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Town of Knightdale Mayor Hones Leadership Skills with Jenkins MBA

McLauchlan Fellow and Town of Knightdale Mayor Jessica Day shares about her journey into town council, her personal growth in the Jenkins MBA program and her belief that leadership is learned – not inherent. 

By Samantha Beavers

Eight years ago, Jenkins MBA student and McLauchlan Fellow Jessica Day stepped into her first town council meeting. A Knightdale, North Carolina native, she attended Southeast Raleigh High School, obtained a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) and launched a career in the agrochemical industry. After several years working in purchasing, supply chain and financial sales, Day decided to break into real estate and move back to her hometown – and soon made her way into Knightdale’s town hall.

“I figured that if I wanted to learn more about the area and what was happening on a deeper level, I needed to start attending town council meetings. And because I’m not the type of person to sit silently in the back of the room, I started asking questions,” Day explains. “Very quickly, I realized questions like, ‘Why don’t we do this?’ are usually met with, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ So I stepped up and got involved, joining and leading different boards in the community.”

She never planned to run for town council, but as her involvement in the community increased, North Carolina House Rep. James Roberson – Knightdale’s town mayor at the time – pulled her aside and encouraged her to consider it. She immediately refused, but through Roberson’s mentorship, Day began to see how she could leverage her skills to transform the community – and decided to go for it. She became the first African American female to be elected to the Knightdale Town Council in 2017, became mayor pro tem in 2019 and was elected mayor in 2021.

Back to school

For Day, having someone see potential in her proved to be a pivotal moment that launched her into leadership – and it’s pushed her to be the best leader she can be. Upon entering the Jenkins MBA program in spring 2021, then, she decided to pursue the Business Leadership Certificate as well as the McLauchlan Leadership Series – and she credits both with providing her with a wealth of practical knowledge that she can put into practice. 

“Every single class that I’ve taken as part of the Business Leadership Certificate program has been phenomenal and has transformed me in some way, shape or form – and I’ve taken away something from each of them that I could use immediately. The McLauchlan Series has taken that to another level and has really helped me learn the essential components of leadership,” she says.

In addition to the Business Leadership Certificate program and her time as a McLauchlan Fellow, Day has found that the university’s Think and Do mentality – as well as the opportunity to learn from other MBA students – has made her a more effective leader.

In all of my classes, I’ve been challenged to think differently and I’ve been pushed tremendously – far beyond what I thought my abilities were.

“In all of my classes, I’ve been challenged to think differently and I’ve been pushed tremendously – far beyond what I thought my abilities were. Many times I’ve gone into my classes trying to discover the right answer – and about halfway through I’ve realized that it’s not really about having the right answers. It’s about the thought process. In the business world, the right answer might be different tomorrow than it is today – and so rather than focusing on finding the right answer, I have to focus on continuous improvement. That mindset shift has really helped me grow,” she says.

“The opportunity to build my network and connect with other leaders in my classes has also been extremely beneficial. Hearing students’ different perspectives and having discussions with them has stretched me and made me a more critical thinker,” she continues. 

Embracing opportunities

The Jenkins MBA has impacted her outside the classroom, too.

“I recently talked to a group of students who were just starting the MBA program and I encouraged them to take advantage of everything the program offers – especially career services. The conversations I’ve had with my advisor have really helped and challenged me, and they’ve been so supportive throughout the program,” she says. “I’m also looking forward to studying abroad in South Africa this summer and think that will be a really transformative experience.”

Beyond her personal growth as a leader, Day says that her time in the Jenkins MBA program has also clarified her passions and inspired her to develop other leaders through speaking engagements, leadership training programs and executive coaching.

“When I first started the Jenkins MBA program, I thought I wanted to do financial planning and work with business owners. But somewhere along the way, I realized it’s not the financial piece I’m most interested in. I’m much more interested in helping individuals and businesses identify who they are, what they value, what goals they have and what their mission is – and then working with them to form a strategy and develop leaders to execute that mission,” she explains.

Unfortunately, Day says, most people tend to believe that only certain kinds of people are suited for leadership – which can keep them from investing in themselves and others. Thinking back on her own life, she sees how this mindset led her to avoid leadership roles rather than pursuing them. 

If you want to be a great leader, you have to work and learn and get better – and developing those skills takes time. Leadership is ultimately something that’s learned.

“If you want to be a great leader, you have to work and learn and get better – and developing those skills takes time. Leadership is ultimately something that’s learned. But I think most of us believe that people are either born leaders or they’re not. That was true for me. I never saw myself as a leader,” she says. 

A lifetime of leadership

Day might not have seen herself as a leader – but others certainly did. Her willingness to ask questions, solve problems, think differently and influence others pushed her into leadership roles – from receiving the sportsmanship award on athletic teams in high school to serving as president of UNCG’s campus activities board in college to her favorite leadership role yet: giving back to her hometown as mayor of Knightdale.

“The sense of community that we have and that we’re building here in Knightdale is the thing I’m most proud of. Knightdale used to be a place where people moved for more affordable housing, but now we offer so much more. I think about the restaurants we have, the parks we’ve built and the growth that’s here – and it brings me so much joy. It’s been amazing to play a part in it,” she says.

Looking ahead to a lifetime of leadership, Day knows that there are many doubts and obstacles she’ll face in the future – but a glance back at how far she’s come, the growth she’s experienced in the Jenkins MBA program and the support she’s received along the way encourages her to keep going. 

“Right before I started as mayor, I really doubted myself and thought, ‘I’m not ready. I don’t have the ability to do this.’ But one of my mentors gave me this piece of advice that I thought was fantastic. He said, ‘You don’t think you can do it because you’ve never done it. You’re never going to know how to do it until you do it.’ So I realized that I had to just take the next step forward,” she says. “I’ve also held onto my faith in this journey because God has done so many things and put so many people in my life to remind me that I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.”

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