Brainstorm Tech Spotlight: Jennifer Dulski, President and COO of Change.org

July 11, 2013: 11:34 AM ET

Why every leader should be empathetic.

Jen closeup office background (1)FORTUNE -- Fortune's Brainstorm Tech Conference (July 22-24 in Aspen, Colo.) regularly brings together the best and brightest minds in tech innovation. Each week, Fortune turns the spotlight on a different conference attendee to offer his or her own personal insight into business, tech, and entrepreneurship. This week, we asked Change.org President and COO Jennifer Dulski to answer 10 questions about life outside of work, the company she admires most, and industry advice for young entrepreneurs. Her responses follow.

What is the best advice you ever received?

It came from a research study by one of my favorite Cornell professors, Thomas Gilovich, focusing on regret. The research concluded, "Actions, or errors of commission, generate more regret in the short-term; but inactions, or errors of omission, produce more regret in the long run." In other words, while people in the short-term regret "bad" choices, like trying out for something and getting rejected or choosing a job and deciding they don't like it, things are different when they look back on their lives: they most often regret the things they did not try, like not accepting a certain job offer, or not asking out that person they really liked. I often think of this research when faced with a decision, and it pushes me to try new things and challenge myself.

What was the most important thing you learned in school?

The teachers who challenged me the most were also the ones I learned the most from in school. I remember a particular high school teacher of mine, Joe DiPrisco, who had impeccably high standards for strong writing and correct grammar. Even though it was uncomfortable to be corrected, I finished his class as a much stronger writer. I believe the same principle holds true in business – understand that those who push you will make you better, and surround yourself with people who aren't afraid to challenge you. Similarly, others on your team are more likely to exhibit excellence when you expect it of them, so keep your standards high.

What has been your biggest failure?

There's one big mistake I made as a first time entrepreneur that I still laugh about. I named my startup's first product with an apostrophe. In the desire to get a name we could afford without paying through the nose for a domain, I chose "Center'd" (because "Centered" was taken and we couldn't afford to buy it). Not only is an apostrophe a "special character" that caused all kinds of issues in the code for our website, but it was also nearly impossible to speak about Center'd in the possessive, since it then had a double apostrophe! My main learning was this: pick a name that's easy to spell, helps to clearly explain what you do, and, ideally, works around the world. "Center'd" did none of those things. But "The Dealmap," the name for our second product, did all three – and boy, was it easier to give our elevator pitch and to get people to use our product.

What do you do to live a balanced life?

I focus on being a present parent. When I look back on my childhood and young adult years, one of the things I remember clearly is that my parents were always there. They were both working parents, and yet they showed their support for me by coming to important events, even in the middle of a work day. That support helped give me confidence that I could take risks and aim big.

Now that I'm a parent myself, I want my children to feel that I'm there to support them. I leave work early to attend their dance recitals, school concerts, and other events. I even take them to nearly all of their appointments (doctors, dentists, orthodontists,

etc.) – not because I need to, but because I want them to know I care about all the things they do, not just the big events. (Plus, I like spending time with them!)

Of course, there are times when I just can't make it, so I work hard to make sure I'm present for them whenever I possibly can be.

What would you do if you weren't working at your current job?

There's honestly nowhere I'd rather work – I've always wanted to blend my passion for building big internet companies and my desire to drive global [and] social impact, and Change.org is the ideal place to do both. But, if I were not doing this, I could imagine going back to teaching, which I did early in my career and loved.

What do you do for fun?

My two favorite activities are spending time with my family and friends and traveling to learn about other places around the world. I look forward to taking my daughters to visit some of the 18 countries where we have Change.org offices.

What would you say to a group of young people looking to enter the tough job market?

First, believe in yourself. The first time you do anything, you've never done it before, so the best thing to do is give it your all and learn as much as you can from others. Remember that we were all there at some point – everyone who interviews you and everyone you'll be working with as well – so don't get intimidated. Second, look for work you believe is worthwhile. There's nothing better than working in a place where the time you invest in your job and the impact you make on the world are aligned.

What other companies do you admire? Why?

I admire what LinkedIn has created. It started as a useful tool for professionals to build their profiles and connect to each other, but it had a problem with low user engagement. But over time, new tools like "LinkedIn Today" and the influencer blog network have made the site a very engaging place to spend time. This combination of a highly useful professional tool with a diverse and strong business model really sets LinkedIn apart.

What is one characteristic that every leader should possess?

Empathy.

I believe the best leaders are excellent at listening to those around them and synthesizing their insights into great ideas. The best leaders can put themselves in others' shoes, understanding the pain points of their customers and building products that creatively solve those problems. Strong leaders also exhibit empathy for their teams, recognizing people are motivated by different things and helping them find roles and projects that leverage their strengths and bring out their best work.

Is business school necessary for entrepreneurs?

I'm a big fan of business school, both for what you learn and for the people you have the chance to meet. I still use plenty of the things I learned in business school, from negotiation tactics to financial modeling. That said, I believe it's possible to master the skills of great entrepreneurs – primarily customer focus, creativity, and relentless persistence – through other channels as well. In fact, I think business schools need to adapt to do a better job preparing students to become entrepreneurs. The only way to really learn what it takes is to try it, and both undergraduate and graduate schools should be helping students get more real-life entrepreneurship experience beyond classroom learning. I'm excited about some of the programs coming out in this arena.

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