March 3, 2024

Claiming a Career

Junkyard dog – that’s how UMW alumna Jena Abernathy describes herself. Fresh out of college, she had the street smarts and savvy assertiveness that would propel her to the top – or so she thought.

Just a few years later, Abernathy found herself reluctantly headed to charm school for some professional polish. Three days of executive coaching later, she walked out of an experience that proved to be a turning point for her career.

Today, the Southern business woman is the author of The Inequality Equalizer, a book about claiming career success that paves the way for other professionals to make it into the C-suite. A managing partner and chair of Board Services at executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, Abernathy uses her own life lessons to explain why you need to balance your inner junkyard with pedigree to find success.

“It takes both the scrappy tenacity of a ‘junkyard dog’ coupled with the refined polish of a ‘pedigree’ to move ahead,” said Abernathy. “You have to understand that it is not just hard work that will make you successful.”

With more than 20 years in executive leadership, Abernathy has found the sweet spot between the two. Fast-tracked early in her career, she’s made a name for herself as an expert in human resource management and has been featured in the media and leading industry publications.

Having found her own success, she aims to give back to those who come behind her.

“I have witnessed too many talented professionals derail in their careers because they ‘did not know what they did not know,’” explained Abernathy, who divides her time between Florida and North Carolina. “You have to learn the social skills and nuances that will help you navigate the political forces.”

A co-host for the on-campus television station during her time at UMW, the class of 1984 business major praises her Mary Washington education for positioning her for the future.

“The business curriculum focused on my core passion while the required classes outside of my major taught me how to think differently, solve problems and navigate issues,” said Abernathy. “That’s what is so valuable about a liberal arts education.”

So what advice does a jet-setting executive have for determined college students today?

“Don’t settle,” said Abernathy. “Hold out for what motivates you, go for it, and when you get it – own it.”