Traditionally, both tech and financial industries have been dominated by men. While uplifting stories of women breaking barriers in both fields flash across the radar with increasing frequency, the impetus for change can’t lie solely with the individual. Organizations must intentionally establish efforts to correct for it.
As a financial institution that’s been around since 1857, Northwestern Mutual has plenty of tradition to lean on. However, the company is also focused on driving its industry forward. Perhaps the institution’s ability to straddle both sides of the financial and tech divide is centered on its diversity of thought. For instance, the company’s employee resource groups have been nationally recognized by organizations such as Forbes, Black Enterprise magazine, AnitaB.org and the Human Rights Campaign.
In addition, Northwestern Mutual is focused on providing spaces where women technologists can connect, learn and thrive. “We have a very active Women in Tech group. Everyone has their day job, but they also work really hard to put programs in place,” said Sangeetha Rai, vice president of technology customer success.
The Women in Tech group has several key programs exclusively for women, including programming around STEM topics and an annual conference. One particular program seeing a great deal of growth is the WIT Squad, a 6-month mentorship program free to women internally and externally. It covers topics such as how to take risks, be vulnerable, and practice proactive communication. There were 55 women in the pilot program, which started in 2020. According to Rai, the pilot had exceptional feedback with 22 percent of participants getting high performance ratings and 21 percent obtaining new roles. In the second year the enrollment more than doubled.
Another significant program dedicated to women in technology is speed coaching, which is also open both internally and externally. About 400 participants were involved in its inaugural run last April, receiving 20 minutes of coaching from 120 leaders who signed up from Northwestern Mutual. The organization is planning to host another speed coaching event this year.
Maintaining open access to these resources and programs ties back to the organization’s belief that a rising tide lifts all boats. “At Northwestern Mutual it’s not just about supporting women in-house, but also externally because we need more women in tech,” said Rai.
To top it off, the company held its second annual Northwestern Mutual Women in Tech Conference in December 2021. The full-day virtual event featured more than 60 speakers from 30 companies — including Google and Salesforce, with a keynote from Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code — with 98 percent of the lineup featuring women. The conference counted 4,300 attendees nationwide.
Built In NYC caught up with two women in senior leadership at Northwestern Mutual for words of advice and insight into what these initiatives mean to them.
Sangeetha Rai started at Northwestern Mutual five years ago, and today she fills three roles. First, as the VP of customer success and technology; the second as the head of the company’s New York campus; and the third as the executive sponsor of the Women in Tech employee resource group.
On being a technologist in fintech: “Cybersecurity threats are some of the biggest issues in fintech. That’s where the technology industry is facing the most significant issues in the world today. Hackers are constantly developing new ways of getting into systems and new security technologies are always underdeveloped. There are also a lot of regulatory issues that are important to consider.”
On professional development: “We are proactive in addressing needs for underrepresented, intersectional groups. For example, we have a cohort specifically for Black women. These cohorts can spend time with senior leaders at the company. The structure allows for participants to ask questions, and we can offer advice and guidance on their career trajectories. Oftentimes you may not have access to senior leaders, but we’re making it a priority. In addition to these initiatives, there are a lot of self-learning digital platforms for tech skills. We put a lot of care and thought into learning and development.”
On the Women in Tech Conference: “It was very emotional for women and allies to come together and be a part of that. It was set up and led by our Women in Tech group. The topics covered innovation, cybersecurity, ethics, data and additional soft skills like mentoring future leaders. I am very passionate about it, and I think it really made a difference. Tech careers are in demand more than ever before, so we want to make sure that we help more women get into the industry and grow their careers. At the end of the day, we want to build a community where women feel supported, seen and like they can thrive.”
On working at Northwestern Mutual: “I feel really valued, recognized and respected. It’s challenging work and it’s a really exciting time at Northwestern Mutual. We’re transforming every area, whether it’s how we go to market, our diversity and inclusion initiatives, or our technology. Also, this is a company where you can switch up your career path. Whatever you are passionate about, there are opportunities available, and leadership is easy to talk to. You could put anyone on a calendar invite or reach out to a senior member and grab 30 minutes for coffee to ask questions. People actually feel comfortable doing that.”
Sangeetha Rai’s 3 Tips for Women Technologists:
- “We need to use our diversity to lead and influence. Women make up 20 percent of the tech workforce, and there aren’t a lot of women of color in there. That means for those of us in tech, we have a privilege we need to own. We have to be that leader or influencer to help drive progress.”
- “Accept that perfect timing doesn’t exist. If you wait for the perfect time to forge your path, then you will wait forever. Oftentimes men will apply for a job when they see it, but women will wait for timing to be perfect. We need that to change. So go ahead and leap.”
- “Recognize your value. In these underrepresented communities, outperforming your peers is not enough. You need to recognize your own value and take the risk to demand what you deserve. That will help you in your career anywhere.”
Jen Steffen is the vanguard of application security for Northwestern Mutual’s engineering teams. She has been with the company for more than a decade, and spent the majority of that time working her way up to assistant director in IT auditing. Then she raised her hand for a new opportunity in identity management before changing lanes into application security.
On being a technologist in fintech: “There is a focus on security because we are a significant financial company. For example, our insurance products are subject to a lot of regulation, which is why we need to make sure we keep our clients’ data secure. From a security standpoint, with risks such as zero-day attacks, our biggest focus is on swarming when we need to but also continuing to mature our application security strategy to keep us secure.”
On professional development: “I have personally benefited from our women’s ERG mentors. When you are mentored, you tend to give back, so now I’m mentoring others. There is also a grassroots movement to help each other and continue supporting each other. From the standpoint of technology training, Northwestern Mutual does a really good job of looking at different certifications and then bringing in teachers to host sessions for larger groups. That’s something I’ve found to be very helpful as a leader, to get my people trained and give them the technical chops to do their jobs.”
Advice to women technologists: “Have grit. Don’t let things knock you down. Power through the negativity in your head. It’s like a muscle; keep using it and it will make it stronger and easier to push past the negativity. Be confident in yourself and your abilities. You will achieve whatever you put your mind to.”
“Power through the negativity in your head. It’s like a muscle; keep using it and it will make it stronger and easier to push past the negativity.”
On working at Northwestern Mutual: “I’ve had lots of opportunities to raise my hand and work on things that have not only been engaging, but have given me good visibility, such as moving the needle on security and cyber-risk. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve put things in place that most companies might not be working on yet. We are not publicly traded, so we do things for the long haul, for the right reasons. Strategically this allows us the ability to prioritize people in a way that makes our company successful. The other thing I love is when people at Northwestern Mutual say they are going to do something, they do it. Actions speak louder than words. They deliver on those commitments, whether it’s for our workforce with our diversity and inclusion initiatives, or with our policyholders. Northwestern Mutual has a good track record. That’s why I have stayed here.”