Bremer President and CEO and UND CoBPA graduate Jeanne Crain spreads message of purposeful leadership to campus community.
When New Rockford, N.D. native Jeanne Crain sat in her first class at the University of North Dakota in the fall of 1978, business wasn’t on her brain. She was an undecided major.
But as she navigated courses and made connections, Crain found there was something about economics and finance that really stirred something in her. She ended up with a banking and finance degree from the College of Business and Public Administration (CoBPA).
On April 4, the now president and chief executive officer of Bremer Financial Corporation found herself amid UND’s future bankers, accountants and entrepreneurs once again—this time, packing the Gorecki Alumni Center to hear her story.
“I stand here today as a testament of that great experience and that great education that I received at the University of North Dakota,” Crain told the standing-room-only crowd. “I’m truly proud to be an example of UND’s commitment to shaping student’s lives for the better.”
Crain was the keynote speaker of the 30th Anniversary Hultberg Lectureship Series, a celebration of successful CoBPA alumnae. Since it began in 1988, the series has invited more than 100 female graduates back to campus to share their experiences.
“Our students love hearing from CEOs, and it is especially important for them to see women in these roles,” said CoBPA Dean Margaret Williams. “Knowing that not too long ago Jeanne Crain was studying in Gamble Hall is very motivational for them.”
Leading with purpose
Crain now leads an $11 billion financial services company, but she got her modest start in Grand Forks as a commercial loan officer in 1982—the bank’s first woman in that role. She had just interviewed for a loan officer job in a much smaller town, where she was surprised to find all of the female employees in light-colored uniforms, the men in suits of their own choosing.
“The president of the bank, in our interview, commented, ‘I’m just not sure what I’d have you wear.’ So I helped him out with that decision—I didn’t take the job.” Crain recounted to the giggling audience.
Crain described other challenges she encountered through her professional climb as a woman, from seemingly trivial wardrobe issues to dips in self-confidence and lack of male encouragement.
“Men in the audience—I have a call to action for you. Support the women in your life, and whether you lead, or you follow, or you walk alongside, it’s really critically important to feel that support,” Crain said.
From her journey as a small-town girl to the head of a company of 2,000 employees, Crain established her own leadership equation of equal parts authenticity, passion and resilience. But she made it clear that all leaders must find what matters most to them, and lead with that purpose in mind.
“Leaders need to be learners, we need to be coaches, we need to listen, we need to ask questions and to really pay attention to the changing needs of our organizations,” she said.
And that, Crain added, is where UND’s students come in.
“You’re the future,” she told them. “You are what will really help change and inspire all of us as leaders to pay attention to what we need to pay attention to. I think your ability to work collaboratively and to make an impact by doing work that matters to you—that is how we’re going to solve the challenges of today’s world.”
Leading up to Crain’s presentation, students were invited to join in on an interactive session and classrooms panels with 23 other distinguished female CoBPA alumnae who were invited to campus as a part of the lectureship series with support from corporate sponsor Carmen Fore and Northwestern Mutual.
“Hearing from these outstanding women is important for both male and female students. Yet, there is no denying the special role the Hultberg speakers play as examples and mentors for our female students,” Williams said.
The Hultberg Lectureship Series started 30 years ago, established through the UND Foundation with a leading gift from 1928 UND graduate Clara E. Hultberg, who wanted to demonstrate the professional opportunities available for business students. The lectureship was created in memory of Hultberg’s parents, Hans and Suzanne.
The women who are still experiencing the lectureship three decades later said Crain’s advice will stick with them through their careers.
“Seeing people you relate to can be very powerful,” said medical laboratory science major Carley Rortvedt of Fargo, N.D. “As a woman, you want to prove yourself and show you can do it and reach these high levels, but you can still allow yourself to be supported by the people around you.”
“Find out who you are and follow who you are,” said Maria Sears, an accounting major from Maddock, N.D. “Do your career with passion—that’s what I took away.”