The way Rotary member Todd Jenkins puts it, he's the first generation in his family "to do everything": first to go to college, first to fly on a plane, first to visit another country, and the first to live across state lines.
Jenkins, 28, grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Columbia, South Carolina, USA. His family worked hard just to make ends meet. So travel and college seemed out of reach.
The eldest of ten children, Jenkins says his goal was to break out of the family status quo and set a positive example for his siblings. He credits his mother with helping him avoid falling into the cycle that was common for young African-American males in his community.
"For a lot of poor minority young men without hope, there were three paths: gangs, jail, or death," says Jenkins, who is a member of the Rotary Club of Fayetteville, Arkansas. "My mom wasn't going to have that for me, so she made sure my time and focus were on education and productive activities. It was all about the books and church activities for me."
With that support and his own dedication, Jenkins excelled in school, earning merit-based scholarships to the University of South Carolina for his undergraduate degree and Illinois State University for his master's.
The impact of being the first in his family to achieve success can't be overstated, he says.
"You don't have a path in your life painted for you. You can create your own path," says Jenkins, who earned master's and doctoral degrees with a focus on minority professional development. "I had to learn how to utilize every resource. I had to break down barriers. If I didn't, I would have gone into a shell of what society thought I should be. I hope I provided a platform for my family members to branch out as much as possible to become what they hope to be."
Rotary opens his world
Jenkins moved to Fayetteville in 2012 to complete his doctorate and take an administration job at the University of Arkansas. He found that campus life alone wasn't fulfilling enough, and was looking for a way to be more engaged in the community. The university's chancellor responded by inviting him to a Fayetteville Rotary club meeting, and Jenkins says he was hooked.
"I didn't know anything about Rotary at first, but after a couple of meetings, I was so impressed with the programs it had to offer," he says. "And the speakers were the movers and shakers of Fayetteville. Going to meetings was like a history lesson about the community I lived in."
When he became a Rotary member at age 24 — another family first — Jenkins was by far the youngest of its 200-plus members. But that didn't deter him from seeking out leadership positions.
Shortly after he joined, Rotary put Jenkins on a plane for the first time, landing him on another continent. His participation in a Rotary New Generations Service Exchange in Brazil took him to a "whole other level with Rotary," he says.
Jenkins spent three months there working on his doctorate, learning how Brazilian university administrators integrate with students. But he experienced more than just academic life; Jenkins says he learned to care about other people in ways he'd never thought he could.
"The same emotions I felt for my family in the U.S. I felt for my family in Brazil. Yes, we were culturally different. But there was so much in common," he says. "Exposure to different ways of life and different customs planted the seeds that would blossom into the things going on in my life now."
Investing in diversity and inclusion
Galvanized by his exchange experience, Jenkins returned to Fayetteville eager to promote change. He became his Rotary club's youth service chair and then district Youth Exchange officer, making him one of the youngest district leaders in Rotary. He's also served as the club's Rotary Youth Leadership Award chair, Rotaract faculty adviser, and Interact sponsor adviser.
When you ask Fayetteville club president Harrison Pittman what Jenkins brings to the club, he responds, "What does Todd not bring to the club?
"Since the day Todd joined, he's been a leader in many ways that have advanced Rotary principles and expanded our membership," says Pittman. "Todd is one of those special Rotarians who exemplifies what present and future Rotary is all about."
His district-level training enabled Jenkins to translate his club's business goals into tangible results.
He'd noticed that, typically, 40 to 50 of the club's 210 members didn't attend regular meetings but had paid for lunch anyway.
Seeing the empty seats as a missed opportunity, Jenkins proposed an Under 35 Rule to the club's board: Half of those available seats can be used to invite young professionals to the meeting free of charge. And if one of these guests decides to join, their dues and fees are cut in half.
Jenkins says this initiative has recruited about 12 new members since it was launched two years ago.
"If people in our community aren't exposed to Rotary, how are they going to know all that we do and accomplish? Bringing in young professionals with a financial incentive is a great way to holistically develop and fill in what's missing," he says.
Pittman is equally enthusiastic. "Young professionals considering joining Rotary are often constrained by the time and financial commitments," he says. "Our Under 35 Rule allows our club to say to interested young professionals: 'We care about you and want you to join us in changing our community and the world.' "
Tie-ing it together
Beyond Rotary, Jenkins is the founder and CEO of Bowtie Development, an international leadership management and professional development firm that focuses on bringing diverse people together to boost organizational productivity and performance.
His affinity for the necktie earned him the nickname "Dr. Bowtie." "I love it! I wish I could be called that all the time," he says with a laugh.
This month, Jenkins is leading a Young Professionals Summit in northwest Arkansas, an event cosponsored by Rotary clubs in the area. The summit's aim is to empower emerging leaders to create positive change within themselves, their workplace, and their community. Says Jenkins: "I want to showcase Rotary and encourage attendees to expose themselves to what we do."
To promote that goal, Jenkins speaks to clubs all over the world about diversity and inclusion. "I don't necessarily like using the word diversity. To me, diversity is 'fullness,' " he says. "I believe Rotary can achieve fullness through investing in our youth and diverse members. I often say to clubs, 'Let's color the Rotary pipeline with our programs like Youth Exchange and membership development.' Those are the people who already have a global experience, which I feel is crucial for Rotary's future.
"Diversity is inviting everyone to the party. Inclusion is allowing everyone at the party to dance the way they want to dance," he adds. "That's what I want for Rotary. Let's all continue the dance."