Michigan State University

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Malinda Jensen
Vice President, Business Development, Detroit Economic Growth Corporation

March 25, 2016

Location: Detroit, MI

Age: 49

Advanced Degrees: MPA, Land Use Planning and Management/Development, Eastern Michigan University; JD, Thomas M. Cooley Law School


First, tell us a bit about your time at MSU.

What initially drew you to James Madison College?

I always wanted to attend MSU and I felt that the James Madison College curriculum and small class environment would enhance my experience at MSU. I initially thought that at some point in my career I would attend law school, so having a public policy background would be essential to meeting that goal.

What surprised you most about your JMC experience?

I enjoyed the learning environment and the small class sizes. I felt that this environment created an opportunity to really engage with the professors and other students

Did you do an internship while you were at JMC? A study abroad program? How did those experiences contribute to your professional development?  

I actually interned with the City of Detroit during my senior year. I was assigned to the Community and Economic Development Department. My work as an economic development professional is a direct result of that internship. I had the opportunity to shadow the Director of the Department at the time who happened to part of the Mayor’s cabinet. That experience was enlightening because it gave me an opportunity to apply what I had learned about federal entitlement programs into context. The practical application of many federal programs don’t always align with the statutory regulations. I witnessed how policies are created and how politics can be a major influencer in the economic development ecosystem.

Any involvement in student groups/organizations while you were on campus? How did those involvements influence your professional path?

I became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority in 1986 and this became a very important part of college life for me. And as a result, I learned the value of being a strong African American woman, the importance of community service, and what it means to be a member of growing and thriving network of professional women.

What did you do during your time at JMC to explore and eventually decide on a career path? Do you wish you had done anything differently?

I always had an interest in community/economic development and general public policy—particularly programs that impacted urban America (affordable housing initiatives, self-sufficiency programs, real estate development etc.).

My only missed opportunity was not taking advantage of studying abroad. I would have liked to have spent a semester in Spain. I’ve had the opportunity to visit Spain as part of an educational delegation sponsored by the German Marshall Fund in my current position but it’s not the same as spending a period of time learning in another county and experiencing another culture.

We’d love to learn more about how your career path has developed.

What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?

My first paid position was with the City of Southfield as a housing program manager. I was finishing my master’s program at Eastern Michigan University and I learned of the opportunity through a volunteer position at a fair housing center in Farmington Hills. As a volunteer for the Center I met with people who felt that they were victims of housing discrimination and registered their complaints. The Director at the time was a member of the Southfield City Council. She introduced me to the Director of Planning and I was hired to manage a small rental rehabilitation program supported by HUD funds.

What role has networking played in developing your career path?

Networking is essential! My career path is a direct result of networking and performing well in every position that I’ve held. Hard work is a critical component as well but most opportunities aren’t always advertised. So developing a strong work ethic and being mindful of your work product can result in opportunities that you may not even know exist.

Can you talk a little bit about what the transition out of college and into the workplace looked like for you? What were some of the challenges? What did you do to overcome those challenges?

When I finished college I didn’t transition directly into the work world—I decided to go to graduate school instead of law school. While JMC provided an excellent theoretical-based educational foundation, I had a desire to really strengthen my skills and sought a program that lended itself to a more practical application model of learning. Eastern’s MPA program was a wonderful complement to JMC. I took several classes with working individuals and as a result, I had the opportunity to see how programs operate in practice.

How did you land your current job?


My current position with the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation was the result of my efforts to work in an environment where I could use my practical experience managing various types of community and economic development programs coupled with the legal knowledge, strong problem solving abilities, and analytical skills that I developed as a result of my legal education. I met the President of the organization a few years prior when I was working at the City of Detroit and I was offered a position in the newly created Business Development Unit at the DEGC. Again, networking and doing a good job always helps because your reputation proceeds you most of the time.

Walk us through a typical day at work. What’s it like?

My typical day usually revolves around many meetings both internally with my organization, with potential business prospects or with colleagues in the Mayor’s office. I was promoted to Vice President less than one year ago so my responsibilities have expanded to include creating local policies about how my organization and related city departments invest in development projects. This requires not only understanding statutory regulations but being able to analyze and be visionary in how we create sustainable policies citywide. I am always in learning mode and it’s vitally important that decisions are not made in a vacuum.

Let’s back up a bit and chat about your graduate studies.

Tell us something about graduate/law school that JMC students might not know.

I find it interesting that most lawyers frown upon legalese. I learned in law school that when required to prepare a legal brief, we were taught to use very simple words and explanations. While some might think that this is easy to do, it’s not. It requires being able to fully understand the subject matter. It’s seems counterintuitive because most contracts are overly complicated but in hindsight, there would possibly be less litigation if contracts were created using simple terms and phrases. I really try to avoid using vague terms and inferences in my written documents and always strive to draft clear, simple, and concise sentences. I learned it’s important to make every word count.

How was your advanced degree program different than your undergraduate studies at JMC?

As I reflect on my experience in law school, I would say that law school (at least the first two years) was more aligned to my coursework at JMC. It wasn’t until I started taking more advanced courses in both law school and in my master’s program that I had the opportunity to really analyze programs and policies relative to two particular areas of interest – land use planning and real estate transactions/development. I feel strongly that JMC and the first year of law school were heavily focused on the constitution and guiding principles that guide societal decisions. I would say that all three degrees adequately prepared me for my career choice and that I am still in a learning mode as a result.

How did JMC prepare you for the work you went on to do in graduate/law school?

JMC provided an excellent foundation for graduate and law school. Both advanced degrees required an ability to digest large volumes of information that weren’t always particularly easy to understand. I learned not to procrastinate and put in the work. I find that law school has taught me to be very methodical in my approach to tackling a new idea or problem. It’s also critically important to develop strong presentation skills, writing skills, and understand how to solve a problem strategically. I work in a politically charged environment so I have to always be sensitive to make-up of the intended audience and how a decision could adversely impact other people and programs.

How about a few fun questions now?

What’s your favorite part about living in your current location?

It’s an exciting time to be part of Detroit’s revitalization. There is so much to do and I’m watching the city evolve so quickly. There is an energy downtown that I haven’t felt in years. I am so excited to see so many construction cranes in the air!

What’s one of your favorite on-campus memories?

I love the MSU campus in the fall! Sometimes if I am in Lansing for a meeting I’ll drive over to MSU and just cruise around the campus. It is the most beautiful campus in the state!

I wish I had _____ while I was at MSU.

Studied abroad.

What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?

Be sure to do something at least once per week or ideally every day that scares you. And don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Go-to coffee order?

I’m a Starbucks junkie and I order a grande blonde with cream, no sugar using my refillable mug so that I can save $.10.