Today for Working Women Wednesday, I have a very special interview for you. When I put out the word on the FinCon Facebook page asking if anyone happened to know any breadwinning, six figure, and/or millionaire moms I could interview for this series, Alex Whitehouse of FinHealthy responded. He put me in touch with his mother, Janet, an amazing woman who was the sole income earner for her family – her husband and four children – starting in the 1980’s.
Yes, you read that right. It’s thanks to women like Janet that all us breadwinning, high earning moms, and moms that work while dad stays at home, have the opportunities we do. She didn’t start out her career as a high-earning, high-powered woman. When she was first married, right out of college, her and her husband had $200 in a bank account – and she started her career as a teacher. Despite this, she was determined to succeed, and did so in a big way. Whether it was finishing up her MBA while pregnant with her second son (who was actually featured in the class graduation picture!), moving her family to England for her career, or dealing with the sexism and obstacles that came with being a woman, mom, and the sole income earner in the 80’s and 90’s, she didn’t let anything stop her.
On her income she was not only able to support her family, but eventually to retire early. She now serves on the Board of Directors of a multi-line insurance company, helps care for her granddaughter, and is involved in several causes giving back to the community.
I found her story closely parallels mine in many ways, so I very much relate to her journey. I’ll tell you more about why after her amazing interview. So now, lets meet Janet and her her amazing, inspiring story.
1. Tell us about yourself!
The movie Mr. Mom was released in 1983 although I swear we did not see it until much later. I became the sole provider for our family in 1985. Unlike Michael Keaton and Teri Garr, who switched roles out of necessity, my husband Dave and I did it by choice. We met in high school and had $200 in our bank account when we married two weeks after college ended over 40 years ago. We have four children ages 28-37, five grandchildren, ages 2-8, and a rescue dog named, Jessie.
I “retired” in 2012 after 25+ years in the financial services industry. I currently serve as an Independent Director on the Board of a multi-line insurance company in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to my board responsibilities, I help take care of my eldest granddaughter while my daughter, Lauren, works. I enjoy giving back to the community with activities like coaching co-ed soccer, swinging a hammer at Habitat for Humanity, and walking in support of the Jimmy Fund.
I love the outdoors. I often wonder how I survived working indoors my whole career, especially the cubicle years. Now that we live in Rye, NH, I spend a great deal of time at the beach, walking the dog, landscaping, skiing and traveling. I’ve also been getting back in touch with my creative side with decorating, sewing, and singing.
2. Let’s get some details – how much money do you make, and how long did it take you to get there? And are you a millionaire or are you on the way?
My primary earnings years are behind me. We are currently living on my director’s income and the investment income from our savings until our other retirement income kicks in over the next few years. I hit six figures fairly early in my financial services career, and saved enough to retire at the age of 57 after putting our kids through college and helping them leave the nest.
My total compensation package as an executive included base salary, annual bonus, and long term incentive plans. We mainly lived off the base salary and banked the rest for big investments like college, cars, houses, retirement savings etc. We moved around a fair amount, so real estate became an important part of our investment portfolio. We never lost money on our homes despite having to sell during two down markets. We had significant appreciation on several of our homes after the improvements we made to the properties.
I am not comfortable divulging how much money I earned or what our estate is worth but suffice it to say we “came a long way, baby”. And while I was the primary bread winner, everything we did was a team effort. I could not have done what I did (travel, hours etc) without my husband staying home to take care of the kids and we both put a lot of sweat equity into our homes. CMO Note – I totally agree with this and covered it in my article on how I seem to have more time than other people. If you read through it you’ll see just how many activities traditionally associated with “mom” are done by my husband. Without him taking care of the day-to-day kid activities, illnesses, etc. I would never be able to accomplish what I do.
3. How did you get started in the workforce?
I graduated from UCONN in 1976 with an elementary education degree. I taught third grade in Greenland, NH for seven years and was definitely not the primary breadwinner. Dave was driving tractor trailers all over New England. Our first son, Alex, was born during this time. While I loved teaching, it hit me that if something were to happen to my husband, I could not support the family on my salary. In fact, we would have qualified for food stamps! I started thinking about going back to school to get my MBA. We had just bought our first home (age 25) and were barely making ends meet yet we did not qualify for a low income loan.
We had no idea how we would pay for school but we had faith that somehow we would figure it out. A few weeks before school was to start at UNH, I received a letter saying I had done so well on the GMATs that the government would grant me a full scholarship for the two years including any fees, books etc as well as a living stipend. The tax free stipend alone was almost as much as my old teaching salary! This was our first huge break!
Just to make things more interesting, our second son, Greg, was born during the fall semester of the second year when I was supposed to be taking my finance midterm. My professors (all men at the time) were incredibly supportive and let me bring Greg to class for the rest of that semester. At my classmates insistence, Greg was included in our graduation picture. I graduated on time and third in my class. To this day it was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
4. How did you get from where you started to where you are now?
The financial services part of my career started as a summer intern at Unionmutual in Portland, Me between the first and second years of the MBA program. As I got close to graduation my husband challenged me saying, if I could earn as much money as he was making, he would stay home and take care of the kids. Not one to back down from a challenge, I was offered a position in market research/strategic planning back at Unionmutual. I negotiated my starting salary to be enough so my husband could quit his job and we all moved to Maine.
