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Stephanie O'Dear, EMBA '17

Stephanie O'Dear, EMBA '17, joins Christopher Reichert, MOT '04, for a conversation about her experience in the EMBA program at MIT Sloan.

Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is a conversational podcast with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Google, and Spotify

Christopher Reichert: Welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, a candid conversation with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. So, what does it mean to be a Sloanie? Over the course of this podcast, you'll hear from guests who are making a difference in their community, including our own very important one here at Sloan. I'm your host, Christopher Reichert. Welcome to a Sloanies Talking with Sloanies about ideas that matter. I'm Christopher Reichert.

Stephanie O’Dear: And I'm Stephanie O'Dear.

Christopher Reichert: And welcome everyone to the 10th in our series. So, Stephanie, tell us where you work and tell us about the last few years of your life.

Stephanie O’Dear: I’m currently in Kansas City, Missouri and I work for Empower Retirement. I'm Vice President of Government Markets.

Christopher Reichert: So, years ago Willie Sutton was asked, “why did he rob banks?” And he said, “well, that's where the money is.” Is that part of why Empower targets the government market?

Stephanie O’Dear: No, I would say we have a segment called the Government Market, but overall, we're the second largest record keeper in the country.

Christopher Reichert: And I didn't mean that you guys rob.

Stephanie O’Dear: Yes, right. Thank you for that nod. But we do retirement plan record keeping for companies, corporate and public sector.

Christopher Reichert: So, you take over that onerous task on behalf of the government clients?

Stephanie O’Dear: That's right. So, plan sponsors who have 401(k)s, 457's, 404(b)s, we do all the administration, communication, marketing, and then we're broken into segments. So, the government segment is one that we serve exceptionally well.

Christopher Reichert: And so, you're a Vice President of Sales Strategy, is that right? No, that's a previous one, is it?

Stephanie O’Dear: That's a previous role that I held at JP Morgan. For about a year now, I've been in the Vice President Government Markets role. I oversee a team of relationship managers, but I also participate in business strategy, business development. I would say overall thought leadership and then coaching and training my team.

Christopher Reichert: And what year did you graduate from Sloan?

Stephanie O’Dear: 2017. I was part of the Executive MBAs.

Christopher Reichert: So, two years?

Stephanie O’Dear: Yes.

Christopher Reichert: Yes. They just had their reunion. Are there still a lot of people who come back for that?

Stephanie O’Dear: Well, not the two year, but the one year we had a great showing and it was an awesome thing to see everybody.

Christopher Reichert: And tell me about that program, it's a two-year program?

Stephanie O’Dear: It was a two-year program. About every two to three weeks, we assemble for a Friday and a Saturday. Full days.

Christopher Reichert: In person?

Stephanie O’Dear: In person. There's no online. I got that question a lot. Did you do this online? Nope. I got on a plane every two to three weeks.

Christopher Reichert: And you came here to Cambridge?

Stephanie O’Dear: Came here to Cambridge and stayed at the Marriott Cambridge. I have to say though, I loved being a commuter, if you will, because I think my classmates who were here, or considered locals, always struggled with being pulled if they had a family commitment or something else. But being from out of town, when you were on campus you were fully immersed in the experience.

Christopher Reichert: So that was a weekend, you said? A Friday to a late Sunday.

Stephanie O’Dear: It was a Friday and Saturday deal. And full-time classes the entire time, and just an incredible experience.

Christopher Reichert: And so in between, how did you manage the study load?

Stephanie O’Dear: Yes. In fact, I wondered today what I did with all that time. Where did it go? Now that I've graduated it's just vaporized. I think first of all, having a supportive company. My company was very excited for me to pursue this. I was self-funded, but that did give me my vacation time off.

Christopher Reichert: Oh, that's good.

Stephanie O’Dear: They were very supportive and I think that helped. But in addition, I had had a great family network of support. They're all in Kansas City. I have three kids. They're a bit older, but they were wonderfully excited for me.

Christopher Reichert: So, they understood what was happening?

Stephanie O’Dear: They did, they got it. And I felt like I was setting a good example about lifelong learning and bettering yourself. This had been a dream of mine for a long time.

