Jen Sharp is the kind of woman you look at and think "how the hell does she do it all?!" She is the owner of Skydive Kansas where she also operates as one of the only female tandem skydiving instructors in America. That's not all though (I know I'm super impressed and slightly jealous too), Ms. Sharp has a list of more "conventional" professional accomplishments that's as long as it is impressive. We had to know how the hell she does it all so we reached out and she graciously answered our questions. So thank you Jen for your time and teaching us about the importance of keeping focus, creating balance, dealing with haters, and making the perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich!
You wear a bunch of different "traditionally" professional hats like speaker, writer, programmer, the list goes on. What is unique about you is that you are one of the only female tandem instructors in America AND you run your own DZ. Can you please tell a little about yourself, your background and how you initially started skydiving then eventually opened up your own DZ.
I made my first jump at the age of 18 on November 11, 1989. It was a static line jump, not tandem because tandem was in its infancy and wasn’t available in our area. So we had about 8 hours of classroom before the jump. I was of course somewhat nervous, but really focused on doing what they told me to do. After I landed, I didn’t want to leave! I loved the energy and feeling and stayed around to watch others in my class do their jumps, too. As I sat there, one of the club jumpers asked me how my jump went. I replied how awesome it was, thinking all the while that it was short lived, that I wished I could have experienced more. Then the jumper asked me, “Do you want to go again today?” Silly me, I thought, “OH YEAH! People can make more than one jump!” It hadn’t occurred to me because I was overwhelmed with the experience… or maybe because I’m blonde! So I made my second jump the same day. I was a freshmen in college, hadn’t told my parents what I was doing, and just wanted to see if I could do it. The feeling of exhilaration was transient, but what stuck with me was the sense of accomplishment. Afterwards, when things in college became difficult, as they do for everyone, I would tell myself, “If I can jump out of an airplane, I can handle this.” For me, it was discovering who I was and what I was capable of.
I think when someone experiences something like this at a young age, they can use it as a tool to keep growing or they can become one of those people who reminisce about the past and the good old days. For me, that first jump served as fodder for more, and I slowly became comfortable with being uncomfortable.
What was your motivation to become a tandem instructor and how did you accomplish becoming one?
I had an urgent need at my dropzone for more tandem instructors. I was already doing office work, manifesting, student instruction, packing the rigs, gearing up the tandem students, etc. The only part of it I was not doing was the actual jump itself. And that part to me seemed like the fun part! I had the advantage of being a freefall photographer for over 1,000 tandems before I even took this on, so I was able to apply good and bad examples of what I saw to how I wanted to approach tandem.
Of course, I was told I was too small and not strong enough. I am 5’5” and weigh 110 pounds. I was unsure myself. But in any venture I have taken on, I have noticed that the best place to start is with the belief that it CAN happen. Without that belief, it will not happen. I had a few key people who supported me, including Strong Enterprises, the manufacturer of the gear I use. I just started listening to those voices instead of the naysayers, and worked through some of the issues that my size presented with such a physical task. What I learned was, often what people say is not possible comes from their own imagination and playing out of perceived risk, not any reality or true risk. The issues I thought would hang me up ended up being no big deal, and other issues were actually more challenging than what others claimed would be a problem for me. But I don’t believe in problem solving. Instead of pouring resources and time into a trial and error situation focused on “fixing” something that is NOT working, I will spend my time, energy, thoughts on what DOES work. It’s not that you ignore problems, but for the most part, we tend to waste so much on self-correcting problems, ones that really just go away by focusing on what we want to achieve instead.
That process taught me a lot about implementing change in small calculated increments, about believing in myself, and about being creative to get what you want. The reward? I now get to take people (as big as 220 pounds and over 6 foot) for their first skydiving experience and help them overcome their doubts about themselves, too! It goes full circle!
That is truly amazing! But I have to ask, what are the biggest challenges you face as one of the only women in the country that is an instructor/DZ owner?
Like the saying goes, you can grasp a knife by either the blade or the handle. One of my favorite things to do is turn a negative into a positive. I have definitely encountered the challenge of people not believing I can do tandem as an instructor, let alone an examiner. Even after I had over 1,000 tandems and was an examiner, I encountered disbelief from stronger, bigger men. Funny because they were saying I could not do what I had already done! I lamented to a friend and mentor of mine, “How long must I prove myself?” He answered, “Everytime.” So so true. And I took that to heart, but added this focus for myself: I do not have to prove myself to those saying I cannot do this. I have to prove myself to my student, each and every time, and give them everything I have for each one. Trumpet extraordinaire Arturo Sandoval once remarked, I’m paraphrasing, “I have to give my all in every performance. The people in the audience tonight did not hear me last night. I have to do it again.”