In the mid to late 80’s, I was promoted every couple of years but our next big break was when I was promoted to Vice President, Corporate Development. The company had demutualized and changed it’s name to UNUM, and we had a lot of cash to deploy in Mergers and Acquisitions. I was part of the Related Businesses Group which acquired, integrated and managed the newly acquired companies. Our last two children, Eric and Lauren, were born while I was in that role. We completed a series of very complex acquisitions aimed at diversifying the company. This was a huge leap in my career and one of the most challenging and rewarding growth opportunities.
You can find details on my career progression on Linked- In. But briefly, I went from VP, Corporate Development to working for three years in the UK as part of the executive team of a company we had acquired there. The kids attended the American School in Surrey. Living and traveling around England and other parts of Europe was a great adventure for all of us.
My next big move was as President and Chief Operating Officer of Commercial Life Insurance in Piscataway, NJ. My boss claimed that I was the first female President of an insurance company in the US. I never verified that but there were still not many women in executive positions in the 90’s.
I left UNUM in 2000 after the merger with Provident Life and Accident shifted the culture from one that had aggressively promoted high potential women to more of a “good ole boy network”. I was offered a position at Sun Life Financial in Wellesley, Ma. where I worked for the next 12 years. Key positions there included Head of Human Resources and Public Relations, Integration Leader for the Genworth acquisition, and head of two of the three business units, Group and Individual Life.
Sun Life made the strategic decision to sell the Life and Annuity businesses and concentrate on growing the Group business. I had been Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Life business through the financial crisis and had been planning to retire in 2-3 more years but the company’s decision to exit that business accelerated that plan. After some soul searching, I decided to “retire” early rather than pursue another executive position.
I joined the CUNA Mutual Group Board in September of 2012. I have thoroughly enjoyed the transition from executive to board member and the free time that affords me to enjoy other activities as well.
5. Where do you want to go in your career – and your financial life?
Financially we achieved financial independence and early retirement. As for my career, I would love to serve out my term with CUNA Mutual and potentially add one or two additional boards. Companies that are growth oriented but face some challenging strategic decisions, interest me most.
6.A. What’s the biggest challenge in being a breadwinning mom? What’s the best part?
The biggest challenge being the breadwinner was my desire to balance work/life. I did not always get to spend as much time with my family as I would have liked. We did not have mobile devices that let you stay in touch when out of the office. It was sometimes tough to take vacation time (or even a weekend off) and still get the job done. There was also jealousy – especially when I was heading to work and dad and the kids would be heading to the lake. Or times when the kids would run to my husband for comfort when they fell down and scraped a knee. The kids looked at their dad as the fun parent and I was the one who made them clean their rooms and do their homework. There were many days when I questioned why I wanted to reverse roles in the first place. But those were the times when the scale was tipped too far on the side of work.
When the balance seemed right, I had quality time with the kids but I also had the challenge of the work. Every day was different, I worked with great people and there was a tremendous sense of accomplishment when we achieved or exceeded goals.
6. B. Achieving financial independence is a dream of many people. How did you get there?
We were able to retire early because we spent our money wisely and we lived within our means. We did not buy things we couldn’t afford and we were always good savers. When we were first married we saved to buy our first really nice stereo receiver, only we could not afford good quality speakers yet. Instead we bought a nice pair of headphones and cuddled if we wanted to listen to music together until we could afford those speakers. We never really lost that mentality. We also do not mind hard work. To this day we will tackle a project ourselves rather than hire someone (if we have the time and can do the work). For example, we demoed our kitchen ourselves when we did the remodel and donated the old cabinets and appliances to ReStore. I did all the painting and Dave did most of the carpentry work. Just a few weeks ago we finished building a rock wall in our back yard near our new pool. It looks great, we saved a ton and we have the pride of accomplishing the work together.
6. C. What do you see as the key to earning such a high salary?
The key to getting to six figures was to work hard and not to worry about my career – I looked for opportunities to add value to the business while balancing what was right for all of the stakeholders – shareholders, employees etc. I included balancing what was right for my family. I made it known that we would not move during the school year. One time I turned down a big promotion because I would have felt like I was leaving the UK operation in the lurch. I asked to stay another year to complete the integration of some blocks of business we had acquired. I got a reputation for being objective and recommending what was best for the business. Many of my career opportunities came looking for me although I did raise my hand for some that did not come knocking (like the position in the UK). I always looked for opportunities that played to my strengths but also helped me develop. I took risks, stretch assignments, and worked hard.
7. Have you ever experienced issues in the workforce because you’re a woman? What did you do in response?
Of course! In the beginning of my career I was often the only woman, the youngest person in the room and the one with the least experience in the industry. I tried to see that as an advantage – a new perspective, unencumbered by past experiences. I also did my homework, and tried to ask intelligent, thought provoking questions, to be the person willing to put the elephant on the table.
