Making a Difference
by Hilary Kraus
Photography by Christian Lee
There’s an aura of self-confidence in Donna Klein that quickly comes across in conversation. She approaches topics in businesslike fashion, like she’s been around a meeting room table a few thousand times. Donna is comfortable talking about her accomplishments. Things that didn’t work out as planned are also open for discussion.
“I was interviewing a woman a few months ago,” Donna said. “I asked her how she recovers from her failures, and she responded that she really hadn’t had any failures. Because I used the word ‘failures,’ I changed it to ‘stumbles.’ You know, you learn from your failures.”
Indeed. But in Donna’s case, her notable achievements outweigh her failures. Much of Donna’s career was dedicated to helping lower-wage hourly workers cope with stresses in their family lives.
She worked at Marriott International’s headquarters in Bethesda, Md., for about 22 years, the majority of the time heading programs focused on corporate-wide diversity and work-life initiatives. When she retired, Donna was Vice President of Workplace Effectiveness.
“I became aware, through networking with many companies, that employers were in the habit of putting their heads in the sand about lower-wage employees. Although unspoken, hourly employees were pretty much invisible and disposable,” Donna said.
Donna’s determination to succeed in business started in her late teenage years while growing up in Akron, Ohio. Her first professional job was as a secretary at American tire manufacturer, BFGoodrich. While working her way through college, she climbed the corporate ladder and eventually reached the level of working for the company’s CEO. “It couldn’t be a better training ground,” Donna said.
Her niche became managing training functions, specifically in information technology (IT). After 20 years of service, and eligible for retirement, Donna, 38 at the time, said she was ready to spread her wings and test her skills outside her hometown. As a highly competent project manager, skillful at hiring and a creative thinker, there was so much more to take on. “I was very curious. Are my skills transferable or is it just because I know this system?” she asked herself.
The answers came after moving to Washington, D.C., Donna felt like she hit the jackpot when she was hired by Marriott International in the IT department. But yes, there was a “stumble” along the way with the head of her division. It ended up being a classic case of one door closing and another opening.
Donna transferred to the human resources department, where she began building Marriott’s work-place flexibility program. One day, she unexpectedly received a handwritten note from her former supervisor. It said, “Congratulations on getting the new job. You’ll be very, very good at it. You were too powerful for this job."
Donna said she and her former supervisor have remained amicable throughout the years. “I think I even went to his retirement party. But I never talked about that incident,” said Donna, spoken like a true professional.
During Donna’s final years at Marriott, one of her biggest achievements came outside the corporation when she founded a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization called Corporate Voices for Working Families. Donna served as Executive Chair and CEO for the forward-thinking company of more than 50 partners that represented the private sector on social policies, as well as public and corporate policies supporting working families. The organization operated from 2001-2012 until obtaining philanthropic funding became increasingly difficult and resulted in closing the firm.
“I realized that the road to helping wage employees was through public policy,” said Donna, whose experience at Marriott and in nonprofits led her to testify on Capitol Hill. The goal was to educate policymakers about best practices from big business. “It was so far ahead of government practices,” Donna added.
Donna said up until then, there had not been any laws passed other than the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) that fell under the category of social policies. The result of Donna and others testifying played a major role in Congress launching a campaign to encourage employers in workplace flexibility.
Today, Donna and her husband Ron Jacob are enjoying the good life on Dataw Island. “I’m happy to be retired. I didn’t know if I was going to like it, but I really am happy,” Donna said. “You can choose what you want to do when you want to do it."
Her days are filled with exercising, reading, cooking and entertaining. At the request of her husband, learning how to play golf is on the to-do list. “It’s been quite an experience,” she said.
But true to her character, Donna also has set out to make a difference. She’s on the board at the nonprofit hunger relief organization Second Helpings and is on the steering committee of the Women’s Leadership Development for Beaufort County, where she is one of the leading organizers of a three-session program (June 11, Sept. 10, Jan. 14) geared toward “young professional women.”
“Between leisure activities, the Women’s League work and a position on the board at Second Helping, life is full,” Donna said.
Background: Born and raised in Akron, Ohio. Retired to Dataw Island in 2012. Second of four children. Husband Ron Jacobs, together 12 years; daughter Brandelyn Klein, married and lives in in NYC; two step-grandchildren who also live in NYC.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Akron; graduate studies in organization psychology at Kent State University.
Last fiction book read: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty.
What is your opinion on raising the minimum wage? “The litmus test for deciding if the minimum wage is adequate should be whether it can sustain a family.”