Mary Jensen, 31
Lives: Seattle, Washington
Nominated by: Liberty Tillemann-Dick
Mary Jensen is described by those who know her best as a ‘big picture gal.’ She’s a materials science engineer with an MBA from MIT who is passionate about inspiring young girls to pursue STEM degrees.
But she is also an adventurous and brave soul whose joie de vivre is infectious. She’s travelled the world, climbed mountains, camped roadside as well as met and retained a troupe of loyal friends from near and far over the years. She’s speaks quickly and laughs easily as she tells me about recent changes in her professional and personal life that saw her launch her own start-up called Queen Mary’s Tea and marry the man of her dreams.
Mary believes in going big while you’ve got the energy and resolve. ‘Make your 30s count,’ she tells me, ‘Be brave, be badass.’
When she nominated you, Liberty described you as a ‘big picture gal.’ Is that true?
I think so. My background is engineering so I love problem solving but I also love to travel. I wouldn’t necessarily use those words to describe myself but I guess I have an appreciation for the world and the big picture. I don’t get too caught up on the little things.
The context that Liberty put it in was in terms of all the amazing things you’ve achieved… you’ve got an MBA, you’re a materials engineer, you’ve had an illustrious career for someone who is only 31.
Yes, 31! I’m not accustomed to saying it. I still feel 28!
I think that happens to a lot of us. I’ve just turned 30 and I’m having that same kind of I don’t know how old I am moment. Are you where you thought your might be at 31?
[Laughs] I suppose so. But I think recently I have realized that I have no idea what life is going to throw at me. I’m happily married to a wonderful guy which is really nice and fortuitous. But my career has kind of changed course a bit over the last couple of years, which has been slightly uncomfortable for me.
Through my early twenties it was really clear what was going on but now things have changed…part of that is being one of two people who are living together and figuring out all those things together.
I’ve probably also changed my pace. Had you asked me when I was 25 I would have been like, ‘Oh well, I’d love to be an Executive at this point and have four kids somehow while also having this awesome career.’ I think I have probably gotten a little more realistic as I’ve gotten older.
I think that’s everyone’s experience, really. Tell us about some of these career detours. You left your job a year ago to launch Queen Mary’s Tea…
Yeah. I was leaving my last job, which had gone differently than I had anticipated. I’d had a pretty structured career and I was moving through these roles and really enjoying them but then I joined a company which wasn’t as good of a cultural fit. I ended up feeling as though I wanted the freedom to try my own thing.
I’m really passionate about tea. I’m a very strange American. I fell in love with the concept of hanging out with your friends and just being very present, relaxing, decompressing. I feel like yoga and tea are my two Zen type activities. So what I basically do is create afternoon tea experiences for people and it has been really fun.
But I’m at a point now where I’m actually actively interviewing for a full time role again, more traditional ones. What I’ve found is that I enjoyed taking the time to develop this whole start-up concept and get things set up but it’s not big enough right now, so I’d rather have a ‘normal’ job and keep doing this on the weekend until it grows bigger.
So you were in a job that you weren’t enjoying before you decided to start Queen Mary’s Tea… do you think that you needed to have that bad experience in order to be able to take the plunge?
I’d say so. It was a really hard situation to be in, it was very upsetting for me. I think I had idealised this job and when it came to be such a different thing from what I had expected, I was really disappointed. But now, looking back, now that I’ve had a full year to reflect on it, I think it forced me to actually do something that was probably a little out of the norm for me. It would have been so easy for me to go and get the next corporate job and keep moving along and just keep doing A, B, C, D in the right order but instead it helped to me to decide to go sideways a little bit and try something new.
I’ve been thinking about and discussing this new idea and I’ve talked to Liberty about it a bit. I want our generation to be the generation that actually tries to follow their dreams and go big in their 30s, rather than waiting until our 50s once we’re finally set in our career and have enough money. I feel as though everyone is planning to follow their dreams later in life, when we actually have energy and resolve to do it now and we don’t have ‘risk aversion’ you know.
