If “write what you know” is the standard maxim for authors, Dr. Saj-nicole Joni, Muir ’73, M.A. ’75, Ph.D. ’77, has a lot to write about. The best-selling author is an internationally acclaimed business strategist, CEO advisor and celebrated speaker, sought after by industry leaders and executive audiences to help them contend with their most high-stakes challenges. But Joni didn’t always imagine it to be this way.
Joni’s acumen in business strategy was the result of hard-won skills following the discovery of her true interests at UC San Diego. Her career as a mathematician and scientist took a turn when she realized her keen ability for creative problem-solving, a skill she credits to the university’s educational philosophy. “It wasn’t just ‘here’s your education,’ ‘do what I say,’ nor ‘here’s how it should be,’” she says. “There was this whole environment of amazing people who were encouraging us to imagine, dream, study many different subjects and then go out and pioneer a new world.”
After earning three degrees from UC San Diego, in 1977 Joni joined the applied mathematics faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—the first woman ever to do so. Joni’s appointment went against the era’s prevailing image of the woman as a happy homemaker. At the time, her department’s building even lacked a women’s bathroom.
“My mere existence as a woman created dissonance and even conflict,” Joni says. “But as a young scientist walking the halls of MIT, I came to understand that to innovate and succeed, you need courage to go beyond difference and doubt to create something greater.”
Now a mentor and role model to many, Joni encourages aspiring leaders to make their dreams come true through connecting with other big dreamers. This theme of connection is the major thrust of her newest book, Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence, which dives deep into connectional intelligence as the key to success in 21st-century business. Joni explains how regardless of a person’s background, virtually anybody can develop into a leader by honing the quality of the connections they make in a highly interconnected society.
“Take a dream. Add connection. Dream bigger. Get big things done,” she writes in the book, condensing the path to success into those four key steps. And she says now is the perfect time to start.
“It does go back to some of the things I’ve learned,” she says. “I really encourage people to take their dreams and really add connection. Think about what you dream about and look around; look at all the innovations that are happening. I am so optimistic for what we can create for the future.”