both at home and at school."
Kleinberg's involvement in Palo Alto can be traced back nearly 40 years when she became an active member of the local parent teacher association, helping to raise money for the Palo Alto Unified School District.
In 1994, Kleinberg developed Safer Summer, a program that gave teenagers such as her two children, who inspired the idea at the time, a secure place to convene outside of school.
Her influence in Palo Alto soon grew when she took on city governance. In 1999, Kleinberg garnered the most votes out of all the candidates vying for a City Council position she now admits she initially didn't want. Her speciality was in law and that was the area in which she believed she could make the most difference — not as a politician.
"I was egged on constantly by other women. I had no interest in being on council," she said. "I think ultimately I had been asked so many times, but I didn't want to run until my kids were out of the house. ... Once they were out of the house, I said, 'OK, I will do it, and I will run because I love this community.'"
Kleinberg went on the record to be a proponent of alternative city transit, climate change initiatives and affordable housing. In 2007, the council elected her as mayor. Kleinberg was also asked to run for state assembly but declined.
"It was really more about my community, here," she said.
During and after her time on council, Kleinberg assumed leadership roles at a multitude of Bay Area organizations and nonprofits: executive director of Kids in Common and TechAmerica, president of the Palo Alto's American Heart Association and the Santa Clara County Cities Association, vice president of Joint Venture Silicon Valley and InSTEDD, and more recently president and CEO of Chamber of Commerce, among other positions.
"Kleinberg demonstrated an incredible amount of energy and passion to lead the Chamber," said Charlie Weidanz, the chamber's CEO who also assumed Kleinberg's role as president when she stepped down. "It was a time where she threw (in) her energy and was able to promote a greater awareness of the economy of our businesses."
When she took on the dual role in 2014, Kleinberg hoped to bring the chamber back to relevancy and, with her background in law, restart the organization's role in legislative advocacy on behalf of small and medium-sized enterprises. The chamber collaborated with Stanford University's government affairs office and its legislative advocacy program, Kleinberg said.
Asked if she felt she was able to bring the chamber into the 21st century, Kleinberg said she did — at least before the pandemic.
As the COVID-19 crisis began to ravage local businesses, Kleinberg leaned on her prior experience as vice president, chief operating officer, chief financial officer and general counsel of InSTEDD or Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases & Disasters, which was founded by Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google.
"So when I joined the chamber, I said that we need to be working on business resilience," Kleinberg said. "We tried a few things. Not all of them were successful."
Throughout the pandemic, the Chamber acted as a resource for local business owners that helped guide them through the process of securing federal and state loans, building a social media presence as businesses went online, and keeping up with the ever-evolving local health measures.
"As the president and CEO of the Chamber, she was the architect that was developing these initiatives," Weidanz said.
Kleinberg retired from her position at the Chamber in March.
"It had to do with my turning 75," she said.
Even so, Kleinberg said she's not looking to retire yet. Her next project is to be determined, but she hopes to continue to maintain corporate board positions, support startups, and work with boards of directors on governance, conflicts of interests and ethics issues.
Kleinberg will receive the Athena Award on Sept. 22. Due to pandemic restrictions, the ceremony will be attended only by past Athena Award recipients.