Kelli Jones MBA ’89 held high-level marketing positions at Hewlett-Packard and consulted for companies such as Yahoo, Oracle, Brocade, and others. She had firmly established herself as a leader, yet a missed opportunity hovered in the back of her mind.
A degree from Cal.
It didn’t happen the way she initially thought it would, but Jones got that prestigious piece of paper. Now, she spends a few hours a week from March through July as a West San Jose District Chair, helping to support future generations of graduates.
How She Did It
A star student, Jones graduated from El Cerrito High School at 16. The Berkeley native walked onto the UC Berkeley campus academically ready, but emotionally unprepared.
“People think, ‘Oh, they’re so bright. I’m sure they will achieve a lot academically,’” she says. “But maturity-wise, it’s a different story. I withdrew after the first year, because I got the worst grades I had ever received and I just couldn’t deal with that.”
Jones finished her degree in business and information computing systems at San Francisco State University. While there, she served as president of Jack and Jill of America’s San Jose Chapter and the National Black MBA Association’s San Francisco Chapter. She also held a board position with Catholic Charities Santa Clara Valley.
Her leadership talents helped her excel professionally. But personally, she had unfinished business. She had to prove to herself she could get that degree from Cal. She did it, with an MBA from the Haas School of Business, now one of the country’s top business schools.
“I wanted to meet some of the students and give back in a way other than
“I needed a program that allowed me to continue to work and complete the degree,” she says. “Berkeley had just the program.”
Jones earned her MBA in 1989, about six years before the Haas School building opened. She balanced weeknight classes and schoolwork around a full-time job, long commutes, and caring for her young son as a single mom. She says she wouldn’t change a thing about her demanding schedule. The hard work helped her fulfill a goal she had set for herself many years before.
Jones and her husband, Chappie Jones, whom she met during the MBA program, started donating annually to the university and attended occasional South Bay events. Although she gave willingly, Jones wanted to re-establish the connection she had as a freshman and as a graduate student.
“I wanted to meet some of the students and give back in a way other than monetarily,” she says. “And I was hoping it involved something that didn’t require me to drive up to the campus because the traffic is just horrendous.”
The West San Jose District Chair position met her criteria. Each year, Jones connects with fellow alumni and Leadership Award scholarship finalists, all based in her immediate area. She avoids the hellish commute between the South and East Bays. And she gets to give back in a way that’s deeper than money.
Serving West San Jose’s New Leaders
As part of her District Chair duties, Jones recruits alumni volunteers to serve on interview panels. She rarely has trouble finding four or five people per year willing to help.
Through her work as a marketing, business operations, and executive communications consultant, she meets many alumni. She also keeps track of leads provided by the Cal Alumni Association. Her presence in West San Jose helps further expand her volunteer network.
“My husband is a city councilmember,” she says. “As a result I literally have walked this entire district. I’ve met a lot of people, and they know we both have Haas degrees. So where we’ve established that connection, I keep those folks in mind and reach out to them.”
While all Districts maintain consistency in procedure, questions and scoring, each location finds its own way for volunteers to get to know one another. Alumni serving in the West San Jose District meet before the panels start to review the schedule and get questions answered. Any remaining time is spent chatting over coffee and bagels. After completing the interview panels and scoring, some volunteers hurry off to their next event, while others stick around to discuss the afternoon.
Jones admits she accepted the District Chair position initially because it fit her schedule. Although it does take only a few hours a week, she and other volunteers receive a wealth of inspiration from future alumni.
When encouraging alumni to serve, Jones says all she has to do is recount some of the finalists’ accomplishments. For example, one high school student researched, reported on, and created a booklet on human trafficking. Another Leadership Award finalist migrated to the US from Africa, enduring endless hardships before getting accepted to Cal. “Despite everything he had encountered that could have had a negative impact, he changed it to the positive,” Jones says. “It was incredible to hear his story.”
Jones encourages all students interviewing for scholarships to stay in touch with their District Chairs and interviewers, if given the opportunity. “If they have an interest in areas we’re engaged in, we can follow up with them at some point,” she says. “If they’re from the South Bay, if they want to meet and chat about their experiences, if they have questions, know there’s someone here for them.”
With this level of mentorship on their side, Leadership Award scholars have an exceptional support system. And that support goes both ways.
“They have the world in front of them,” Jones says of today’s students. “It makes you want to say, ‘I’ve got a little left.’”
by Heather R. Johnson