2019 Best EMBAs: Lisa Stewart, Notre Dame (Mendoza)

Lisa Stewart

University of Notre Dame, Mendoza College of Business

“I am a wife, mother, first-generation college graduate, and a strong southern woman.”

Age: 49


Original hometown: Stone Mountain, Georgia

Current place of residence: Normal, Illinois

Family Members:

Husband – Brian

Sons – Lane (Freshman at Ole Miss) and Evan (Junior in high school)

Fun fact about yourself: I have moved seven times in the last 20 years. Some people have roots, some have wings. I have wings!

Undergraduate School and Degree: Georgia State University – Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, minor in Psychology

Where are you currently working? State Farm Insurance, Vice President-Life, Health and Investment Planning Services

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles:

LIMRA board member, a worldwide research and development organization.

Sponsor for a women’s development group at State Farm Insurance, which helps mentor and develop women in current or future leadership roles.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? When I started this program, I was nervous about accounting and finance classes. I didn’t have any academic experience with these subjects and was afraid I would struggle to get through them. Because these classes make up a large portion of our curriculum, I had to drown out the voice in my head that was telling me I might not succeed. I worked hard, learned from great professors, and leveraged friends who helped when I needed more assistance. It wasn’t always easy, especially when things at work were difficult, but I did it. I am proud to complete my degree and graduate with honors.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? After my sophomore year in college, I left school and accepted a job with my current employer as they opened a new office. I soon realized the only thing standing between me and my career goals was my lack of a college degree. I decided to change the path I was on. I worked full-time and went to school full-time until I graduated. That decision opened doors for me that have led to where I am today. The experience helped me realize that opportunity is all around you if you are willing to take the steps necessary to capture it. I have carried this forward into my career and mentor others who are trying to decide what options to consider on their career path.

Mentoring provides me an opportunity to leave a living legacy at my organization. I have had the privilege of developing and promoting five individuals into executive roles over the last several years. Each one showed promise and commitment; this was a big step toward bringing forth the next generation of leaders in the State Farm organization.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? There were so many great professors but I’d have to say my favorite was Walt Clements. Aside from being highly intelligent, he has a strong academic background, a quick sense of humor, and extraordinary business acumen.

Walt also has real-world business experience and a perspective that is invaluable. He was able to walk us through concepts, explain the context, and provide examples from the business world. For me, this has brought all the things we’ve been learning to live and made them applicable.

What was your favorite MBA course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? We had the opportunity to participate in several strategy classes. Each class built upon the other and brought a unique perspective on how to create a competitive advantage. My favorite class was Strategic Foresight. Professor

Miller helped us see the value of knowing the history of an organization and identifying their core competencies. From there, he challenged us to think boldly about what the future could hold within the industry as a whole. By pushing us to think bigger, he helped us see the possibilities that change can bring. The world is changing quickly and we need more leaders who adapt to new realities and capture blue ocean opportunities.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? Even before I looked at the program, I was aware of the reputation of Notre Dame which had definite appeal. I reviewed the courses offered and knew it would provide a combination of financial acumen and strategic thinking. In addition, I really liked that this executive MBA program focused on the whole person. The academic content is extensive but, equally important, it also focuses on developing leadership skills. High ethical standards and a genuine commitment to serve others add to the appeal of Notre Dame.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? While I have been intellectually challenged by learning new subjects, the people I had the opportunity to interact with have had an overwhelmingly positive impact on my Notre Dame experience. I expected to learn from the professors in business school, but the power of the cohort has been a tremendous benefit as well. The willingness to share, be vulnerable, and support and assist one another began very early in the program and grew stronger with each progression. I have learned so much from this group and built incredible relationships that will continue long after the program ends.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? Challenge yourself and seize the opportunity when you have it. Pursuing an executive MBA during this stage of life and career meant taking a chance. I wasn’t guaranteed success on any front, but I kept my priorities clear and made adjustments. I reminded myself that growth occurs when you get outside of your comfort zone. I had been out of school for over two decades and was nervous about my ability to learn new subjects while balancing work and family. I came to realize that Notre Dame designed a program which not only challenges you intellectually but also provides support to help you learn. Professors were committed to creating a learning environment and made themselves available to provide assistance outside of class as needed. The cohort supported one another and leveraged skills and experiences within the team to bring others along. The program was definitely challenging but it is designed for success.

I have been able to use this example as I mentor others at work. Our company is currently going through a great deal of change. We are not only changing how people work but also asking many to learn new skills. Often, this type of change can come with uncertainty and discomfort. I use my example to help people understand that we all need to continually develop and challenge ourselves. In order to stay relevant and competitive into the future, change must occur. Embracing it and allowing yourself to grow leads to new opportunities and future success.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family, and education? Last year, several events came together in what could have been a perfect storm. State Farm held its National Agency Convention where I was on stage for three sessions, addressing audiences of 10,000 each time. It was an amazing opportunity that came with travel, preparation, and all of the social expectations of a major event.

At the same time, we were beginning the second progression in the executive MBA program. I had a new team, a heavy course load, and new professors. I needed to be actively engaged.

On top of all of this, I was packing up my oldest child and moving him to his freshman year of college, hundreds of miles from home. He needed my support. I needed to make sure I was preparing him to be away from home and how to make good decisions. It was a significant and emotional point in our relationship.

