St. Thomas Alumnae in the C-suite

The Rise to the C-Suite

St. Thomas Alumnae Who Climbed Past the Broken Rung Offer Advice for Getting Ahead.

When Karen Julian, who was raised in Lakeville, Minnesota, first set foot on the University of St. Thomas campus in 1989 as a first-generation college student, she knew she wanted to pursue a career that incorporated her interests in business, finance and technology. So, she majored in business with a concentration in finance. She also minored in quantitative methods and computer science.

In her junior year, she secured a job at St. Thomas as a computer programmer in the Financial Aid Office.

“There were very few of us,” she said about the number of student workers and full-time staffers in computer programming roles at the university at that time.

Karen Julian (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

Julian continued her career journey at St. Thomas, rising through the ranks after obtaining her MBA from St. Thomas in 1998. About 25 years later, she was promoted to chief information officer – the first woman to hold the position at the University of St. Thomas.

Julian is one of a handful of St. Thomas alumnae who have made it to a C-suite position. The incoming Board of Trustees chair, Jodee Kozlak, also a St. Thomas alumnae, was the first woman chief human resources officer for Target Corporation, and its longest serving executive in the C-suite.

While women make up 47% of all employed adults in the U.S. as of 2022, only one in four C-suite leaders of America’s top companies is a woman, according to an analysis by McKinsey & Co.

Other studies show that adding women to the C-suite brings new perspectives and grows the bottom line. Having senior-level women helps to open the door for other women who can see what they can achieve at the organization or due to the support and advocacy they receive from other women higher on the ladder.

Here’s a look at three alumnae in the C-suite and advice they give to climb the ladder.

Jasmine Jirele

PRESIDENT and Chief Executive Officer, Allianz Life

Jasmine Jirele says as a kid she made profit and loss statements to track the earnings from her frequent lemonade stands. A math whiz, she enrolled at St. Thomas at age 15. Living in a residence hall above the then-student center, she finished her bachelor’s degree in business and journalism in three years.

“I was really lucky to have had great mentors and people who took me under their wing,” she said about being 18 when she started her career journey.

She landed at Minnesota Mutual, now Securian Financial Group, doing marketing communications and market research. Today, Jirele is president and chief executive officer of Allianz Life, a role she assumed in summer 2021 after nearly 14 on-and-off years with the insurance provider.

“I have always had an interest in finance, but I was never sitting around thinking I would go build a career in insurance,” she said. She worked for a while before obtaining her master’s degree in finance from Hamline University in 2011.

She also pursued leadership roles at 3M and Wells Fargo, but there was an allure to the insurance industry.

“I saw firsthand through my work how people’s lives are fundamentally changed for the better when they are protected against risks and have really strong financial security – and that’s not just for people who are wealthy, but really at all levels of our community,” she said. “I feel like I am doing something to help society and help people.”

She also helps by sitting on an advisory board at the Opus College of Business. And Allianz Life has established internships with the Opus College and the Dougherty Family College at St. Thomas.

Jasmine Jirele

Jirele’s Words of Advice

“Breadth of experience matters,” said Jirele, who is the first woman CEO in the 125-plus year history of Allianz Life. “I have not been shy with raising my hand and demonstrating a willingness to try my hand at different jobs within the organization.”

Seek out people who can be your sponsor within the company. Take initiative and ask for opportunities.

“Being visible is really important,” she said, especially for women given that the vast majority of companies in the U.S. are run by men. She does her part to encourage women through speaking at forums and media events. “I highlight the attractiveness of this profession for women and that Allianz Life is a dynamic and exciting place to work.”

Linglong He

Chief Leadership Advisor, Rocket Central

It’s not easy to climb the ladder to the C-suite of a publicly traded company as a woman of color in the male-dominated fintech industry, but Linglong He has seized a top rung as chief leadership advisor of Rocket Central.

She has been shaking up the technology industry for more than 20 years at one of the nation’s largest personal finance and consumer service brands: Rocket Companies. Fortune ranked Rocket as No. 5 among its “100 Best Companies to Work For.”