Christopher Reichert: You mentioned that you were out of the workforce for what, 10 years or so?

Stephanie O’Dear: 10 years. I was a stay at home mom for 10 years when my kids were first coming along. That was quite an adventure in and of itself. But as I said, this was really a dream of mine, and I don't want to ascribe it to being a bucket list item, it was more than that. I wanted to do something that would not only jumpstart my career, but help me leap frog ahead of my peers. I just felt like having an MBA would do that. But then when I had the audacity of thinking I could get one from MIT I thought, “If I can make this happen, I'm going to find a way.”

Christopher Reichert: How did you choose Sloan? What were the factors?

Stephanie O’Dear: I was accepted to another program that was more regional, shall we say, to Kansas City—Washington University, specifically. At the same time, I was exploring Sloan, and I saw that they had an outstanding Executive MBA program. It fit the parameters of what I was looking for, the timeframe fit, the way the classes were structured were very attractive to me. So, once I got accepted here, it was not a hard decision.

Christopher Reichert: Right. How many classmates do you keep in touch with? I know we're on the [MIT Sloan] Alumni Board together.

Stephanie O’Dear: We are on the Alumni Board together, which I thoroughly enjoy. A couple of classmates there who I get to see when we convene.

Christopher Reichert: This is your third year, right? We started together.

Stephanie O’Dear: It's going into my third year. And I'll be leading one of the committees this year, so I'm excited about that.

Christopher Reichert: Which one are you leading?

Stephanie O’Dear: I am going to lead the one that aligns with the Executive MBA program.

Christopher Reichert: Of course. That makes sense.

Stephanie O’Dear: So, it's really going to be great to work with Jo [Hising DiFabio] and her team on some accomplishments there. I would say, I don't stay in as close touch as I would like to. Being in Kansas City, there's not a huge draw to this area, so I'm kind of an island in some ways, and so, I really do have to work at staying connected. I'm here in town for work, but I'm going to have breakfast with a classmate in the morning, and I have some chat groups that we keep going. Occasionally I'll lob a phone call to somebody randomly.

Christopher Reichert: Yes, it is difficult. In fact, after this I'm having drinks with one of my classmates who's in town, I haven't seen her for a while. So, that's one of the things you fit in.

Stephanie O’Dear: You do. If it's a priority, right. I think its that whole adage, you make time for your priorities.

Christopher Reichert:  I noticed you also went to Kellogg?

Stephanie O’Dear: I did Executive Education at Kellogg in Sales Management a few years ago, and that was probably my first taste, my first dabble, of what you could do as an adult learner.

Christopher Reichert: When did you come out of stay at home status?

Stephanie O’Dear: That was about 10 years ago. So, I would say close to 2008, 2009.

Christopher Reichert: And I see you wrote a monthly column.

Stephanie O’Dear: I did.

Christopher Reichert: What was that about? SPACES Magazine. I interviewed somebody from Blue Origin, but is this the same?

Stephanie O’Dear: No, no. Different.

Christopher Reichert: Not that space.

Stephanie O’Dear: This is a regional magazine based in Kansas City. It was published by the Kansas City Star, and I did that for five years. I wrote a monthly column around style and personal brand issues. It dabbled in some fashion and things like that. But it was really fun.

Christopher Reichert: That's a topic close to your heart?

Stephanie O’Dear: Yes. It's probably my hobby. Everybody has a hobby. That's probably where I like to spend extra time dabbling in.

Christopher Reichert: And what about the Cosmopolitan Group?

Stephanie O’Dear: I represented a clothing line many years ago for five years. It was based out of New York and that was really a great entry back into the working world. It was out of my home. I was super successful. I was one of the top sales people in the country.

Christopher Reichert: Top 3%, I see.

Stephanie O’Dear: Yes.

Christopher Reichert: Great.

Stephanie O’Dear: So, that was really my first chance to prove myself in some business context and that was a great way to parlay into stepping back into what I would call an office environment.

Christopher Reichert: So, I guess there's a sales component, obviously a huge sales component. Were you selling to stores?

