2022-23 President Jennifer Jones is eager to advance Rotary’s narrative
Jennifer Jones, Rotary International’s first female president, is the perfect leader to spread the word about the good Rotary does in the world, and inspire its members to keep going.
Listen to the story, narrated by award-winning broadcast journalist Linda Yu.
At a training seminar for Rotary club presidents-elect at a Dallas-area hotel in February, sergeants-at-arms wearing yellow vests and Stetsons lead participants, grouped by Rotary district, into a small room for a photo op with 2022-23 Rotary International President Jennifer Jones. As the groups enter, the club leaders mob Jones — the room a flurry of handshakes, fist bumps, hugs, and the occasional squeal. For each photo, the Stetson-clad Rotarians (nicknamed "Rangers") give instructions on who should stand where, then Jones, who is seated front-row center, stands up, turns around, and warms up the crowd. "Is this the best district?" she asks one. She challenges a district to dance, busting a groove on the tan and gray patterned hotel carpet. Another, she teases, is the best looking. And then there's the "party" district, whose members give a raucous cheer.
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The groups file out. More than a few people linger to get selfies with Jones and her husband, Nick Krayacich. One young woman, dressed in cobalt blue, shouts, "Congratulations and thank you for being a leader for women in Rotary!" More cheers. She and Jones bump fists as she departs.
"She's just amazing. She's a rock star," says Rhonda Walls Kerby, past governor of District 5890, who has been observing the scene.
When the photo session is finished, Jones signs several Star Wars collectors' helmets that will be auctioned at an upcoming district conference in Houston. She pulls on a Stormtrooper helmet. The phones of the Rotarians still in the room shoot up in unison to capture the moment.
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"She makes everyone feel special. That's why everyone feels like they are best friends with Jen," says Eric Liu. Liu met Jones at the International Assembly in 2016, when he was an incoming district governor and she was the incoming RI vice president, and they hit it off.
Liu's sentiment is among the common refrains heard during a whirlwind weekend traveling with Jones. Over and over, people mention that she has an easy way with people, that for years everybody "knew" she would be the first female Rotary president, that she's a new kind of leader.
And that she's the leader Rotary needs right now.
The laughter in the room grows to a warm buzz as Jones jokes around with her friends. But it's been a long day after an exhausting trip. Jones and Krayacich spent nine hours in the airport the previous day due to weather delays, then had to solve logistical issues with their travel to Dallas. They are in bed by 11, a brief respite before the pre-presidential duties start all over again the next day.
“She believes in something that is so necessary. This time calls for peace and unity, for embracing despite our differences.”
Jones, 55, was born in Windsor, Ontario, and — save for a few post-college years working in the Turks and Caicos Islands and Manhattan — has lived there her whole life. The oldest of three children, she'd run lemonade stands to earn money to give to charity, and recalls organizing a carnival in her family's yard to benefit kids with muscular dystrophy. "Growing up, my parents had given us wings to do service in our community," she says. Today, her mom, dad, and one of her brothers and his wife are Rotarians. Her other brother created a painting that inspired Jones' presidential-theme ties and scarves.
Both Jones and Krayacich are originally from Windsor, but the two met in the Caribbean. Burned out after finishing university and working in the newsroom at a radio station, Jones took time off and worked at a resort in the Caribbean, while Krayacich, a physician, had just finished his internship in Toronto and went to the islands to go scuba diving. They struck up a friendship, and when they both eventually moved back to Windsor, they started dating and got married shortly thereafter.
In many ways, Krayacich, the governor-nominee of District 6400, is the opposite of Jones. He's quieter and more serious, preferring one-on-one conversations, traits that are suited to his vocation. "Jennifer is definitely an Energizer Bunny. She's outgoing and very much a connector," he says. "We complement each other very well."
Jones started her own television production company when she was in her late 20s, wowing bank officials with her business plan, negotiating a lease, and investing in hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment. "I've always wanted to carve my own path," she says. "Sometimes that's meant taking risks and making yourself open to new experiences."
One of those was Rotary. As a rookie radio reporter in the late 1980s, she'd covered the organization and remembers attending club meetings where the members were nearly all men. "I remember feeling very intimidated by the experience," she says. "I was in my early 20s. It was the power brokers of the community." Fast forward to 1996, months after she'd started her business, Media Street Productions. The manager of the local cable station invited Jones to a meeting. She realized she had found her home. "It was clearly one of the greatest gifts I've ever received," she says. "I didn't think walking through the door that day that it would change the trajectory of my life."
The next day at the Dallas training seminar, during a soup and salad lunch, the 1980 Kool & the Gang song "Celebration" blares over the speakers. People around the hotel ballroom begin to dance, clapping and swaying to the music. Among them is Jones, waving a colorful light stick above her head. She dances among the tables, stopping for a selfie here, a hug there, grooving with the crowd. The flash mob lines up in front of the stage, Jones at the center. When the song ends, Past RI Director Don Mebus introduces Jones, who makes a heart with her hands as she arrives onstage.