Sometimes men assumed I was a secretary in the room to take notes on the meeting, or assumed I did not know much, or worse felt they could take advantage even to the point of sexual harassment. I also benefitted from being a woman in a company that was focused on the value of diversity. I spoke up about the harassment and those men were fired after investigations showed they were abusive to women. With those who underestimated me, I looked for opportunities to prove my worth and earn their respect.
Hidden Figures is one of my favorite movies. What an incredible story of several exceptional African American women who were instrumental in the space race against all kinds of discrimination. They were smart, had confidence in themselves and supported each other while they each looked for ways to add value playing on each of their unique strengths. Many times I have seen smart women sit back in meetings or on projects when they were fully capable of leading the initiative but for their lack of confidence or fear of taking risks. As Sheryl Sandberg said in her book, Lean In, know your strengths and believe in yourself.
During my career some of the least supportive people were actually other women. Vow never to be one of those women yourself – support each other and network. I always had a strong female network but also a broader network that included everyone. I was also fortunate enough to have several male mentors/advocates who pushed me and had my back when I took risky assignments or was in between roles.
Role reversal wasn’t easy on my husband either, especially in the beginning. People looked at us like there was something wrong with both of us. Our son, Greg, drew a picture of us for his kindergarten class. He drew me working at a computer (hard to illustrate mom buying companies) and he drew his dad cooking. His teacher wrote us a note saying we needed to sit down with Greg because he was confused about our roles! While we were expats in England there was a fantastic network called the American Women of Surrey. It was established to help support families who were overseas away from extended family. Dave was not allowed to join it and I was not able to attend any meetings or activities because they were all during the day. After several years of trying to explain our situation, they finally let a man in several years after we had left the country.
8. Chief Mom Officer is primarily a personal finance site – tell us about your saving and investment strategy
Our financial goals shifted over time, but included buying (and selling) houses maximizing the value, putting kids through college without anyone having to take out a loan, saving for retirement, traveling and having great life experiences.
One regret I have is I wished we had found our current financial advisor earlier. We had a somewhat negative experience with our first advisory firm. Instead of switching to someone else, we went solo for many years. While we did not do badly, we did not maximize our returns either.
Now I often call my son, Alex Whitehouse for financial advice. He recently started a financial health and wellness blog called FinHealthy.com. Be sure to stop by and check out the great work he’s doing to help people lead a healthy financial life.
9. What’s the top three pieces of advice you’d have for someone just starting out in the workforce, struggling with their career, or just looking to improve how they handle their money?
Here’s my top 3 pieces of career advice.
- Speak up – let people know what you are interested in so they don’t make assumptions for you. Are you willing to travel, move etc?
- My favorite business book (though somewhat dated now) is still Good to Great. I especially liked the chapter on Level 5 leadership. I was often told early in my career, that I was too nice to be a great leader. I refused to believe you have to be aggressive or nasty to get ahead. This book confirmed that for me. There is also lots of other great advice in the book that is still valid today.
- Groom your successor (or at least identify some solid candidates). In general, bring up the people behind you. Build talent for your organization. You can’t go anywhere unless there is someone ready to take your place.
Overarching all of the above is – Focus on doing what is best for the company.
10. Where can people connect with you?
I can be reached via Linked In.
CMO Here Again
Thanks again to Janet for sharing her story! As I mentioned at the beginning, it resonated with me because it parallels mine in many ways. I was actually married before finishing college, and was seven months pregnant with my oldest son when I graduated. We also had no money starting out our adult lives. I started out making $22k per year and put myself through undergrad by working full time during the day and going to school full-time nights and weekends. I pursued my MBA while having two small children, traveled the world as part of my courses, and finished the MBA four years ago despite the near-death of my husband in the middle of it. I can relate to her feelings of both being proud of everything I accomplish at work, and jealous when everyone else in the family is heading out for summertime fun while I have eight hours of meetings, or when the little guy wants Daddy when he’s hurt. Hearing Janet’s story is, in a way, like looking into both a mirror and a potential future.
A big part of the reason I started this site, and this series specifically, was to encourage and educate others through stories-mine and others. When I was earning a low income, a new college graduate, with a new baby, I couldn’t see how I could ever become successful. It was reading stories (usually in magazines back then) like Janet’s that made me feel that yes, even though our situation right now was not good, one day I too could do it. I hope sharing these stories will help others who are where I used to be, who are similar to me now, or who otherwise just need encouragement to see that yes – no matter what your situation is, real people have done this and you can do it too.
Also I wanted to be sure to thank Alex again for putting us in touch. Swing by his site FinHealthy to see the great work he’s doing to help with financial literacy. And be sure to leave a comment for Janet about what you’ve learned or found inspiring from her story!
If you haven’t already, be sure to swing by my new one-stop shop page for Breadwinning moms, featuring all my prior articles and interviews (plus some updates on prior interviewees!). Know someone that would be perfect for this series, or is that you? Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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