But, I am not one who enjoys conflict or shouting injustice or chest banging. I just do what I love and try to do it the best I can. So being perceived as the underdog means when I accomplish what is said I cannot do, I win people over. I would say just sticking to the things I love to do, doing them well, sharing the joy of what we do with others, helping them achieve as well, not fighting those who doubt just… doing it… that’s been pretty much my standard mode of operation and it works out well for me. whether it’s in doing tandems, training AFF students, organizing my staff, making business decisions, etc. etc. I actually see that being a woman in a male dominated sport add to my uniqueness and makes my achievements stand out. It has been more of an opportunity than a challenge.
Obviously you're incredibly smart and talented, do you have any tips or advice for women who would like to start their own business?
Wow thank you! I’ve given presentations to women owned business groups, and my MBA thesis actually explored this topic, not as it relates to women but just for small businesses. (So I only have about 130 pages here I could talk about! I’ll spare you!)
The most surprising thought I had in analyzing my own business and interviewing others was that starting a business and sustaining a business require two completely different skill sets.
Starting a business seems to require more risk taking. I’m not really much of a risk taker. Some have called me an over-thinker. And I do tend to examine and analyze a situation before I act, but that’s the thing: I act. I don’t let fear keep me from doing the things I want to accomplish. Too many people are afraid of things that are illogical, that really do NOT carry the risk they are told they carry. Sometimes we even let others’ fear become our own, with no real basis. When you stop and examine something before you act, you can dismiss irrelevant warnings and discover what really MIGHT be risky. Then you either apply some sort of contingency and go for it anyway, or you drop it and find another way to achieve what you’re aiming for.
Sustaining a business requires intense care taking and management while trusting your team to do their job, wide vision yet attention to detail, a great deal of passion balanced with thick skin, intense amount of dedication and perseverance yet knowing when to step back and take a breath, time spent in reflection as well as planning for the future, saving money and spending money, asking for help and doing it yourself. But I think most of all, it takes renewing your passion for why you wanted the business in the first place. For me, that means I have to jump. I have to do tandems and AFF. I have to run manifest. I have to drive the golf cart and pack tandem rigs. I have to clean the toilet and sew jumpsuits. I have to DO the stuff that the business is about and in the moment realize the joy that comes from those efforts.
As far as specific advice for women, I would give the same advice to men. Look away steer away, problem solving is a big time waster, so turn your time and attention more often to shoring up the areas that ARE working. Find fun in being creative. Be balanced in your time so you see both details and big picture; specifically do the work your team is doing. It gives you a great amount of credibility and insight as to their perspective and needs. Every time I experience good customer service, I try and discover what it is that made it so, and see if I can apply it to my own business somehow, even in small ways. Take time periodically to “check your altimeter” so to speak, and see if you are on track for your goals and big vision.
Favorite crazy diving story or favorite skydiving moment(s)?
Wow, so many. CrazIest story: I broke my arm on a skydive. But not on the ground as one would expect: I broke it on the plane door as I exited and went into freefall. And guess which arm it was? Yep, the right arm, the one I use to pull open my parachute! I managed to get it open though. Then of course I had to steer to the ground for landing mostly with just my left arm though. Moral of this story: two wrongs don’t make a right but three lefts do. True story but just kidding about the moral.
Favorite moments: My second jump, just because I did it again even though I was even more afraid! My first demonstration exhibition jump, coming in with the game ball at Kansas State University stadium and (beginner’s luck) landing right in the center of the Wildcat Logo on the 50 yard line. Doing tandems as a guest at another DZ that eventually inspired three other women to get their tandem instructor rating. Videoing my friend take a quadriplegic on a tandem, amazing person, amazing resilience. Flying the American Flag past the Topeka Capitol building to start the Veterans’ Day Parade. Bringing in the American Flag at several demonstration events while my daughter played the Star Spangled Banner solo on her trumpet (we have the timing down perfectly!) Jumping out of a helicopter in Nepal near Mount Everest.
I’m expecting those to be eclipsed when next December, I take my daughter for her first tandem, and three years following, my son!