I think that’s a great idea! It’s true that our parents’ generation seemed to always be concerned with ‘the next career step’ or ‘the next property’ or whatever else it might be…do you think it’s possible that we’re a happier generation than our parents’ generation?
I think it’s yet to be determined…I still see a lot of people going in that direction, just getting on the train and moving forward in the same ways. I think my dad and my mom were kind of freaked out when I started Queen Mary’s Tea since I had always been a traditional career person, but then I think they realised the freedom and the happiness it brought me and started to understand. They have been super supportive, my dad helping with some of the photography for my business and my mom helping me test some ideas with her group of friends.
What sustains you?
Wow. A lot. I think being fairly high energy I don’t necessarily rely on one source. I rely a ton on my friends and family, I think they give me the energy, love and support that I’ve kind of grown to need. But for my own personal wellbeing I need to always be learning and growing. I can’t really become stagnant. That’s what Josh (my husband) and I discuss a lot. I tell him that I can’t ever feel secondary because if I feel that way, I will lose myself. Not to say that it has to always be one person or the other but that a marriage has to be a merger, it has to be dual.
One thing that Liberty mentioned also was that you’re very passionate about women going into the STEM field. Is it because that was what you wanted to do and you recognized that there weren’t a lot of females around you doing the same?
I think part of it was just creating more role models to look up to. I also think there’s a huge gap and I think to close that gap we have to really focus on it and one of the groups that I was involved in at MIT was called the ‘Women’s Initiative’ and what we did was go into middle schools and basically talk to girls about how fun it is to be an engineer. We essentially showed them that: a) an engineer isn’t typically a train operator and b) an engineer isn’t always boy.
The driver behind that was that it’s typically middle school when girls start to disengage with math and science. That’s when they start worrying more about being ‘cool’ and fitting in, even if they’ve had way better math scores than their male peers. What happens? Why in seventh grade then do the girls go and do English and History and the boys go to Science, you know? I don’t think it should be that way so it has just always been a passion of mine.
What’s your immediate reaction if I ask, are you happy?
That’s a good question. I think so, generally speaking though I’m stressed. I get stressed about a lot of things. I think I’m too preoccupied trying to balance too many things all the time. I’m a worrier. So I always have something going on in my head…
I’m probably similar but I think what I’ve recognized is that there will always be these things to keep me worried and preoccupied. The challenge is trying to enjoy all the bits in between.
Exactly. It’s one of those cheesy posters they always have up that say things like, ‘Life is what happens while you’re busy planning’ or something like that. They are completely true!
Looking back on your life and career to date, what are people’s biggest misconceptions about you?
That’s a good question. I used to always be afraid that people thought I was ditzy because I speak very quickly and I’m very cheerful. I was always kind of perceived as stupid and ‘out of it.’
When I was in my second job after college I was in a meeting and I giggled at some point. I don’t know if it was out of nervousness or whatever but I was in a meeting and I did this silly ‘ha ha’ and one of my female colleagues came up to me and said, ‘When you giggle, you sound like a complete moron.’ So I’d say that’s one of the misconceptions. People think I’m really silly because I giggle and I smile but it doesn’t mean I’m not serious or I’m not upset it’s just that I’m trying not to show it.
As a final question, what advice would you have for the women coming up behind you, the women who are where you were ten years ago?
I think the biggest thing is just to be brave. When I was an entry level engineer I would get bullied and put down by people who had their own issues and were pushing that onto me. So I would say, be brave and be ok not liking or being liked by everyone. As a female in the workplace, you’re expected to get along with everyone, mother everyone, be friends with everyone. You don’t have to be. Be brave, be bad ass.
Also, I’m a big fan of Sheryl Sandberg and she talks about women making sure they are happy in their job. In Lean In she talks about how women will go back to the workplace after maternity leave if they were happy in the job they left so I believe women should push to put themselves to get into a position like that. Don’t settle for being unhappy.