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Black History Month: A Career of Firsts for a Diversity-Minded CFO

By George E. Jenkins, Chief Financial Officer for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

I grew up on a plantation in Savannah, Georgia, in the deeply segregated South. My grandfather and father were butlers and field hands, and my mother was a maid. They were determined that I would have a better life, and they were my mentors and true heroes during my early life.

I went to an all-African American high school. Due to the emphasis on excellence instilled by my parents, I was valedictorian of my high school class, captain of three sports teams, and a member of the Georgia All-State Chorus for three consecutive years – as well as the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program in Music. Even with all this success, I wanted to test myself in a different environment, so I went to the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. At the time, the school had 15,000 students and fewer than 100 African Americans. I was the only Black accounting major. After graduating with honors, I went to work for an international accounting firm, became a senior accountant, and obtained my certified public accountant license (CPA). I was responsible for the audit of Fortune 500 companies.

I left the accounting firm to pursue a master’s degree in business. I was fortunate to be able to attend the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School of Business, one of the most prestigious business schools in the world. I graduated with honors with a degree in finance.

My brother also attended Wharton and was a CPA. We always wanted to have our own accounting firm. While we built the practice, we went to Montgomery, Alabama, on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to teach at Alabama State University, a historically black university (HBCU). We were the first African American CPA firm in Montgomery and the second in the state of Alabama. Our practice provided services to private entities and some of the largest African American businesses in the South. We also handled the business and financial affairs for African American professional football, basketball, and baseball athletes. The firm also did major work for the federal government. We hired many of our students from Alabama State, who have now gone on to become CPAs and chief financial officers throughout the country. I also had the privilege of teaching at three HBCUs – Cheney State, Alabama State and Alabama A&M – during my career.

In 1996, I decided to leave private practice and enter federal service with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. I was very fortunate to be involved from the beginning in many cutting-edge projects. I served as co-chair of the Substantive Testing of Claims Initiative, which established the first Medicare claims error rate and allowed CMS to achieve its first unmodified “clean” audit opinion. I was the lead for business process reengineering for the Healthcare Integrated General Ledger Accounting Systems (HIGLAS) project, one of then the largest financial systems implementation efforts in the world. The system processed more than one billion claims per year worth more than $800 billion. We gained interest from the international community, and I had the honor of hosting visitors from South Korea and going to the United Kingdom to explain the system.

In 2008, I successfully completed the Department of Health and Human Services Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program (SESCDP). I was subsequently selected as the director of the Office of Program Management and Systems Policy, where I was responsible for 12 operating divisions and 15 staff divisions with financial activity of around $1.3 trillion.

In May 2011, I accepted the position as the chief financial officer for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The position appealed to me because of the positive impact that the Department of Commerce has on the nation’s economy, and also its potential positive impact to foster more diversity, equity, inclusivity, and access. My responsibilities here include overseeing the Office of Finance Resources Management (OFRM), which provides financial services for eight bureaus within the Department of Commerce. I provide daily guidance and support to those bureaus in the areas of financial operations, business system support, financial reporting, and vendor and customer database maintenance, as well as internal control and external audit support.

In more recent years, I have been instrumental in implementing substantial budget increases for both the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and NIST. NTIA received $65 billion from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 to, “help close the digital divide and ensure that all Americans have access to reliable, high speed, and affordable broadband” through the Broadband Infrastructure Program. Because we had provided such superior financial services to NTIA, it looked to NIST to also provide acquisition services related to the Broadband program.

In addition, as a part of the FY22 appropriations, NIST received a total of $50 billion in support of the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science (CHIPS) Act of 2022. I have been at the forefront of the program’s implementation.

Through all of this, I have remained committed to stressing the importance of diversity, equity, inclusivity, and accessibility (DEIA). I have fostered these concepts as they relate to the federal government’s Merit System Principles for recruitment, promotion, reward, and retention of qualified staff. I strive to instill the principles of DEIA within my senior staff and the 200 staff members they supervise.

Growing up the segregated South, Black History Month (BHM) resonates with me. We truly stand on the shoulders of giants, of those like my parents who sacrificed for me and all who have benefited due to those efforts. There is a myriad of great contributions by African Americans in all aspects of this nation’s history that are unknown and get emphasized during BHM. I am one of those stories being the first African American CFO in the history of NIST, which was established in 1901 as the National Bureau of Standards. There are many pioneering black scientists in the history of NIST that developed cutting edge technologies that benefited the economy of this nation that go largely unnoticed until BHM. It is imperative to keep BHM alive and strong every year.

When I took the CFO position at NIST, the first thing I noticed on the campus were the deer. We had many deer on the plantation where I grew up. When I saw them, I said thanks to my parents.

This blog post is part of a series showcasing the diverse African American leaders from across the U.S. Department of Commerce in honor of Black History Month.