Honoring a Life of Service

Lela Jahn receives the William C. Hansen Distinguished Service Award

Lela Jahn’s mission to empower women began close to home, while she was still an undergraduate student at UWSP precursor Central Wisconsin Teaching College. While earning a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, Jahn worked in the college’s cafeteria and library, and also served as a film projectionist. The salaries from those three jobs not only allowed her to pay her own way through school, but helped finance her younger sister’s college education as well.

That situation proved to be a harbinger of good things to come. Her sister was just the first of many women who would benefit from Jahn’s guidance, wisdom and generosity—and who still do so today.

Over the years, Jahn would put her degree to great use, although not in a traditional manner. During an interview prior to receiving the 2010 College of Professional Studies Distinguished Alumni Award, she had said, “I never taught in a classroom, but that’s all I’ve been doing most of my life, is teaching.”

Shortly after graduation in 1962, Jahn heeded a call to join the National Council of Churches in Brazil as a Methodist missionary. She was named program director at Instituto Central do Povo, a combination school and community center in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Rio de Janiero. There she found her focus drawn to the women of the community, and how they struggled to make the best of the conditions in which they found themselves. Recognizing that the future of any society rests largely in its youth, she developed programs that showed the school’s teenage girls how to better their lots in life through self-reliance.

After three years, Jahn returned to the United States and accepted a position as a preschool director with Chicago’s Fifth City Community Development Project, on the city’s oft-embattled west side. As she had in Brazil, she immediately identified with the women who were the backbone of that community, and set about teaching them how to, as she had put it, “upgrade their own economic well-being.”

By 1972, Jahn was in Kenya, working as a consultant with the Kenyan government to develop programs that educated and empowered African refugees encamped outside the capital of Nairobi.

“I looked around the village and guess what? It’s the women who are figuring out a way to make ends meet,” Jahn had recalled in a video interview recapping the highlights of her career. “You’ve got passion, you’ve got commitment, you’ve got women who are willing to give their all to their community.”

From there, Jahn returned to Brazil. In 1978, she was joined in her work as a community developer by a volunteer named Don Bayer, who would later become her husband.

“Lela was physically very striking and spiritually very profound,” recalls Bayer. “She was living and working in a rural village that had no electricity or hot water, changing the lives of the villagers for the better. Watching her work made me feel humble yet exhilarated to be in her presence.”

The couple returned to the U.S. in 1980, where Jahn took a job with Wells Fargo Bank. Although at the time she was not well-versed in financial matters, her job overseeing and promoting training programs for the bank was well within her wheelhouse. It wasn’t long before she was promoted to vice president in charge of all administrative staff for the Correspondent Banking Division.

Six years later she and Bayer, who had a solid background in finance, struck out on their own to form Jahn Investment Advisors. Jahn earned her license from the Securities and Exchange Commission in order to begin a new phase of her professional life as a certified financial planner. Some things never change, though. Even in this new role, she remained committed to helping women find their strength, this time through financial independence.

“Women gravitated to her like a magnet,” says Bayer. “What they wanted most was not some investment guru, but someone who understood them and their dreams, and the challenges they faced in achieving those dreams…Nobody was better at doing that than Lela.”

Based in San Francisco, Jahn Investment Advisors was quite successful. As a result, Jahn was tapped as a frequent guest speaker on financial matters, and was featured in several print and electronic media outlets as an expert on women and investment. In 1999, the National Association of Women Business Owners presented her with the Gillian Rudd Vanguard Award in recognition of her work toward improving the status of women around the world.

By the time the business was sold in 2007, Jahn was managing hundreds of millions of dollars in client assets. She and Bayer travelled a bit once they had retired, but even these personal trips were tinged with the same concern and compassion toward women and impoverished communities that Jahn had shown for decades. They made a point of visiting schools and rural villages during sojourns to Brazil, India and China in order to, as Bayer puts it, “discover the depths of these cultures.”

In short, retirement did not sway Jahn from her passion for empowering women. The San Francisco chapter of the Financial Women’s Association adopted a year-long mentorship curriculum she had devised to complement the organization’s scholarship program. She brought that same energy to Reaching Across Generations, the mentorship program she created at UWSP, which pairs young women in their senior year with women business leaders across Central Wisconsin. Jahn helped train the mentors she enlisted for the program, and even joined the mentor ranks herself.

“With all her mentorships, she always said her task was to empower young women with a sense of self-reliance and freedom of choice in their personal and professional lives,” says Bayer.

Jahn’s reconnection with the university also included a stint on the UWSP Foundation Board of Directors. Additionally, she and Bayer created a study-abroad scholarship opportunity at UWSP that, for all intents and purposes, has allowed young women to follow in her footsteps. Discover the World provides funds for undergraduates to travel abroad in order to volunteer or work with an organization dedicated to social and economic development. Applicants are required to be first-generation college students with a demonstrated financial need, and they must choose a non-European destination at which to complete their service-learning project.

One can only imagine what else Jahn might have accomplished had she not succumbed to pancreatic cancer in December 2015. Regardless, what she did achieve is very much reason to celebrate. In honor of everything she did for UWSP, as well as for women and communities the world over, Jahn rightly takes her place among recipients of the university’s William C. Hansen Distinguished Service Award.