Stephanie O’Dear: Direct to consumers.

Christopher Reichert: Oh, direct to consumers. Okay.

Stephanie O’Dear: I like to say “I dressed the best of Kansas City.”

Christopher Reichert: That's excellent. And I see here you were the Circle President for Lyric Opera. We talked about your singing background. Tell us about that.

Stephanie O’Dear: Yes. I went to undergraduate at University of Missouri, for a degree in journalism, which it's well known for, and went on a vocal scholarship. So, that was an interesting foray into college, and then a semester in I realized I didn't want to major in it, but I was able to keep my scholarship by participating in the choirs and doing solo performances.

Christopher Reichert: That's excellent. Yes, I threatened to sing some Elvis if you would sing. You didn't take me up on that.

I used to sing in a choir as well. So it's interesting—you have a creative side, that artistic singing, the writing side of it, and now you're working in retirement solutions. How did you pick that path?

Stephanie O’Dear: It picked me. I was in a job being Vice President of Strategic Communications and Business Development at a different company in Kansas City, and I saw an opportunity at JP Morgan that was to oversee strategic communications for a team. Although I didn't know the industry and it was my first foray into financial services, I knew about marketing, journalism, advertising, and communications in general, and sales. I took a huge leap of faith and I made one phone call to somebody I knew who worked there and got the interview, and 11 interviews later I got the job.

Christopher Reichert: Wow. That's grueling.

Stephanie O’Dear: Yes. JP Morgan taught me a ton. I loved working for them and then they sold off that line of business to Empower. So, continuously I've been there eight years.

Christopher Reichert: So that was in Kansas City?

Stephanie O’Dear: [affirmative]

Christopher Reichert: JP Morgan's office there?

Stephanie O’Dear: Yes.

Christopher Reichert: That's great. Are you from that area originally?

Stephanie O’Dear: I am from Kansas City, yes. Raised there. Went to public schools and then University of Missouri for undergrad.

Christopher Reichert: Excellent.

Stephanie O’Dear: Yes

Christopher Reichert: So, is there a favorite Sloan memory that you have?

Stephanie O’Dear: Probably…

Christopher Reichert: Maybe it's a professor? Maybe it was a class? Maybe it was a classmate?

Stephanie O’Dear: Yes, Nelson Repenning is hard to beat, as a person who sticks out for his impact. “What problem are you trying to solve?” is probably the question that I am now known for asking on conference calls. It's just such a pertinent question to level the conversation. It also gives pause frequently. I would say my other favorite memories are of the group projects. We had many occasions to team up, and the diversity of those teams was just amazing. I always learned more from my colleagues and my peers than I felt like I brought to the table.

Presenting for Idea Week, we were finalists in that and that was super exciting. I had the privilege, if you will, or the curse of being a presenter. So, standing in front of your colleagues, standing in front of other venture capitalists and that panel. I remember having that adrenaline rush, where the papers were almost shaking, and I was a seasoned presenter. But it is the caliber of people that you're in front of that just humbles you very quickly. I, of course, wanted to represent the team well, and we did well.

Christopher Reichert: Yes, that can be definitely stressful. Is there a do-over that you think about? Think about a class you should have taken or should not have taken?

Stephanie O’Dear: Oh, wow. Yes, a do-over. Accounting would be one that I did well in, but I didn't do as well as I could have. I remember having a conversation with that professor and I said, “Gosh, what could I have done?” And he said, “We graded on the curve. There was really nothing you could have done.” So, I was put in my place on that. But I honestly don't feel like there's a “do-over.” It was such a rich experience. And like I said, being here as a commuter, I really embraced every moment of it. I never missed a weekend, literally through all the bad weather in Boston and other challenges with travel. I can honestly say I didn't miss a single class and I'm very proud of that.

Christopher Reichert: Would you have classes on Friday night late and then all day Saturday?

Stephanie O’Dear:  All day Friday.

Christopher Reichert: All day. So, you'd arrive Thursday?

Stephanie O’Dear: And all-day Saturday. I would travel on Thursdays. Class all day Friday, class all day Saturday, and then I would leave Sunday morning.

