Owning It: Juanita James focuses on the positive
Updated 12:00 am, Sunday, March 19, 2017
Juanita James is nothing if not candid.
She doesn’t hesitate to talk about the hostility she faced as one of Princeton’s first female students, and how dramatically the school had changed by the time she joined its board of trustees as its first black woman.
But no matter the topic, she never loses her smile.
And she speaks without a shred of resentment. James, president and CEO of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, forever focuses on the positive.
“My mother always told me not to let others define your hopes and dreams,” she said. “Mom told me to surround myself with positive people. People who affirm you.”
While raising her daughter in Brooklyn, N.Y., James’ mother also stressed the importance of education. That commitment would take James, 64, to a string of high-powered corporate jobs and, today, one of the top philanthropic positions in the state.
The road there was not easy. In high school, her guidance counselor discouraged her from applying to Princeton. James believes the counselor may have hoped to shield her from disappointment. She applied anyway.
She recalls vividly her classmates whooping in celebration when the loudspeaker crackled, announcing she’d be attending Princeton on a full scholarship, which included a National Merit Scholarship.
The long bus ride
Once she arrived on the Ivy League campus in 1970, James perceived some professors weren’t in favor of the school’s new population of women.
The first semester was uncomfortable. She took the bus home to spend every weekend with her mother. “There were subtle ways you realized people didn’t respect you,” James said. “There were some professors who never called on women. But we were in the vanguard and determined to be successful.”
She never told her mom the truth — that she made the trek because she didn’t feel like she fit in at school. “I knew how much she sacrificed to let me have this opportunity,” James explained, a stern expression replacing her usual smile. “I wasn’t going to let her down.”
She found solace through volunteering with children at a local organization. She caught fewer homeward-bound buses the second semester, and by summer, she decided to stay in Princeton to work with the children over her break.
In 1974, James became the first in her family to graduate college.
Up the ladder
A few years after college, James got married, moved to Maryland and began working at Time Inc. as an editorial apprentice in its books division.
“I loved everything there,” she said. “I loved learning something new every day and I was surrounded by smart, creative, dynamic people.”
She and some colleagues noted ways the firm’s apprenticeship program could improve. James took their ideas to her boss and was named director of the program. Then the company told James it wanted to pay for her to attend Columbia Business School’s Executive program.
Around this time James realized she and her husband were planning different futures. They divorced. Later, she met her current husband, Dudley Williams Jr. Early on in their relationship, he turned down time with her due to a prior commitment with his father. “There was something so different about him,” she said. “About a grown man being so committed to his family.”
Her career success continued when she graduated business school in 1982 and the CEO of Time-Life Books read her thesis. It outlined how to save the company’s faltering books division, James said. “He asked how I had come up with my suggestions, which were pretty similar to what he paid to get from McKinsey,” the high-priced consulting firm.
The greatest obstacle
Running a subsidiary with 16 offices across the country, James’ work meant constant travel and her marriage meant alternating weekends between cities where she and her husband each worked. In 1989, en route to consolidating their things in their new Stamford home, Williams had to drop everything and meet his wife in Baltimore, where she had gone into labor — four months before her due date.
It was then she dealt with her greatest challenge.
Faced with a job and newborn son, Dudley III, who weighed less than 2 lbs. and had suffered bleeding in his brain due to his premature birth, James decided to stop working and focus on her child. “I don’t think it was a really a choice,” she said. “When you have a child, your first obligation is to them.”
Most of the following year was spent at the hospital. They were difficult days, but the lingering memory is of a son who wouldn’t give up. “He had spirit, heart and fight,” James said. That kind of stress could tear marriages apart, she acknowledged, but she and her husband used it to draw closer together.
“She’s the queen of ‘we’ll get through this,’” said Williams, to whom James has been married for almost 30 years. “She did everything for our son. She made sure he knew that he was the center of our lives. He now tells that to people often.”
Dudley Williams III is now marketing coordinator at John Hancock Financial Services. He is also an ambassador for Best Buddies, which has a job placement program for adults with intellectual disabilities and helped him find his own job.
A year after her son’s birth, James returned to work at Time Inc. and accepted a position as vice president of Book-of-the-Month Club — a “step back” from her job before taking time off.
But that didn’t stop James from aiming high. She eventually wound her way through several corporate positions and was elevated to chief marketing and communications officer at Stamford-based Pitney Bowes.
There, she was a “visionary leader,” according to Matthew Broder, who reported to James. “She’s very open. ... And those who work for her are fiercely loyal. The anchor for that is the vulnerability she expresses,” which is a rare trait among leaders of her stature, he added.
James retired from Pitney in 2010 and planned to take some time off. A year later, she was recruited to run Fairfield County’s Community Foundation.
Her career contains countless accomplishments, including being named Stamford’s Citizen of the Year, being included in Savoy Magazine’s 2016 list of Most Influential Black Corporate Directors and guiding numerous nonprofits and philanthropies. Most importantly, James cites raising her son, who lives and works in Boston, as her crowning achievement.
When James traces her career, she doesn’t gloss over hurdles she faced, but she never dwells on being treated unfairly. It mirrors how she says she wants to see society tackle similar challenges.
“We need to tone down the level of combativeness in our language and be more gracious to each other,” James said. “We need to acknowledge each other’s differences without it being a criticism. There’s a fine line between speaking up without it becoming a threat.
“There seems to always be periods of great dissatisfaction and usually we come out of it with great leadership, because in the end, people want to be happy. As leaders, we need to generate that. Each of us has that power.”
MBennett@greenwichtime.com, 203-625-4411; Twitter @Macaela_