An Accidental Activist
"Being a feminine boy is grounds for violence. So I hid. I buried it for as long as I could.”
In another instance, her daughter brought a friend over while they were at her elementary school and said, “Look, my dad’s a girl,” then went on their way. “They notice in an innocent way,” Jamie recalls. “They were young, it was a part of their childhoods.” For Jamie, transitioning later in life – in her 40s, while earning her MBA at Goizueta – was a remarkably drama-free experience. “It’s almost unheard of.” She knows its not the same for many others. And, not surprisingly, the years leading up to her decision had their own share of drama.
Growing up near Palm Beach in Stuart, Florida--known as the “Sailfish Capital of the World”--Harrell enjoyed an idyllic childhood with a supportive and loving family. “When I was five my sisters loved to play dress up with me,” she recalls. “Flower was my childhood drag name,” she jokes. “What my sisters didn’t know was that I continued to play.” But even though she didn’t fully understand she was transgender until much later in life, at an early age, Jamie picked up on social cues that discouraged straying too far from gender norms. “As a child, you learn so quickly how being different will get you teased” she recalls. “Being a feminine boy is grounds for violence. So I hid. I buried it for as long as I could.” She pushed aside her feelings, married, had two children, and buried herself in work. During a 20-year career in ecommerce as an entrepreneur and executive – during which time Harrell co-founded and sold two companies – she reconciled her feelings by living a “double life.” She would spend two weeks per month in Atlanta as a man with a wife and children, and the other two weeks in San Diego living as a woman while working for a German-based mobile app start-up. “In San Diego my closets were full of beautiful women’s clothes,” she recalls. “I found a trans bar in San Diego. While here in Atlanta, I’d tuck the kids in, spend two hours getting dressed, and stay out until 3 a.m. just to find a place where I could be me. I would stare at myself in the mirror and cry because I couldn’t stand to take off the makeup. I became a bad parent, a bad partner,” she recalls of the time.
“I think the experience of the entire class was profoundly changed for the better by Jamie,” Lowell said. “Her insights have helped me better serve patients in the trans community.”
Jamie’s “double life” came to a screeching halt when she was laid off. Also during this time, she was in the middle of earning her MBA at Goizueta. “I was unemployed for a long time,” Jamie recalls. “ It’s tough on your psyche.” After nearly one and a half years of looking for work, she began contracting with the IT department at Goizueta, which led to a full-time offer after one month of employment. During this time, she had fully committed to transitioning – including openly being a woman at her future workplace. “It was the first time I felt comfortable interviewing as Jamie instead of James.” During this time, Jamie found support from her fellow Goizueta classmates, including Isabel “Izzy” Lowell (16MBA), a physician who went on to launch a telemedicine clinic serving transgender patients. “I think the experience of the entire class was profoundly changed for the better by Jamie,” Lowell said. “Her insights have helped me better serve patients in the trans community.”
Harrell feels that “the openness of Emory allowed me to be authentic in that interview,” and acknowledges that others in her position aren’t so fortunate. “Our final frontier is work,” she notes. “So many transgender people will say, ‘I’m ‘out’ everywhere except work. They spend so much time at work, yet they fake it all day long. It’s emotionally draining. If you’re faking it through the whole work day, the employer is getting maybe 50-70% of your energy. For many, the risk is too high.” “The sad reality is that 25% of trans people get fired when they come out, and they are three times more likely to be unemployed –four times more likely if you’re a person of color – and another 25% suffer adverse job outcomes when they come out at work.” These include being taken off important projects or client-facing work. “For example, I earn a lot less working in higher education than I could earn in other industries that are less supportive of LGBT people. When I was transitioning, it was a safe place for me.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. Harrell cites studies that show gay men who are “out” in a supportive workplace work harder than straight men.
“Jamie is always taking steps. If others are walking, she is running.”
“Jamie is always taking steps. If others are walking, she is running,” says Stephanie Parisi, Associate Director of Online Education at Emory’s Center for Faculty Development and Excellence. “She honors her commitments and doesn’t just show up – she is present, attentive, and willing to lend a hand. I’ve seen her at events and it isn’t uncommon for her to walk up to and engage someone that’s off to the side, or someone that looks like they’ve had a bad day. Next thing you know, she’s having them over for dinner.”
Harrell was first brought on board at Emory by Denys Lu, chief technology officer at Goizueta and director of IT operations. “I was looking for help with a business intelligence project and hired her as a contractor, and ultimately as an employee,” Lu said. “She took over the business intelligence/analytics practice at the business school that I had been building. Jamie is one of the most enthusiastic and outgoing people I know. We’ve worked on some tough projects together. She has a great ability to explain complex difficult topics to those with less technical backgrounds. When teams are frustrated, she can get everyone in the room to calm down and see a path forward.”
According to her current boss, Belva White, Jamie excels in her role as Business Intelligence & Analytics Lead at Goizueta because she employs the Goizueta Business Principle of “Listen first. Analyze second.” “Professionally, she is a gifted data analyst,” White notes. “Without bias, she allows the numbers to speak and call for action. On a personal level, she listened to her voice within, considered the ramifications of these feelings through deep personal analysis, and then made an informed life-changing action to become her truest self. By doing so, she is changing the conversation around diversity in the Atlanta community, and I fully expect the circle will widen in the years to come.”
While she has separated amicably from her spouse, Harrell said she frequently returns to Florida with her daughters to visit their grandmother. She says it’s fascinating to re-experience childhood and teenage haunts in another gender. “Going to the beach is something I did many times growing up,” Harrell says. “So experiencing that with my family and sisters while wearing a bikini instead of board shorts is like seeing it through a different set of eyes. It’s fascinating to take memories of the past and revisit them with who I am now. It’s nostalgic and beautiful and fun.”