1. Go To Class: This sounds like a no-brainer, but you’ll quickly learn that some…
Sometimes when Julie Vander Weele gets together with Jill and Janet Krueger, it’s just a group of sorority sisters talking and laughing. Other times, it is a power lunch for three successful executives.
When they gathered March 24, it was an opportunity to share stories about both of those parts of their lives and to mentor a group of 16 women studying in the College of Business at Northern Illinois University.
The event, dubbed “Her Story,” was organized by Dean Denise Schoenbachler in honor of Women’s History Month. However, such events are not limited to the month of March at the college. “One of our goals is to become the business school of choice for young women in the Chicago area who want to pursue a career in business, so we do a lot of events aimed at helping women students learn to excel in what is still very much a man’s world,” says Schoenbachler.
To back up that assertion, she points to recent statistics showing that at U.S. Fortune 500 companies, women account for only 2.4 percent of chief executives and 1 out of 20 top management positions.
In light of that, Schoenbachler wanted women students to meet alumnae who have bucked those odds. Vander Weele and the Kruegers (who are also biological sisters) were happy to provide the type of mentoring that they wish they had had as students. The three shared stories of juggling family responsibilities with work, overcoming setbacks and how the road to success is filled with unexpected turns.
Jill Krueger, for instance, changed majors four times at NIU. She finally settled upon finance after determining that accountancy proved too great
a drag on her social life (which included a stint as president of the Delta Gamma sorority). She graduated from NIU in 1981, and a few years later, much to her surprise, went on to earn her CPA. By 1987, she had risen to partner at the accounting firm of KPMG. She loved the work, but hated the toll it took on her home life. She was spending five days a week on the road when her daughter was two-years-old.
In 1996, she was recruited by some clients who were starting a new company. She took a leap of faith (and a cut in pay) to become president and CEO of Symbria, which develops and manages physical therapy centers, post-surgical rehab centers, pharmacies and other services for senior living communities. She has never regretted the switch. “It allowed me to make it to every one of my children’s plays and teacher conferences,” she says proudly.
She has built Symbria into a powerhouse, largely upon the strengths of the network she developed. “We do $130 million in revenue, and 60 percent of that is built upon relationships I built on the golf course,” she told the students.
Jill’s networking skills also benefited Julie Vander Weele. She helped her fellow DZ land her first job selling investment plans. Securities were foreign to the 1982 marketing grad, but she educated herself and quickly landed a job with Mesirow Financial. She spent 25 years there, half of that as a senior managing director and member of the board of directors. However, after a change in leadership, she found herself looking for a new job in 2013. She discovered that she had badly neglected her professional network (a mistake she told students never to make) and began meeting with a minimum of five new contacts a week. Ultimately landed a job as chief administrative officer at RMB Capital, a boutique investment firm with $4.5 billion in assets under management.
She advised students to always volunteer for new and challenging assignments and never to shy away from taking risks. “I failed at lots of things. That is how you learn,” she said.
Janet Krueger’s journey also had its twists and turns. After she graduated in 1983 with a degree in finance, she returned to her summer job as a secretary for a lawyer. Her boss encouraged her to attend law school at night, which turned out to be a grueling four-and-a-half year journey. When she graduated, jobs at law firms were hard to secure. However, her sister told her, accounting firms were dying for lawyers with a financial background. She tweaked her resume and quickly found herself on the fast track (and sitting next to Jill in CPA classes). By 1988, she was named a partner at Price Waterhouse Coopers, where she stayed for 22 years before taking a similar job at KPMG.
Among her advice to the students was to give up on the notion of being “super woman” if they want to excel in their careers. “I had a lot of help along the way,” she says, recalling a time when she and her husband owned eight car seats for their two children, a set for each of their cars, a third for grandparents and a fourth for an assistant who often helped. “I also gave up on cooking,” she said. To which her sister replied, “I don’t recall you ever starting!”
The students peppered the speakers with questions on work-family balance, career paths, mentors and a variety of other issues, which elicited one final surprising bit of advice: relax!
“I’m always amazed by students today. You want to plan everything,” said Janet Krueger. “Forget the plan! Focus on excelling day-to-day. Keep your eyes open for unexpected opportunities. If you are too focused on your plan, those opportunities can pass by unnoticed.”
As for the students, they were extremely grateful for the opportunity to connect with the speakers.
“Events like this are so valuable,” said sophomore accounting major Megan O’Brien, who was among the students invited. “It gives us a glimpse of where we could be in 20 to 30 years, and how we can get there. Their advice is invaluable as we embark on our journey through the business world.”