Christopher Reichert: Full of homework.

Stephanie O’Dear: Yes, and reading case studies on the plane and doing my pre-reading in between the weeks that we were here. I mean, my evenings were, I'd workout and then I'd do my homework, and that was just the drill. I think once you get acclimated to that kind of routine, it's not so much of an interruption, it's just what you do. And because you do it for a two-year time period, it's normalized.

Christopher Reichert: During the summer did you have a break, or did you go continuously through?

Stephanie O’Dear: No, continuously through. That's how they get it all in.

Christopher Reichert: Do you have any advice for people who are considering the different programs that Sloan offers?

Stephanie O’Dear: I think the admissions office talks about “mid-career professional” as ideal for the Executive MBA. But I would say, even if you're looking to change careers, jump-start your career, like me—I spent a decade taking care of three kids—I don't think there's anybody that shouldn't consider MIT. Now, it is rigorous. I will not kid you. It was not a cake walk. But I think if you have the will, this is a school that can support your dreams and your goals. For me, it not only gave me tools that I actually use on a day-to-day basis, but it gave me a network of friends that I'll have for the rest of my life.

Christopher Reichert: That's excellent. What compels you to stay engaged with Sloan?  You're on the Alumni Board, along with me.

Stephanie O’Dear: I couldn't give it up. It gets in your blood, and I was just at a point where I said, I can't not have a contact with Sloan for a longer period of time than that. The Alumni Board opportunity presented itself and I was like, absolutely, if you'll have me, I can't wait to serve.

Christopher Reichert: Yes, I felt the same way when I got the call. So, what's your definition of success? I mean, you've done sales for clothing, you've done writing for a magazine, and now you're doing retirement. In all of those things, how do you measure whether you feel successful or not?

Stephanie O’Dear: I talk to my team sometimes about, “How do you spend your day?” Or, “How do you define success?” And one of the things I coach them around is, “Where are you at your highest and best use? Have you reached your potential? Have you tapped your potential? Do you even understand your capabilities?” It doesn't mean you're going to use them every day in every way. But, “Are you aware of the array of possibilities?” I guess is how I think about it. I've been fortunate. I have done a wide variety of things. I have an interesting history to date, and I've been able to pivot. I remember I had a classmate who did a presentation about how he was a “Pivoteer” and I always thought that was a great title.

Christopher Reichert: Sounds like a Mouseketeer.

Stephanie O’Dear: It does, yeah, or pirate of some kind, a buccaneer.

He was a pivoteer and I thought, “I relate to that.” So, my definition of success I think is really, have I actualized the things that matter to me? Do I have good relationships with my family? Do I have a good corporate brand? Do I feel that my work has purpose and meaning? And I have to say, helping people save for retirement, helping companies run those plans, that gives me great sense of purpose. I think as I look back, my definition of success has absolutely been winning from time to time, but also learning from the losses.

Christopher Reichert: So, I'm curious, and asking for a friend here. How much should we save for retirement?

Stephanie O’Dear: That depends, and I can't give you specific advice about that. But what we typically recommend is somebody who's 40 or older saves between 10% and 15% of their salary.

Christopher Reichert: And is there a dollar figure that you try to get people to shoot for, in terms of when you hit 65 or something?

Stephanie O’Dear: There's so many factors. It depends on when you want to retire. It depends on the kind of lifestyle you want to have. It depends on where you're going to live.

Christopher Reichert: Right.

Stephanie O’Dear: It depends on your healthcare costs. All those things factor in. We have some great tools and resources at Empower that help people come to that right number. But we think of it as a metric of income replacement.

Christopher Reichert: Right.

Stephanie O’Dear: How much income do you need in retirement and on a monthly basis? So, because people think of their bills in terms of monthly payments.

Christopher Reichert: Right. Well, that's a stressful topic, that's for sure, right?

Stephanie O’Dear: Yes. It is.

Christopher Reichert: So, how do you get people to engage in it?