Her speech brings listeners through the full range of emotions. As she speaks about witnessing a pediatric heart surgery in Jordan, the room is so quiet you could hear a Paul Harris Fellow pin drop. When she finishes, the crowd stands and erupts in applause. But there is no time to bask in it. Jones has a plane to catch. The emcee asks the throngs of enthusiastic Texans to please let her through. And with that, she's off to the airport, her sprint aided by a pair of purple sneakers that she wears throughout the trip ("I save heels for when I'm presenting," she says). She doesn't like to eat before she speaks, so now she grabs a bag of chips and settles into her seat to rest.
Four hours later, she arrives in Los Angeles for another presidents-elect training seminar. Tonight's duties involve stopping by the hospitality suites to meet Rotarians from the participating districts. In one room, Rotarians drinking umbrella-festooned mai tais mingle as Hawaiian music emanates from speakers decorated with grass skirts. Jones barely makes it in the door before she is again swarmed by Rotarians eager to meet her. Randy Hart, 2022-23 governor of district 5000 (Hawaii), presents her with a lei. "All I can think about is the energy she has," comments one man. "To think, this is the third room she's visited!"
Lakecia King is one of the well-wishers, embracing Jones when they meet. "She's so warm and genuine," says King, the incoming president of the Rotary Club of East Honolulu and the diversity, equity, and inclusion chair for District 5000. Eight weeks out from surgery for a torn meniscus, King has flown from Hawaii for this opportunity, drawn by Jones' rally for diversity in Rotary. "I was not going to miss it for the world," King says. "She believes in something that is so necessary. This time calls for peace and unity, for embracing despite our differences and based on what we have in common."
Jones finally makes it to the back of the room, where she's swept into a hula dance with seven other women in front of an "Aloha" backdrop. She visits a few more of the hospitality suites and ends in that of District 5500 (Arizona), where she chats with a circle of Rotarians. As she raises her glass to leave the room — "Well, cheers, everybody!" — an older woman with close-cropped white hair calls out, "Thank you for being the first!" Jones responds, not missing a beat: "But not the last."
Jones and Krayacich took their first international service trip in 2000, shortly after Jones joined Rotary. (Due to schedule conflicts, Krayacich didn't join until 2010 when a breakfast club was chartered, two minutes from their house. "She wasn't even the one who asked me to join Rotary," he chuckles.) They went for five weeks to the Brazilian Amazon, where Krayacich ran a medical clinic and Jones produced a fundraising video for the clinic and created a training program for local journalists. "Once we went on an international Rotary service trip, it resonated very profoundly with me," she says. "I knew this was something I wanted to do more of — to help people tell their stories, to find the narrative in what we were doing and come back and share it."
In 2001-02, she served as president of the Rotary Club of Windsor-Roseland. Every meeting, she'd randomly pick a member, have them stand, and tell them why they were important to the club. "Every week, people would show up to see who the next person would be," she says.
It taught her a lesson about the importance of taking care of members, a priority now that she is RI president. "We were having fun, doing good work, and we liked each other," she says. "Sometimes we try to over-manufacture the reason why people join and stay."
At that point, her district had never had a female governor. She was under 40, and she "wanted to try to take that for a ride," she says. "I knew I wanted to put my full-on energy into Rotary. I loved it."
After her term as governor in 2007-08, she chaired the local chamber of commerce and the University of Windsor board of governors. "It was the most amazing precursor to sitting on the board of directors of Rotary," she says. "Each one was a building block."
In 2009, when Jones was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 42, her days turned to chemotherapy and radiation. She got the diagnosis in the fall, and she had been asked to speak at the International Assembly, the training for incoming district governors-elect, in January 2010. Then-RI President-elect Ray Klinginsmith encouraged her to come if she was able. In consultation with her oncologist, she decided to attend. "The Sunday before, I lost all of my hair," she says. "I showed up at the event in a wig."
Some technical issues interrupted her speech, but it still made an impact, most of all on her. "At one of the lowest points in my life, someone didn't count me out," she says, tearing up. "It was just such a message that I needed at that point in time. That I had value, that I could contribute and participate. He gave me hope at a time when you think that maybe hope isn't what you're going to get."
Jones went through eight rounds of chemo and 21 rounds of radiation. Her employees stepped up to keep her business running as she stepped back. That too proved pivotal. When her health improved and she prepared to re-engage with her work, she looked at what her team had accomplished. "I sat back and thought about it," she says. "If I go back in as I was, I'm going to rob them of the leadership growth they would have had." She decided to pass the day-to-day operations of the company to her team so she could pursue Rotary almost full time.
