Breaking Down Walls: How One Woman Found Her Life Mission In Prison


When we find ourselves in moments of darkness it can be nearly impossible to see the light. Jennifer Wilkov, however, was able to do just that, even while spending almost half a year behind bars for a crime she didn't commit.

“The district attorney decimated me,” says Wilkov. “I was given a felony for something I didn’t do, sent to Riker’s Island, I had no address, they took everything I had.”

It’s hard not to feel frustrated listening to Wilkov’s story. The former finance executive was sentenced in 2008 to six months behind bars at New York’s notoriously violent penitentiary, Riker’s Island, where she spent her days in an eight foot by three foot cell. Throughout the entire experience Wilkov resolved to make the best of it and not let herself get consumed by the darkness surrounding her.

“Ten percent of your life is what happens in it, the rest of it is how you are going to move through whatever is happening,” she says. “Take a deep breath and figure out for yourself what are you going to do about it. There are things we can control and there are things we can’t and that is really important [to remember].”

In 2004, Wilkov was a Certified Financial Planner for American Express Financial Advisers. After being advised by a friend, Wilkov invested in a California business that would buy, flip and resell foreclosed homes at a profit. The trouble started after she began mentioning the business to clients, independently from her company, being sure to fill out securities forms recommended by her American Express compliance officer. The following year, Wilkov, also the author of Date Your Money and co-author of Boys Before Business: A Single Girl's Guide To Having It All, launched a financial planning business, which was immediately successful. After a year, however, she and her investors no longer received any returns on the real-estate business, which sent up a red flag.

“So an attorney and I paid a visit to the owners of the California company,” Wilkov told Marie Claire in 2009. “After our meeting, the attorney deemed the operation a scam and said I should report it to the authorities.”

Again, Wilkov followed the proper procedure, immediately notifying officials in October 2006. A month afterwards, she was visited by a group of policemen who confiscated her phone, computer and files.

Eight months later, when I was sitting in my office one morning in a favorite outfit — Ralph Lauren top, white pants, white heels — the police returned,” she told the magazine. “I was arrested and accused of being part of a $1.6 million real-estate fraud, since I'd recommended the investment and had received standard referral fees.”

In 2008, she took a plea deal, on recommendation from a lawyer, which would give her six months in jail, as apposed to a potential four years.

“I’m still one of those people who rails at the sky and says why is this happening,” says Wilkov, who is Jewish and studied the Torah during her prison stay. “I know that I am willing to look for the silver lining, [and focus on] what is the blessing in this, and what am I supposed to learn, [I'll be OK] .”

Despite feeling completely lost at the time, Wilkov realized she had to rally.

“When I left the courtroom in handcuffs, I looked at the guard who was part of my process of going to jail," says Wilkov. "He looked at me and he said ‘it’s really not as bad as you think.”

Despite trying to reassure her, Wilkov says she was petrified.

“Where I went next was a cell that had been cleared out for me and I was by myself staring at a payphone for an hour trying to figure out if I’m allowed to [use it]," she says. "When you’re in this situation you’re scared out of your mind. I feel l like I’m in a foreign country. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know if I have to ask.”
Her first collect call was made to her mother from an area of the prison called “the bridge.”
“I said 'I don’t know how long I have on this telephone but I want you to promise me right now that we’re going to make this the most positive experience ever,'" says Wilkov.
Her mom didn’t answer.
“On the other end of the line she was whimpering,” recalls Wilkov. “I said 'right now you have to agree to this; promise me we're going to make this as positive as possible.' In that moment she said ‘yes’ and the line clicked off.”

During her time at Rikers, made even more complicated by the fact that she suffered from Chron’s Disease and was a longtime organic vegetarian, Wilkov was committed to seeing the silver lining. Her mom helped ease the situation by scheduling visitors any chance she could and ensuring that Wilkov had mail every single day. Despite these reprieves, Wilkov reports she lost 14 pounds in the first six weeks and barely slept during her time at Riker’s due to a constant fear of being attacked.

“It was very difficult to maintain my own sense of self and grounding,” she says. “I had to decide that they weren’t going to break me.”

It was her African American Muslim bunk-mate that taught Wilkov the biggest lesson in 'finding the good of the situation' of all.
“The thing we had in common was this desire for peace,” says Wilkov. “I taught her some hand motions and the two of us started, maybe six weeks before I was leaving, sitting together praying for peace in the middle of the room, very quietly, and the dorm would relax in that moment. And literally we started bringing peace to this environment where peace didn’t belong.”
When she got out of jail, with the help of her supportive friends, Wilkov launched a website where she wrote the truth about her ordeal and about the crime she was convicted for. Rather than be angry about her experience, she has instead focused on bringing to light the surrounding proxy crimes, in which the person sentenced had no idea about the law infringement.
“When you are in the financial industry you are supposed to be looking at your superiors who are supposed to be more educated than you and more responsible to the company you work for," says Wilkov. "In a business that’s government regulated you’re supposed to follow a certain protocol. When all of a sudden people are going outside of that protocol and you don’t know it because you are following the protocol you’ve been told, all of a sudden when it bites you in the back and you find people calling you a scapegoat making you the person who is guilty and horrible and horrifying, it's demeaning and it's really something that can destroy people.”
Eventually Wilkov was exonerated by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority as it was determined she had merely followed the industry protocol. To help stop this experience from happening to other women, she is now a lobbyist, sitting on the board of directors for an organization called It Could Happen To You.
“I speak to legislators and the governors council about how false accusations and false convictions and wrongful convictions happen to licensed professionals and destroy their lives," she says. 'When that happened to me... the system just absolutely failed. All the attorneys who look at my case say the same thing; ‘wow the system really failed you.'”

“It’s incredible what happens when you open up your eyes and ears.”

Wilkov has also founded Speak Up Women, an organization designed to empower women and create momentum for them to "drive forward their own passionate personal and professional agendas and causes" in order to make social change.

“I really want women and men to understand the impact we have when we speak up in our personal, professional and philanthropic lives,” says Wilkov. “When you speak up and you’re clear about what it is and you’re not trying to sugarcoat it, it’s really the thing that turns the dime. It changes lives” sometimes [affecting] millions of people, sometimes one person.”
All-in-all, Wilkov says the experience helped her find positivity through a difficult time, and perhaps most importantly, her voice. She's now dedicated to helping other women find theirs.

“I think it's very human and important for us to admit and acknowledge that we all fall,” says Wilkov. “You hear people talk about rock bottom and they just don’t know where they’re going to go, [they wonder] 'why is this happening to me' or 'how am I going to survive this?' If you can connect with how you feel then you can actually figure out who you’re going to be.”
Although it is easy to give up and feel sorry for yourself when unfair things happen, Wilkov said it is actually those moments which prove what you're made of, it's those moments you must be the strongest you can.
“I've forged my own personal ability to not give up, stay the course and keep my commitment to what I said I wanted to do," says Wilkov. "'How am I going to experience this?' and 'How am I going to handle this?’ are [phrases] that I really connect with. They keep me grounded and actually infect the people that are around me, who look to me and say 'I don’t know what to do in this moment' and I always say 'OK who are you going to be?' You have the right to remain fabulous.”
7min read

The Middle East And North Africa Are Brimming With Untapped Female Potential

Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.

A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.

The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.

Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization ( publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")

The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."

This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.

Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.

She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."

Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.

"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei

While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.

Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.

The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."

This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.

Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.