Stephanie O’Dear: It's not easy to get people to engage about retirement, because it seems so far off. But when I talk to people my age, they're like, “It's not that far off anymore.” And I hate to see people in acts of desperation at that time, because they're either taking a huge pay cut to save for retirement in a tax deferred program, or they will work a lot longer than they want to. And that's not optimal either. So, starting early, I think getting people to understand the value of a dollar and how that compounds over time, and even de-risking your portfolio, all of that good stuff, it absolutely goes to the bottom line of what is going to be your definition of happiness and retirement. It's not always about the money. We see people sometimes who retire and stay mentally. They have higher workers' compensation claims, healthcare costs, they're less productive. They're a huge cost to the employer. So, you, I think as an employer, you want to create a retirement plan that best optimizes somebody's chance to retire with dignity.

Christopher Reichert: Right. So, my youngest daughter is eight. Is it too soon? Should I set up a 401(k)?

Stephanie O’Dear: An IRA. Yes, set up some kind of a 529.

Christopher Reichert: A 529, yes, right.

Stephanie O’Dear: It's probably the best thing.

Christopher Reichert: All of the above, right.

Stephanie O’Dear: Right.

Christopher Reichert: I want to close on a story that you told us about. You were a top 10 finisher in Miss America for Miss Missouri. So, tell us about that process.

Stephanie O’Dear: Yes, that was an exciting time in my life. I was Miss Missouri 1992, and I did make the top 10 in Miss America. My talent was singing and it was an incredible experience. I traveled the state, 35,000 miles in one year.

Christopher Reichert: Wow.

Stephanie O’Dear: Did appearances of all kinds. Sang for George Bush [the first] at the Special Olympics, did speeches all over the state, did a whole bunch of events, and got to also sit in a Hardee's and sign autographs in the smallest town. I was the biggest thing that came to the town all year.

Christopher Reichert: That's great. That's awesome.

Stephanie O’Dear: It gave me a real sense of perspective because I met this wide range of people and humanity, and everybody has a struggle. But then you'd meet the little girl who had dreams like I used to have about what I can accomplish and you just learn to relate to a really wide range of individuals. Then you also get the fun of the glamour and onstage, but the real work happens on the road.

Christopher Reichert: That's excellent. I've always been curious about the feeder system: regionals, local, county.

Stephanie O’Dear: Yes, you start at the local level, then you go to the state, and then you have nationals.

Christopher Reichert: And that's competitive the whole way through?

Stephanie O’Dear: It is very competitive. I mean, I was not a pageant girl at all. I focused on the individual components. I was a good interviewer. I had done modeling for 20 years, so, I was used to a stage and modeling clothes, and then my singing work that I had done, it all kind of came together in this opportunity. It was great scholarship money.

Christopher Reichert: Absolutely.

Stephanie O’Dear: So, I was in the pageant system for three years only, and then had the success I had.

Christopher Reichert: And some people stay longer?

Stephanie O’Dear: Oh, there are some people who had been in it from the minute they were 18 until they aged out at the ripe old age of 23.

Christopher Reichert: Is that right?

Stephanie O’Dear: Oh yes.

Christopher Reichert: Five-year window.

Stephanie O’Dear: Yes. So, I guess it was 25, now that I say that. I was 23 when I won.

Christopher Reichert:  That's great. So, what's next for you? You've been in power for a few years now. What do you see with your team or the company or in life?

Stephanie O’Dear: I love my company. They are a great company. It's about 6,000 employees strong, headquartered in Denver, but we have about 700 employees in Kansas City. I'm actually the site leader for the Kansas City office. So, having been in this job for just a year, I want to continue to be in that learning mode and apply the value that I can, and continue to collaborate with my colleagues and peers. But I would say I'm ambitious. I have aspirations to continue to be successful, to do more. I would love to do that at Empower. But I also have had the closet fantasy of being a consultant, that awful word, of working for one of the well-known firms. We'll just see if what I have to offer is interesting, and if the timing's right. But I really love what I do today and I love the people I get to do it with.

Christopher Reichert: That's excellent. Well thank you very much to Stephanie O'Dear for joining us for Sloanies Talking with Sloanies about ideas that matter.

Stephanie O’Dear: Thanks for having me.

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