Her view from the 43rd floor

by Sara Woelfel

"If you had talked to me in college and asked me if I ever thought I’d be in Washington, D.C., advising staff on legislation, writing a definition that went into a bill, serving on the president's working group on terrorism, or testifying to Congress, I would have laughed," said Janice Ochenkowski, ’70. "If you had said you’re going to be president of a professional association of 10,000 people and give speeches to a room of 4,000 people, I would have thought you were silly."

Now working at the senior-most level of leadership for Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) as an international director, Ochenkowski still marvels at the direction her life took from her undergraduate days as an English major in Clare Hall to the 43rd floor of the iconic Chicago high-rise Aon Center.

"You may think you have a life plan, but then life happens," Ochenkowski said. "I think the life I would have imagined for myself would have not been as exciting as the one I’m living."

Ochenkowski remembers entering Stritch at a time when it wasn’t as common for women to pursue a college education. Shy and soft-spoken, she credits several of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi with stretching her to think about her potential as a leader. When she sat down with Dean of Students Sister Justine Peter, OSF, Ph.D., ’50, to register for classes, the conversation always included gentle nudges that had little to do with academics.

"I talked with her about classes and options, and then the questions would start—Are you running for officer of your class? Are you going to lead a Girl Scout troop? Will you be helping with CCD? So there was that expectation—and it wasn’t coercive – that you could and should be doing more, you could and should be growing."

Ochenkowski’s career started on a traditional path, with her teaching at a Chicago Catholic high school. But when she decided she needed a change, she went to an employment agency seeking not just a job but a career plan. That’s when she interviewed with LaSalle Partners and began her 35-year career with the company in risk management.

Since then, she has weathered many changes and the phenomenal growth of a company that had about 150 people and six U.S. offices when she started and now, through acquisitions and mergers, is in 90 countries with more than 80,000 people worldwide.

As she rose through the ranks, Ochenkowski encountered some resistance from male colleagues that marked a sign of the times. In one incident, she recalls attending a partner meeting at the then-all-male Union League Club. She and the other female partners had to ride the service elevator to the meeting, while the male partners rode the guest elevator.

"Some women are very angry that we accepted that," Ochenkowski said. "They saw that as a fault of ours. But we were so happy to be at the table, to be a partner, that it wasn’t as important to me how I got to the room as the fact that I was in the room.”

In those early years, she noted she also took great care to dress conservatively, often in power suits, Oxford shirts and bowties to blend in with the men who surrounded her.

Today, she mentors others through a women’s network at JLL. She offers perspectives on today’s issues facing women based on her own experiences, good and bad.

“To me, my experiences are relevant only as history. That’s not the way the world is today, so it’s not important to dwell on those things. Every generation – both men and women – face a lot of obstacles, personal and otherwise. We all come through them hopefully better than – certainly stronger than – when we started. And I find it doesn’t make any sense to live in the past or to frequently look back to the past. You learned your lessons and now you move on. You’re in this generation, in this time, and you need to figure out how to be relevant in this time, in this new place in history.”   

Advice to today's women

“You have to keep a positive attitude and rely on your faith to move you forward. At a time when you feel very alone, you need to realize you’re not.”

“Regrets are a waste of time. When you look back, you always imagine the different choice as being perfect, but we know it wouldn’t have been. You just have to come to an acceptance of yourself and face that, at each stage and at each turn, you make the best choice you can given your life, your knowledge, the circumstances and opportunities and you just move forward with that. You can’t go back so why think about that? Do it and move on. Otherwise you don’t have the joy about where you are and that’s very sad.”