Jenny Dearborn Spent Her Childhood in Special-ed Classes. Now She Has Four Kids and a Dream Job. | Working Mother

Jenny Dearborn Spent Her Childhood in Special-ed Classes. Now She Has Four Kids and a Dream Job.

She was diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD and mild OCD. Here's how this top exec succeeded against all odds.

To Jenny Dearborn, her job at the world’s largest B-to-B software company, SAP, is like being the chancellor of a university. That’s because as chief learning officer, she is responsible for understanding SAP’s big picture, and its goals and strategies, so she can translate it into what 85,000 employees in 190 countries need to know and do to achieve the company’s vision.

“I assess our people’s knowledge, skills and abilities, and figure out that they need to do more of this or less of that, so we can build a plan to bring our talent into the future,” says the San Francisco-area mom of four. (Her kids include Devon, 23, Jack, 18, Cloe, 15, and Cooke, 13. Her husband, John Tarlton, is a real estate developer.) Her work includes training, coaching, mentoring, guiding on-the-job experiences and job rotations. “It’s called learning, but a lot falls into the category. Fortunately, I have a huge support staff who helps me figure it all out!”

Never mind that this learning leader struggled in school and was in special-ed classes until at 18 she was diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD and mild OCD. (And she ended up getting a bachelor’s at UC Berkeley and a master’s at Stanford.)

She even wrote a book last year called Data Driven, about using data analytics to improve performance. And oh yes, in her spare time (really?), she runs marathons, competes in power weight lifting and paints superheroes.

We ask, how?

Here, she describes her typical day.

5:30 a.m.

If, say, my first meeting is at 6 a.m., I get up at 5:30 and pretty much go right into my home office to get on the phone. I’m typically talking with people in Europe, internal clients, or external customers who are our product buyers, like Apple or GM or Lufthansa. I share my expertise about talent transformation with my peers in those companies—a value-added service that SAP officers.


Jenny Dearborn and son

Jenny says the best part of her day is having breakfast with her son Cooke. "I love waking him up and singing to him, and just being crazy in the morning with him. I sing, “Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning ...,” and he moans, and I rile him up.

Jenna Alcala Photography

7:00 a.m.

I take no calls. I go into my 13-year-old’s bedroom and say, “Wakey- wakey, eggs and bakey,” as I rouse and jostle him. I make Cooke his breakfast, put lunch together, have a cup of tea, and sit with him. My total focus is on my son—no media or phones. I get him on his bike at 7:45, and he rides to school in our small town. Then I grill and eat an egg, egg white and flaxseed mixture, sometimes rolled with peanut butter or asparagus. My husband, John, is around too. I’m not a great cook, but I do breakfast to connect with my family.

(Three kids are away right now: Devon plays for the Green Bay Packers; Jack is at college; and Cloe is at boarding school.)

7:45 a.m.

I brush my hair and put on a bit of makeup for the day. Sometimes I stay home to work, but mostly I’ll go to the office. I might do a call while I’m getting ready.

8 a.m.

My husband and I both leave to go to our offices; he rides his bike, and I drive 15 minutes.

8:30 a.m.

I’m in the office. Since I’m the executive anchor for my department, I check in with people, engage and chat a bit. It’s important to be a visible presence. Then I’m at my desk on the phone or in meetings in conference rooms on our campus of 11 buildings in Palo Alto Hills.


Jenny Dearborn SAP

Jenny's work day at SAP typically runs from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., but she logs back in at night.

Jenna Alcala Photography

12 p.m.

I have lunch in the corporate cafeteria, a spinach salad with chicken most every day. I try to eat with others at my office, so I’m always in that public space. A former CEO of mine ate lunch in the corporate dining room every day to be accessible and visible, and that was an influence on me. Sometimes during lunch my kids will text me about how their school day is going.

1 p.m.

More of the same: calls and meetings with clients. Plus I mix in some quiet time to research documents and papers.

3:45 p.m.

I text John about what we should do for dinner, and he’ll say: “Chinese food. I’ll pick it up on the way home,” and I’ll say, "Phew." Or I might pick up a roasted chicken or pizza.

4 p.m.

I go to the gym near my office for an hour. I stretch, then warm up on the treadmill, then lift weights. Then I cool down and go home.


I get home from the gym. John might be home, and usually Cooke and his friends will be there. Everyone comes and goes, since we don’t live far from school. I have fruit and healthy chips for them to snack on and water bottles. There might be four or five 13-year-old boys jumping on the trampoline. I engage with them about their day.

6:30 p.m.

I start putting dinner together, usually with a protein, a veggie and a starch, unless we’re having take-out that night.


Jenny Dearborn and family

From left to right: Jenny's daughter Cloe, husband John, and sons Cooke and Jack. With the family's dog, Lucy, of course.

Jenna Alcala Photography

7 p.m.

Dinner is with John, Cooke and any of his friends who want to stay.

7:30 p.m.

I shoo away any guests after the boys do the dishes. We’ll then launch into homework stuff. My kids have all been independent and self-driven, so I don’t have to ride Cooke at all. I just check in.

8 p.m.

After homework, the three of us like to play cards for a while, like Presidents and other games Cooke learned at Boy Scouts. (He’s a Star Scout, and my husband is an assistant scoutmaster.) We start the bedtime process at 8:30. I like Cooke to be in bed by 9.

9 p.m.

I’m back online and working. I read emails, create presentations, and read and edit documents, white papers and various other projects of my staff. John might go to a night city council meeting or a review meeting since he works with city agencies as a developer.

10 p.m.

I try to go to bed, if I’m lucky, but I might work until 11. We don’t watch TV at all. I might listen to a book on tape while I paint. Because of my dyslexia and ADHD, I need to multitask— my brain is more calm when I have a lot of stimuli. So if I’m listening to a book, I like to do something with my body as well, which helps me hear. I go through three or four books a week on Recent books I’ve “read” are Saving Capitalism by Robert Reich and An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I also love Doris Kearns Goodwin.



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