A Granddaughter's Journey

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ALL four of my grandparents emigrated from Ireland to the United States in their late teens. Like others, they were looking for a better opportunity for themselves and their future generations.

I'm the fourth of six siblings. Being in the middle helped me learn diplomacy. I also had leadership potential, according to my mother. If she had an errand, she would give me the house key to open the door for my brother and sisters.

My senior year in high school, I worked at the public library in town. I stayed until I completed my coursework at Molloy College in Rockville Centre.

I started in a nursing program at Molloy, but personal computers were becoming popular, so sophomore year I decided to change my major. At the time, you couldn't major in computer science; you had to major in math and minor in it, which I did. I gave up my nursing scholarship to switch, so besides my library job I baby-sat and worked as a cheerleading coach to pay for college.

I started my career in the New York office of Wang Laboratories in 1984. I got my start in leadership when it offered me a supervisory job in administration. While at Wang, I started work on a master's degree in finance and investments at Adelphi University in Garden City.

I left Wang in 1986 to work for Equitable Life Insurance, now AXA Equitable, and finished my master's while there. Although I was only 27, a mentor there lobbied for me to be named a full vice president instead of an assistant vice president, as some executives had suggested. He said I needed the title to be respected, and he won.

The company's earnings were down, so it had devised a plan to cut expenses. I called one branch manager about the plan who said he didn't talk to his wife about how he spent money, and he wasn't about to talk to me about it, either. I said I was going to hang up, call him back and pretend that the conversation never happened. He deferred to me after that.

I also held executive positions at the Guardian Life Insurance Company of America and New England Financial. In 2005, I took a hiatus from corporate life. I was a professor at the American College in Bryn Mawr, Pa. I conducted industry research and published a textbook for marketing financial services products to women. I also started a consulting and executive coaching company and adopted my daughter from Russia. She's 7 now.

When Penn Mutual was looking for a chief marketing officer in 2007, a recruiter called me for leads. Bob Chappell, then C.E.O., asked the recruiter where he was getting the names. When the recruiter told him, Bob asked to meet with me. I hadn't planned to return to corporate life, but I liked what he had to say. I joined Penn Mutual in 2008 as executive vice president and chief marketing officer and became C.E.O. in 2011, when Bob retired.

Although the stock market fell soon after I was hired, I announced at a company leadership meeting that we were not participating in the recession. We avoided some of the pitfalls that other insurance companies faced.

I don't mind being asked repeatedly about women as business leaders. I never saw a glass ceiling. If we educate young girls to expect that they can't perform at the same level as men, they're going to have that reality. I look on those questions as an opportunity to tell them otherwise.

Besides being promoted in 2011, I had the honor of being named by Irish America magazine as one of its Wall Street 50. I accepted in remembrance of my grandparents. They had a great appreciation for the American dream, and now, just two generations later, one of their grandchildren heads a large American insurance company.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

employment

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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