“Just Do It”: How Powerful Women Shaped Jessie Olson’s Courage

Jessie using gardening tools
“Growing up, I saw my mom use a lot of power tools. She made me feel it was possible to live outside gender roles – that being tough and getting dirty was for everyone.” But Save The Bay’s Associate Director of Native Plant Nurseries didn’t come to this conclusion in her twenties – or even her teens. Jessie Olson started shattering expectations as a toddler. “When I was about one and a half, I ran into a neighbor’s yard and picked some flowers. My grandma said to my mom: ‘don’t worry, she’ll grow out of it.’ My mom knew even then: ‘she never will.’” Jessie grins, admitting: “I was always a plantgeek.” From a very young age, she “found a lot of joy being in nature, with plants and animals.” Bliss, for Jessie, meant “toiling away in a garden.” When it came time for college, Jessie applied to plant science programs where she’d have plenty of opportunities to explore the outdoors. As an undergrad at UC Davis, Jessie fell into the plant community she’d always dreamed of: “it was just wonderful, to go to a school with science nerds of different kinds – ones who embrace their appreciation of the natural world.”
Jessie sanitizing soil
After graduating, she took an internship with the Presidio Trust’s Compost, Community Garden, and Integrated Pest Management Teams. Between helping develop community gardens and supporting a native plant nursery, “getting dirty” was a given. Jessie was especially pleased to have several women supervisors who were “so smart and strong.” She would later learn – women leaders weren’t the norm. As Jessie moved up in the restoration ecology scene, she found: “it was similar to many fields: tons of women in the lower circles, but higher positions were largely men.” Still, Jessie never felt discouraged. After all, “that ‘just do it’ attitude – I got that from the women in my life. My mom is a really brave person, and she always encouraged me to try and find solutions to problems. If you believe something needs to be changed – that you’ve got what it takes to make it work.” That’s just how Jessie proved successful starting out with Save The Bay. She joined our Habitat Restoration Team doing contract work on one of its largest undertakings: building an on-site nursery and ensuring thousands of plants got installed for an experimental horizontal levee project at the Oro LomaSanitary District. “I had never taken on a project that large, and I was terrified. But no part of me thought I couldn’t do it.” Soon enough, her drive and resourcefulness spelled a full-time role with Save The Bay, and she only moved up from there. Now, our Associate Director of Native Plant Nurseries works tirelessly preventing a deadly plant disease, Phytophthora, from reaching our seedlings. The daunting task entails tremendous coordination of staff and volunteers to make sure 35,000 pots a year are scrubbed and sanitized. But Jessie thrives when the stakes are high. “It’s important for us to be well-respected as a nursery, to say: ‘as scientists, this is the knowledge we have, and this is how we’re acting on it.’”