"I wouldn't orchestrate having cancer again," she says, "but I can definitely say I wouldn't be sitting here where I am today if all of these things hadn't happened."
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world in March 2020, Jones was fresh off a monthlong Rotary trip, which started in India for its Rotary centennial, continued in Nepal to visit a project started by a Rotary Peace Fellow, and concluded in New Zealand for the South Pacific presidents-elect training seminar. In the airport traveling home, she began to see people wearing masks, but she still thought she'd be back out on the road within weeks for a scheduled appearance at a district conference in Nairobi, Kenya.
Then, suddenly, the world changed. "I remember the moment I heard that the border between Canada and the United States shut down," she says. "In my life I could never have envisioned hearing those words."
“She really inspires me to keep doing what I’m doing. That it’s OK that I’m a leader and that I’m a woman.”
Jones and Krayacich isolated at their cottage on Lake Erie, about half an hour from their house. "I still remember waking up at 3 o'clock in the morning and flipping open my phone to look for a newsfeed to find out what was going on. That sense of unknown we all went through at that time was so horrific."
Jones was a Rotary Foundation trustee at the time. She watched with pride and amazement as Rotary members quickly applied for disaster response grants from The Rotary Foundation to fund service projects. But she wanted to do more. Previously, she'd drawn on her vocation to plan large fundraising events for the Foundation, such as a golf outing with Jack Nicklaus in 2019. She called then-RI President Mark Maloney and pitched the idea of a telethon.
The idea came together over a matter of weeks. Jones reached out to her vast network of contacts in the Rotary world and asked them to send videos. "We really wanted to capitalize on what we could do in real time for people," she says. "Yes, raising critical funds was important, but more than anything, it was an opportunity to bring together people from around the globe and to showcase that we're people of action — even though we were all isolated in our own homes, we were able to do something." (More than 65,000 people tuned in to the event, hosted by Past RI President Barry Rassin and Past RI Director John Smarge, which raised more than $525,000 for the Foundation.)
One of the people who contributed a video was Anniela Carracedo. A Rotary Youth Exchange student in Mississippi in 2019-20, Carracedo could not return home to Venezuela when the pandemic struck. Stuck in the United States, she started Rotary Interactive Quarantine, a global youth network for Interactors and Youth Exchange students. Jones messaged her in a chat during an online zone meeting and asked her to create a video about the youth network for the telethon.
"After that, I googled her," Carracedo recalls. "Who is this person, and why is she organizing this? I told my host mom about it, and she said, 'People say Jennifer will be the first female Rotary president.'"
Carracedo and Jones kept in touch. They've never met in person, but they've formed a strong bond. Jones has spoken at Carracedo's meetings and invited her to speak at the International Assembly. Carracedo has made TikToks about Jones. In an interview over Zoom, she holds up her phone to show Jones-themed stickers on WhatsApp. "I'm her biggest fan, I guess," she says. "She really inspires me to keep doing what I'm doing. That it's OK that I'm a leader and that I'm a woman. If she did it, that means that I can do it too."
And Carracedo's not the only one who feels that way. Another TikTok posted on the @rotaryyouthnetwork account juxtaposes a video of Jones with an audio clip declaring, "She's an icon, she's a legend, and she is the moment."
Jones’ ability to inspire extends beyond young women. Following her visit to Los Angeles, Jones attends a District 5170 dinner at the Blackhawk Museum in Danville, California. At a pre-dinner reception for Major Donors, Jones gives a speech in an exhibit about the American West. “I knew back in 2013 that someday she’d be RI president. She has an aura about her,” says Joe Hamilton of the Rotary Club of Cupertino, who has been mingling in the crowd. The vibe is more subdued than it was at the seminars she’d attended earlier in the weekend. Sequined partygoers line up to take photos with Jones, who is elegantly dressed in a flowing cream-colored top and palazzo pants with gold embellishments that she bought on her trip to India before the pandemic.
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It's dinnertime now, and the donors leave the American West for the classic car exhibit on the first floor, where tables are set up among a kaleidoscope of gleaming sports cars. The weekend has felt like an episode of The Amazing Race. In the past 48 hours, Jones has taken two flights, spoken at three major events in three cities, and posed for possibly hundreds of selfies. ("There's the paparazzi — this is the Rotarazzi," Krayacich jokes.)
Even so, Jones, standing in front of a black screen with the words of her presidential theme, Imagine Rotary, projected behind her, is practically glowing as she speaks again. The war in Ukraine has intensified over this weekend, and this speech ties the troubling current events to the peacemaking power of Rotary. She says, "You can't underestimate the importance of what you're doing today."
Jones calls the district governors and governors-elect onto the stage and leads everyone in attendance in a teary rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine," in honor of Ukraine. People in the crowd hold hands and sway along, imagining the power of Rotary with Jones at the helm.
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This story originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.