Jessica Brewer is the Senior Vice President of Engineering and Global Services and is responsible for managing client implementations and software delivery across the Benefitfocus Portfolio of Products and Services. Her extensive understanding of software engineering, business operations, infrastructure and application deployments, as well as her knowledge of our products, software and services helps advance the Benefitfocus Platform through the use of innovative technologies. Brewer earned a Master of Science in Software Engineering Management from the University of Maryland and a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics with a Minor in Computer Science from the College of Charleston.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Growing up, the importance of education was always top of mind. My parents, grandparents and other family members stressed how education and learning can present you many opportunities in life. Knowledge is one of the few things that can never be taken away from you. I guess the saying, "knowledge is power" rang very true for me. It gave me confidence. I worked hard to put myself through undergraduate and graduate school. Even pregnancy and childbirth did not slow me down from working a full time job and getting my Master's degree. I could have easily used the excuse that I was too busy or didn't have enough time, but I strongly believe that you are a victim of your circumstances only so long and then it is your own fault if you fail to challenge yourself. Too many people find excuses for inaction.
How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Benefitfocus?
I was taught the value of hard work early in my life. When I was younger, my family owned a small set of businesses. They worked hard and never shied away from even doing the most menial of tasks. When I was in high school I worked for them and saw first hand how they were dedicated, hard-working and caring business owners. They supported their employees (put several through college even), and actively supported the community.
In each position I have held at various companies, I have applied a similar philosophy or approach.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Benefitfocus?
One of the highlights of my tenure at Benefitfocus was being part of the senior management team when we took the company public. I was so proud of all we had accomplished and the company we have built. To be part of the opening bell ceremony at the NASDAQ was an incredible experience. Women are too often underrepresented in senior management and on many boards in the field of technology. I feel empowered at Benefitfocus because I am respected for my knowledge, management style and skills that I bring to the table. My accomplishments speak for me, my gender is not the determining factor of how I am treated.
The greatest challenge, which I embrace wholeheartedly, is being an executive and a mother. The level of contribution I make to Benefitfocus is demanding and I take those responsibilities very seriously. I realize that for our company to be successful, I must focus my attention on both tactical and strategic initiatives. It isn't a 9 am to 5 pm job and neither is being a parent. The ability to balance my responsibilities as a mother and to be available to my children and active in their lives while contributing to the rapid growth of a fast-paced company is an accomplishment I am very proud of.
What advice can you offer women who are looking for a career in technology?
There were many times when I was the only woman in my class at school or in a boardroom for a meeting, but I never saw this as a disadvantage. If anything, it provided an opportunity for me to stand out. There is a delicate age where standing out is not what you want to do especially in teen years, but I have embraced being atypical in the technology field and have found it to be a very rewarding career.
My advice to anyone, but especially women, is don't presume limitations as a result of gender. The opportunities for women in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) related career are growing but if you see limitations, so will others. Of course I am not ignoring that there is disparity in the number of women in these fields, I am simply suggesting that we not further contribute to this disparity.
I would also suggest finding mentors. Throughout my career I have been aligned to strong mentors-- female and male. Learning from others, regardless of gender, is a great way to expand your horizons and career opportunities.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I am always a mom first and foremost. While I take pride in every job, being a mother is the one job where I cannot afford to fail. That said, I have worked hard to maintain a balance. Some days I am better at it then others, but I have found what works for me and my family, often integrating the two. For example, it is not uncommon to see my children at the office on release weekends, or for me to take a work call on the soccer field. Everyone is different and what works for me may not work for others, one size does not fit all, but I like to think I set an example for others that it can be done.
Time management has also been a skill that I have fine-tuned over the years. Sometimes this means working after the kids go to bed or leaving work during the day to attend an event for one of my children. As my role has evolved or my children go through different stages, how I spend my day and balance both has had to evolve. This is ok.
I am also incredibly lucky to be working for a company like Benefitfocus. The culture very much promotes a work hard environment, but associates are encouraged to take care of themselves and their families. Other companies are beginning to adopt this culture, which will help everyone balance the many roles they have in life.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
As a general statement, unfortunately it is probably equal pay for equal work, and getting more women in senior and executive level positions.
Like we promote at Benefitfocus, we need more companies recognizing what the female half of the population has much to offer.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
A mentor is defined as a teacher or advisor. Whether we realize it or not, we've all had mentors throughout our lives. Our parents, relatives, close family friends have all had influence and taught us important values and beliefs. I have been very fortunate to have had excellent personal mentors who I looked up to and learned from. I believe if you work to find a professional mentor as well, your career potential is unlimited. It is a collaborative relationship that allows both people to learn and grow and most importantly, you will strive to become a mentor to someone else in the future.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Sheryl Sandberg - as a mother and as a leader. I like that she sees opportunities and 'leans in' and takes it.
In my career, I have personally been exposed to some incredible women whom I admire greatly. I have learned a lot from each of them. I have been privileged to see them succeed at different stages in their careers. I also saw them take time for themselves, which I believe is a vital component to success.
What do you want Benefitfocus to accomplish in the next year?
It is my desire that we continue hiring the talent that will bring in new ideas, drive innovation and challenge us. We have created an environment that supports innovation, and I want to continue seeing that creation and creativity for many years to come.