When you aren't busy being a mother, business owner, programmer, speaker, and writer do you do any other extreme or adventure sports?
I’m actually pretty clumsy, but I still enjoy activities even if I’m not very good at them! I’ve tried scuba diving several times and love it! But there are not many oceans in Kansas. And I truly enjoyed the hiking and trekking in the mountains that I’ve experienced. But there are not many mountains in Kansas. These aren’t adventure activities, but I love running long distances, and really enjoy playing music, especially drums. I have a few lesson students I teach at my house still and volunteer with the local middle and high school bands. My goal after I retire from skydiving at age 89 is to go on tour as a drummer in a funk band.
Because you play so many different roles and have so many different responsibilities what helps you keep motivated and focused?
Focus: intensely centering your attention on the task at hand. (My definition.) There’s nothing better to force a person to focus like hurling a planet at your face! One of my skydiving friends said to me once, “At 11,000 feet, everything looks small, including your problems.” Be it skydiving or some other extreme activity, a person taking on intense challenges can consciously apply lessons learned about focus to other less extreme areas of their life.
You can choose to use those skills to focus on everyday situations and it greatly adds to efficiency and achievement. Making choices consciously and aware about where we sit can really enhance our existence and enjoyment, so we’re not just “along for the ride” in our lives. We can control and affect our destiny.
In your question, you use motivation and focus as if they were connected, but I don’t see them as related actually. In fact, ironically, as I had at one time taken on the label of “motivational speaker”... I don’t know that I believe in “motivation” really. I do believe in momentum, though. One day when my daughter was in grade school and it was a beautiful day outside… I worked from home as a single mom programming (PERFECT job!) and was busy with some project. She ran in and found me and asked, “Mom, can you come outside and swing on the swing-set with me!? PLEEEEEEASE!?” How can you say no to that? So I reluctantly said yes. Soon came one of those surprising learning moments, and fortunately I was receptive to it. She got on a regular swing and I sat on one of those double seat swings. I just barely pushed against the metal floor of the swing and it traveled backwards. I let it fall again and, as I am super skilled in swinging (ha ha) I timed it at the right moment to add another little push. It traveled even further, and again, I felt it go back, then fall down and back up. Again, I added only another slight bit of energy and … well, we have all experienced the joys of swinging on a swingset in our youth. But in that moment, I noticed how little effort it took to create a great deal of motion and momentum! All I had to do was apply a small amount of energy, be patient with the results, put in another small amount of input at the right time, then rest and watch. Of course at first, the swinging is small, but it only took a few persistent iterations of effort then rest and vigilance to affect an amazing result! From that moment, I decided to apply momentum in my life instead of “motivation.”
Some could say I “juggle” many things, but I like to think of it as plate spinning instead of juggling. Juggling is too hard. You have to constantly keep moving and if one thing falls, it all goes. But plate spinning is easier. When something needs attention I apply input, and just keep watch of what’s going on.
Okay, those are all vague though true. I guess really boiling it down, I just want to have fun.
Final question. I've heard that you are an incredible peanut butter and jelly chef. What is your secret and can you tell us how to make the perfect PB & J sandwich?
Ha ha! That is probably the most creative interview question I’ve ever had!
First I’ll explain, then I’ll answer your question. I’ve “made” peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the direction of my students in my courses for over 15 years now.. It’s a visual example of what happens when a person neglects feedback, only talks and doesn’t listen or in the case of teaching, lectures instead of facilitating guided practice. So I pretend I don’t know how to make a PBJ, and listen to them “tell” me. But here’s the catch. They cannot ask questions, demonstrate, or even WATCH me. They just talk at me. (Sound familiar?) I take everything they say literally and without the “big picture” in mind. So I end up making a mess! Many people know what to expect, as they’ve heard about this before, but the more detailed a person is, the easier it is to make a mess! The point is, communication or teaching will ALWAYS fail without feedback.
Here’s I think the only video I’ve ever had of this (in case you haven’t seen it)
So, now to answer your question: what’s my secret to the perfect PBJ sandwich? “The secret ingredient in the Secret Ingredient Soup is… there IS no secret ingredient!” It’s different every time, which makes it fresh always. It involves other people, which makes it connective. It’s hilarious and fun, which makes it enjoyable. And mostly it visually and succinctly depicts a crucial fundamental, which makes it last in the minds of those who experience it