In order to navigate these competing priorities, there was a real need to think and plan in advance. I had to be open and transparent with my family and my academic team to share what was on the horizon. I had to figure out what I could take on beforehand and address my availability. At work, I have a great team of assistant vice presidents who report to me. I needed to address the demands of what was coming and help them think through how we could all work differently. I empowered them to take ownership and allowed myself to step back and be less directly involved in certain aspects. It was about communicating my top priorities, providing clarity on expectations, and empowering the team to take action.

A big thing I learned is how to give myself grace throughout that whole period of time. I had to be OK with everything not always being picture perfect.

Throughout any kind of adversity, the most important thing to me is never wavering in my number one priority: focusing on my family first.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? Go into it with your eyes open about the workload and the pressure you will feel during this time. You will have a lot on your plate and will need to be aware of the available support around you. Your professors and your cohort are there to help and understand the challenges you may face. While you are still deciding, spend the time to visit the program, learn about the core values and make sure there is alignment.

At the same time, your work and family have to understand what you are going through. Remember the importance of open dialogue with those around you. This is a limited period of time that will be worth it at the end.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? I believed the myth that there was a time in which it was too late to return to school. My biggest concern, having been out of school for so long, was going back at my age and at this point in my career. The real experience demonstrated there was a wide variety of people, both in age and profession, in the class. I learned from others in the program and hope people learned from me as well. I have never felt out of place, even when using the new tools and technology that are different in school today. I proved to myself that I can confidently take on new challenges and continuously demonstrate learning agility.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Unfortunately, with balancing family, work, and school, I have not been able to take advantage of networking as much as I would like. I am hoping to change that after I graduate. A major benefit of these programs is the ability to connect with people from all different experiences and circumstances. I want to continue to expand my Notre Dame network in the future.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? There are many classmates I admire, but I would have to say Jordan McGuire would rise to the top of the list. She has worked for her company for many years and, after holding several different positions, is now a vice president of marketing. She is both dedicated and committed in a way you can’t help but admire. She has great loyalty to her organization and to developing the people she leads. One way she does this is through leading by example. Throughout this program, she has continued to excel at her job while maintaining excellent grades. Even though she is balancing multiple priorities, she always makes time to coach her employees or assist a classmate. She does it all while maintaining a great sense of humor and with a smile on her face.

Recently, Jordan has agreed to take on a new challenge at work. She has accepted an opportunity with her company which will cause her to relocate to

Paris, France. Even with going back and forth between continents, she has managed to stay actively engaged, continuing the same level of success in both work and the program. She is the type of person any employer would want on their team and I am blessed to call her “friend”.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…my career led me to new and exciting roles which required deeper financial acumen.”

During my undergraduate years, I thought I wanted to pursue a career in the social services area so I majored in Sociology and minored in Psychology. My career, however, took another direction when I entered into a sales position. I believe my undergraduate degree taught me a lot about people, which was important in sales. I understood the value of relationships and helping people meet their needs.

In recent years, my career has taken another turn as I now work as an executive within our Financial Services product lines area. The focus of this role is more operational and requires deeper financial acumen. I learned quite a bit from diving in to learn and leveraging people around me. As I attended board meetings and listened to different leaders from other areas of the company, I realized there was an opportunity to develop further. I wanted to learn more. Pursuing this executive MBA has strengthened my business acumen and shown me there are always ways to sharpen and continue to develop.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? As a second generation State Farm employee, I am very loyal to my company. It’s in my blood. While I would welcome opportunities to lead at higher levels, I am so grateful for where I sit today. I am proud to represent my family and my organization. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I will face it with more confidence after having completed this program.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I would hope they see in me that true leadership is more than a role; it is the example we set with courage and motivation balanced with a genuine desire to see those around us succeed.

What are the top two items on your bucket list?

Short Term: I would like to take a trip after I graduate to celebrate the achievement and a big milestone birthday. I’m thinking Napa might be the right place to toast to both events.

Long Term: I would like to see both of my kids graduate from college, then go on to have happy, successful lives.

What made Lisa such an invaluable addition to the class of 2019?

“Lisa Stewart is perhaps the most prominent member of our Executive MBA Class of 2019 at Notre Dame. Her outstanding qualities include her high intellect, drive to achieve, emphasis on team and overall leadership.

Lisa has led by example in terms of successfully balancing and embracing demands of family, career and her own continuing development. She is an accomplished executive at State Farm with a very demanding position, especially during the time she has been enrolled in the Notre Dame EMBA. She’s also a consummate family person whose children are moving on to college and different stages of their lives. Despite these demands, she has been one of the leading members of the Class of 2019 in terms of academic performance and leadership. She devotes time to mentoring people in her career and making herself available to her classmates to help them better embrace balancing the many demands they face.

Lisa was a student in three of my courses — all very challenging finance courses, two required and one an elective. When entering the program, she wanted to enhance her finance capabilities and was slightly worried about not having had much finance in the past. The fact that Lisa chose a finance course for her elective illustrates how she embraces challenges. And that she earned the top grade in my courses demonstrates both her high intellect and her drive to achieve. Lisa has proven to herself that she excels at an area that she was not so sure about, for which she should be very proud.”

Walter Clements

Associate Dean of Executive Education

Finance Teaching Professor


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