Taking the high road to success
Kimberly Jenkins has been through some surreal experiences during her 15-year career in information technology. For example, she recalls the time computer maverick Steve Jobs visited her home and skated around her living room. She has guided Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on a virtual tour of the human ear.
And how many people can take credit for explaining to a 24-year-old Bill Gates the importance of computers in the education market?
Now, as founder and executive director of Highway 1, Jenkins is educating occasionally less-than-savvy legislators on the ins and outs of IT.
Highway 1, which was named after the first U.S. highway designed to connect disparate communities, was founded on the premise that members of Congress and the executive branch should have firsthand knowledge about technology.
"If a member of Congress wants to understand a topic, we can pull in experts from industry who can, for example, help them understand what encryption is," Jenkins said. "The industry people bring in their technical experts, but no one in that room will tell the members of Congress how to vote on any issue. It allows the congressmen to get untainted information."
Jenkins, whose background was with companies such as Microsoft Corp. and NeXT, devised the idea for Highway 1 after a conversation with Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.). Jenkins had been working with other IT executives to set up "new media centers" at universities throughout the country where educators and students could learn about the latest multimedia gadgets. Kerry suggested that Jenkins set up something similar for the Senate.
"I'm the kind of entrepreneurial person who thought that was a great idea," Jenkins said. "I later found out from his staff that Kerrey has ideas like that every hour. Most people don't take them so seriously."
Jenkins said the idea has flourished. She said the Clinton administration was so impressed that it set up Highway 1 with its own node on the Next Generation Internet (NGI). The organization mostly works with agencies that want to use technology to solve their problems but first need a little hands-on education. But members of Congress also visit Highway 1's Washington, D.C., office to learn about subjects such as NGI.
Frist, a former heart surgeon, used the Highway 1 facilities to view a 3-D model of the ear. "He said it was the first time he really understood what the ear is," Jenkins said. "A week later, he called a hearing on the Next Generation Internet."
Jenkins began her high-tech career in 1983 at Microsoft, which at the time employed about 100 people. "I was brought into Microsoft as a software developer, which makes my friends fall on the ground with laughter; I'm just not technical," she said.
Although the education market has since become a huge component of Microsoft's business, Jenkins said the toughest job she had in her four years there was convincing her young bosses of the need for a division dedicated to customers in education.
When she first brought the proposal to Gates' right-hand man, Steve Balmer, she said she was told it was the stupidest idea Balmer had ever heard. Jenkins subsequently prepared her resignation, but Gates asked her to stay. He gave her an assistant and a travel budget to use to see if her idea would fly. Jenkins said her sales to the education market soon made up 10 percent of Microsoft's revenue.
Jenkins then moved to NeXT, where she served as director of market development. Jenkins was often treated to visits by company founder Steve Jobs, who lived a few blocks away from her. She said Jobs often showed up at her house wearing in-line skates, leaving her fearful for the safety of her new furniture.
"Bill Gates and especially Steve Jobs taught me the value of marketing and understanding the needs of the customer," Jenkins said. "Steve taught me more about the value of aesthetics. Even the offices at NeXT had to look a certain way."
Jenkins, who earned a Ph.D. in educational administration from Duke University, said education has been a thread running through her entire life. Her mother taught kindergarten, her father was superintendent of schools in Delaware, and her sister is a teacher.
Jenkins said her commitment to education has been reinforced by her experience raising two sons, who are 9 and 12 years old. Although her children are familiar with computers, she said she has tried to moderate their computer time.
"I've been careful about introducing both of my children to technology," she said. "I feel that it is important for children to be out playing basketball or building a fort. I have no problem getting my children interested in computers. The problem is getting them interested in other aspects of life."