Gaining ground and giving back

Gaining ground and giving back

Lindsey Giardino /
Valerie Jennings

As a student at the University of Northern Iowa, Valerie Jennings, ‘01, had no idea what her future career would look like. What she did know, though, was that to gain a baseline for how to work with people from all backgrounds and personalities, she’d need to seek out classes and internships with an international focus.

And she did just that.

Jennings, the first person in her immediate family to graduate college, pursued a degree in political communication, as well as double minors in international affairs and journalism.

After graduating in 2001, she worked in a few internships in Washington, D.C., political campaigns and state legislature roles before launching Jennings Social Media and MarTech (JSMM) at the age of 24. To get the agency off the ground, Jennings worked with more than 20 political candidates in Kansas over the course of a year and a half — a period during which she met many financial contributors, one of whom had a successful business and asked if she thought her skillset was transferrable to the private sector.

She thought, why not? Jennings took him on as a client, knowing it was a big career shift, and loved it.

Today, JSMM consists of about 30 professionals with clients all over the world, from public to private, small to enterprise. The agency focuses primarily on digital marketing, advertising, social media, content marketing and creative services. JSMM is honing in on AI marketing as one of its core service offerings as well.

“We’ve always been an early adopter of tech since 2005 when we started doing social media,” Jennings said.

Because there can be ethical issues surrounding the technology, Jennings shared that ethics in AI is a key driver for her team. She draws from skills she learned as a UNI student to help guide her team in this area, especially from a media law class she took with Anelia Dimitrova.

“A lot of the foundation in that class can be applied to some of these attribution, sourcing and copyright issues we’re seeing with AI,” Jennings said. “That class was probably the most valuable class I took at UNI, not just because of this AI, but because everything I do has a potential copyright issue associated with it.”

Jennings feels that with this new era of AI — and any new technology, really — people need to raise questions. She first learned to do this at UNI, when her courses were based around questioning. “Why?” “Is this true?” “What is the bias behind it?”

Because of this commitment to questioning and not just accepting what’s “truth,” it’s no wonder Jennings is known as an early adopter of technology.

Jennings has also received such accolades as a 2021 Gold Stevie® Award for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in the advertising, marketing and public relations from the CEO category; 2021 Silver Stevie® Award for Marketing Executive of the Year; 2021 Top Women In Media Honoree by FOLIO:; and DMN’s National Marketer of the Year 2020.

She is passionate about giving back, too.

In addition to JSMM’s purpose of educating, leading and inspiring others by providing cutting-edge digital marketing and advertising resources, the agency supports numerous non-profits focused on animal welfare, children, families, women and girls.

“Through the course of all this, we’ve been able to do a lot of mentoring with young women and girls and contribute to lots of charities along the way,” Jennings said.

Her commitment to giving back started in earnest when the agency was just four years old and she was volunteering and contributing monthly to Safehome in Kansas City. Today, she gives to organizations such as the Rose Brooks Center, which provides domestic violence programming, and KC Digital Drive.

“My life has been greatly impacted by domestic violence and sexual assault,” she said. “[So now I feel] it’s not just about earning a good living, it’s also about building a good community around us.”

Jennings’ philosophy behind giving is simply that it’s a social responsibility. This also drives her dedication to mentoring.

“It’s important everyone have a mentor, no matter how old or successful,” she said. “If we can start small, those efforts over time really add up.”

Jennings still gets excited when she runs into old interns from JSMM. She recently caught up with an intern whom she helped get a job at a big company in Florida. Upon their run in, the former intern told her:

You changed my life. You’re responsible for my career. I wouldn’t have done these things if you hadn’t believed in me.

To Jennings, helping this intern get a job just made sense. For the woman, it changed her life.

“These small efforts change people,” Jennings said.

It’s why Jennings established a policy at JSMM where employees can either work fully remote or come into the office. This has helped the many women on her team juggle their career interests with their families, ultimately facilitating new career growth.

For Jennings, as she reflects on her time at UNI and all that she’s carried with her over her journey, gratitude shines through.

“I think UNI is a fantastic school,” she said. “I feel the time I spent there was invaluable to cultivating my basic understanding of the world.”

She added, “I feel the investment I personally made in the university, since I paid for my education, was a very good one. But because I took it so seriously, I went out of my way to set very deliberate intentions. You’re going to get out of it what you put into it.”