Jennifer Owen 40-40

Jennifer Owen 40-40 winner.

LARRY MAYER Gazette Staff

Age: 39

Hometown: Billings, Montana

From law school to politics to journalism to Head Start, how did your career take you in so many directions?

I have been incredibly lucky to have had some wonderful and diverse career opportunities, but I don’t really see them as different directions. I want to help others and serve my community. So whether that’s telling people’s stories as a journalist, helping create jobs and economic growth through law and public policy, or immersing myself in the challenges faced by vulnerable women and children, the common thread for me is service.

What is the accomplishment that you’re most proud of?

I don’t know if I would call it an accomplishment, but I’m really proud of the caliber of people in my life. I have a team at Explorers Academy that I am so lucky to work with every day, as well as an amazing network of friends and family that love and support me. I have a very blessed life.

What was the best advice you ever got?

“You don’t have to know the answer to every question, but you need to know how to get it answered with one phone call.” It was such great advice. It taught me to build good relationships with people from lots of different backgrounds. It taught me to be curious, to learn from people from all walks of life. It taught me that no one succeeds alone. But most importantly, it taught me about integrity. I learned that part of being able to seek answers to questions means being the kind of person who can get calls returned. I learned to help others, just as I had been helped. I learned to be genuine and build lasting relationships.

What was the toughest challenge you’ve faced?

Putting my life back together after my first husband, Kurt Owen, died in 2009. He was my high school sweetheart and soulmate. Finding purpose again, trusting in God’s plan for my life…even just smiling and laughing was an enormous challenge. There were many, many days that I just wished for my own life to end as well. To a large extent, I am still working through that challenge, trying to orient myself in a world that I never expected to be in.

You work with families and children in need of support, how do you guard against burnout?

Honestly, I don’t think about it much. We all need support at times, so I don’t see myself as all that different from the families enrolled in our program. The vast majority of people we work with are moms (and dads) who want the best for their kids. Our abilities vary with our circumstances, but in general, I feel pretty connected to the families we serve. I easily get as much as I give in the course of a day. But, like anyone, I do need my downtime. I love to cook, garden, and watch really, really bad television. A good cup of coffee with a friend does a lot for me as well.

Why have you chosen to make Billings your home?

Billings is my home. I was born and raised here. This is the community I want to serve.

What experience best prepared you for the job you have now?

Certainly, my time as an attorney helps immensely. Head Start programs have a lot of federal, and increasingly state, regulations to comply with, and I have spent a fair bit of time working on regulatory compliance. But nothing has prepared me better for this job than being a mom. My son was five months old when I started at Explorers Academy. Watching him grow and develop impressed upon me so vividly the importance of the first five years of life. I see every day how critical it is that young children have rich opportunities to play, experience new things, be challenged, fall and get up again, and have stable, loving adults in their lives. Nothing could make our mission more real to me than living it every day myself.

Who was your greatest mentor?

That is a tough question, honestly. I have been guided and challenged in my personal and professional development by some incredible people, and I am not sure I could pick just one.

What’s your favorite book and why?

"Silence," by Shusaku Endo. It is a vivid depiction of the complexity of faith, of the challenges we battle in our minds when we feel like God is silent in the face of suffering. It highlights the human weaknesses in all of us, as well as the consequences of rationalization.

What word best describes you?

Driven. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a restlessness inside me, a need to make my life meaningful. I hope to leave a positive mark on this Earth.