This blog post is included as part of the “Her Story” series, which celebrates the stories of pivotal women in our students' lives that inspire, motivate and embolden them. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the ideas, views or opinions of LAAF.org.
I met Jenny Xia Spradling for the first time in September 2016, at an event for the social-good minded at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. It was just a few minutes, but she was obviously brilliant, tenacious, and kind. I didn’t realize how quickly she would become one of my heroes.
Within a week, we had ten more conversations about how to have the biggest possible impact on the world––and decided to start a company together to bring one of these ideas to life. Working alongside Jenny in the 2.5 years since have been the adventure of a lifetime, and we’re just getting started.
Jenny was a legacy leader long before I met her. Though her former life in private equity was grueling, she carved out time to launch “Boston Women in Private Equity” to support her female peers in an environment that was more than 90% male. Many of the women in the organization were the only female investors at their firm, and used the space to talk through everything from how to talk sports to develop rapport with primarily white, male-run portfolio companies to how to advocate for adequate maternity leave at a firm that has never had to think about establishing a policy.
And though she was a ferocious worker at Harvard (finishing near the top of her class in applied mathematics), she was such an effective mentor to so many that her college classmates routinely apply to work with us because they can’t wait to learn from Jenny again.
Our company, FreeWill, has grown faster than I could have ever imagined, in large part thanks to Jenny’s leadership. We’ve gone from a team of 5 to 26 in just 9 months. We’ve raised $360 million for charity.
We’ve been successful because our team is just amazing. And our team is amazing because Jenny has helped to create a diverse, welcoming, inspiring culture where people feel embraced and supported in being their best selves.
First, Jenny creates space for others by unapologetically being herself. She and I are co-CEOs, but are extremely different: I’m a tall white male from the Northeast who derives joy and energy from being around other people and spikes in creativity, excitement-building, and narrative. Jenny is a foot shorter, much more detail-oriented and quantitative, and has written beautifully in Marie Claire about how being raised by Chinese immigrant parents in the Pacific Northwest has given her a different path to entrepreneurship.
Jenny routinely speaks about our differences (and how the diversity between us has been such a strength for the company), which has allowed others to feel like they can bring their unique strengths and backgrounds to FreeWill and that those will be celebrated, rather than being asked to assimilate.
And second, Jenny has helped to create a community that is built around shared values, rather than shared backgrounds. Our values are: Focus, kindness, joy, and courage. Or to put it in another way, here’s the message that Jenny’s legacy leadership sends to our whole team, and to me:
Focus only on the things that are most important. Have the courage to stride into them, even when we don’t know exactly how we’ll get there. Know that you’ll be treated with exceptional kindness, whether or not you succeed (and that we expect the same of you). And we’ll take joy in this whole adventure together.