by Frank Murtaugh
There aren’t many guarantees in life, but you can take this to the betting window: Jen Andrews knows more about the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy (SFPC) than you or anyone else. The 32-year-old Andrews is the newly named executive director for the nonprofit that manages — and is currently transforming — the 4,500-acre park. She was also, you see, the SFPC’s first employee.
Upon graduating from Rhodes College with a degree in English literature in 2006, Andrews set her sights on a graduate program at the University of Arkansas. But she needed a year to raise money, so she applied for a new position with what was then called the Shelby Farms Park Alliance. “When I took the job, we didn’t have office space or computers,” says Andrews. “No phones. It was just the two of us. [Laura Morris was the founding director.] Some of my first duties were calling FedEx and First Tennessee to see if I could go into their warehouses and take some of their old furniture.”
Andrews grew up in the tiny (pop. 4,000) town of Marianna, Arkansas. (“You grow up and either become a Little Rock person or a Memphis person,” she explains. “We were always Memphis people.”) She developed a love for lakes and green space by visiting her grandparents, whose property sat on a former junkyard on the edge of town. “I grew up scraping my knee,” explains Andrews, “getting dirty, climbing trees, making mud pies. I spent a lot of time alone out there. I’m very comfortable being alone. I’m independent, introverted. I feel like I developed my imagination out there, learned how to dream. It was really a magical place.”
Andrews took to sports, first as a gymnast, then as a basketball player who led Lee Academy to a runner-up finish in the 2002 state tournament. “Basketball is my true love, but unfortunately I’m 5’2”,” she says with a smile. As a sprinter (100 meters and 200 meters) for Lee’s track team, she caught the eyes of Rhodes recruiters and became the first member of her family to attend college.
In addition to taking on the pole vault at Rhodes, Andrews discovered a passion for post-colonial literature. “I was studying literature from places that had been colonized and then decolonized,” she says. “African, Pacific rim, Caribbean, some Irish. Growing up in a small town, there are things you don’t get access to. I was really interested in broadening my horizons. I hadn’t really considered literature from places other than England and America. I knew it existed, but I hadn’t given it credibility. I was moved, and got excited; there was so much I could still learn.”
That yearning to grow — in mind and spirit — fueled Andrews’ early days in support of Shelby Farms, her initial mission simply to secure the land from the threat of development. “What we were trying to do in those early days,” she reflects, “was get a conservation easement [a legal designation that protects the land as a park], so we could stop fighting. Once we protected the park, which meant the county couldn’t sell it to developers, we transitioned from a defensive posture to an optimistic, future-focused organization. What could the park be?”
Fast-forward to 2016 and the SFPC is nearing completion on its $52 million “Heart of the Park” project, its largest component being an expansion of Patriot Lake from 52 to 80 acres. There will also be a new visitors center, an events center (with a restaurant), lakeside pavilions, and a pedestrian promenade adjacent to the lake. Taken together, the massive transformation has further reinforced the art of the possible.
“I think I was the first true believer,” says Andrews, “other than the people who had been involved [before SFPC]. When I was at Rhodes, I didn’t even know the park existed. I was part of a first wave of people who were willing to dig in, see the potential, and do something about it. It was hard in the early days because there was no job security. There was no guarantee we could raise enough money to pay salaries. The county budget for the park at the time was $575,000. We were creating an organization that didn’t exist.”
Now overseeing a staff of 30, Andrews hasn’t had to look far for leadership standards. “Linda Brashear, our director of park operations, has been a great mentor and a great example,” says Andrews. “We have very different personalities. I’m an introvert, logical. She’s one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet; extroverted, loves people. She shows me a different path. I’m interested in things that are different from my experience. Tina Sullivan at the Overton Park Conservancy is another great leader, the ultimate diplomat and highly principled.”
Andrews’ parents were teenagers when Jen was born, so there’s a form of leadership in their simply keeping a family together, and growing. “My dad [Mark Andrews] may be the only person even more introverted than I am,” she says. “He’s brilliant and totally independent, completely nonjudgmental. He taught me from a really young age to think for myself and question assumptions, my own and others.”
A military contractor in Afghanistan for 10 years, Mark now teaches work-skills to inmates as part of a rehabilitation program while Andrews’ mom, Lori, is a preschool teacher. Andrews’ only sibling — a younger sister — is a middle-school teacher. “I’m the only non-teacher in the family,” notes Andrews. “Leadership and service are big deals in my family. My parents really focused on integrity because it’s something that can’t be taken away. You can always tell the truth. You can always be generous, even when you’re poor.”
Now in a position where her hiring skills are important, Andrews has paid special attention to a few qualities she considers seeds of leadership. “I enjoy building a team and fostering talent,” she says. “I’ve hired a lot of young and hungry people. I always look for critical thinking; they’re likely to have good judgment and be resourceful. At a small nonprofit, resourceful people tend to do very well. And accountability, someone who can demonstrate they’re willing to take ownership of something. I can’t think of any leaders who aren’t highly accountable.”
Andrews is convinced opportunities for talented young people will bring new leaders, and help Memphis grow as a city. “When I graduated from Rhodes, there were two people in my class who planned to stay in Memphis,” she says. “It was unusual. At last year’s graduation, they polled the students and something like 60 percent said they would be staying in Memphis. I didn’t plan on staying until I got involved with building something that would make Memphis a better place, and that was addictive.”
Andrews’ appreciation for good leaders extends into the realm of science fiction. An avowed Trekkie, she lights up at the chance to distinguish her preferred Starfleet captain. “Jean-Luc Picard is a great model of leadership,” she says. “James Kirk was impulsive, where Picard is logical and rational. He’s highly intelligent. He was an amateur archaeologist, very interested in people and cultures.” A life-sized Spock stand-up poster greets visitors to her office. The universe’s most famous Vulcan is wearing a Memphis Grizzlies headband. Stoicism with a little grit-and-grind. Let’s call it a Jen Andrews recipe for progress.
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