Linglong He

This St. Thomas alumna previously served from 2010-21 as chief information officer at sister company Quicken Loans, now called Rocket Mortgage. In that role, she spearheaded the 2015 launch of the first completely digital mortgage experience.

Linglong He joined the Rocket family of brands in 1996 as a software engineer, two years after obtaining a master’s degree in software engineering from the University of St. Thomas — her second master’s.

He’s Words of Advice

For business leaders: “Technology is an asset, not an expense. I think a lot of business leaders are starting to understand this. The CIO and CTO need to be at the table because technology is central to business. Your team members will be inspired to do more if they feel they don’t have to live in a box. You have to not only treat it as an investment, but you also have to make sure you’re investing in emerging, cutting-edge technology.”

For women and people of color: “People may look at you differently because of your gender, because of your race, because of your accent. You need to see yourself as an intelligent individual who is going to contribute to the table. Don’t ever let external barriers become internal barriers – nobody else can bring you down. When people discriminate against you, don’t be afraid to speak out. Don’t easily give up. Prove you can do it.”

Don't ever let external barriers become internal barriers.

Linglong He

For everyone: “I never wanted to climb the ladder. I always try to be the best version of me. My main three things I want to share with people: Take ownership. Whenever people give you a task, big or small, you have to take the opportunity to master your own craft. Take initiative. How will people know you are more capable? Finally, build the relationship and make meaningful connections with others – it is too easy to be isolated in today’s world.”

Julie Sexton

Chief Human Resources Officer, Land O'Lakes

Julie Sexton is a double Tommie who serves as senior vice president and chief human resources officer (CHRO) for Land O’Lakes, Inc. As a graduate of a small high school in Medford, Minnesota, she had a mantra when she left for college: “The only way something is going to happen is if I make it happen,” she said.

Julie Sexton

So, while working toward her Bachelor of Arts in business administration at St. Thomas, she completed three internships. One of them she found by networking through the association for students interested in human resources. At a club meeting, she met someone who was hiring for Mercy Hospital.

At Mercy Hospital, she realized she enjoyed working in human resources, which led her to obtain her Master of Business Administration in human resources from St. Thomas.

“I had a good experience as an undergrad and St. Thomas made it really easy to come back as a graduate student,” said Sexton, who added that one of her fondest memories at St. Thomas was her time spent as a flutist in the band.

“I am a pretty introverted person, and it was always a place where I felt just very welcome,” she said.

Now Sexton has nearly 30 years of human resources experience, most of them at the 9,000-employee Land O’Lakes. Her work spans several company industries, including animal feed, dairy foods, crop inputs and a growing international sustainability business called Truterra.

“People think we are just butter and cheese, but we’re so much more,” she said.

I had strong female mentors who could be an excellent sounding board, a source of confidence-building and support.

Julie Sexton

Sexton said that St. Thomas gave her more than just foundational HR knowledge. “I learned problem-solving, how to organize my thoughts and make a point, and learned critical thinking that really prepared me for my career.”

In her current position, Sexton works on programs that provide opportunities to mentor and lead other women coming up the ladder.

“I had strong female mentors who could be an excellent sounding board, a source of confidence-building and support,” she said. “But I recognize that’s not everybody’s experience, so I do feel that we all have an obligation to help (other women) along.”

Sexton’s Words of Advice

To those in human resources, “take steps to understand the business that you’re supporting,” Sexton said. “We don’t do HR for ourselves. We’re doing it for the employees and the leaders who are out there, so we need to understand (their) context.”

Network outside your comfort zone. “Think about who you’re having coffee with,” Sexton said. “Are you with peers at your level or are you having coffee with a variety of individuals across an organization?”

What might seem like just a coffee break can become a networking opportunity that can open doors in your career, she said. She learned the importance of networking during her days at St. Thomas but says the approach is different for everyone.

“Figure out a way to network that makes sense for you,” she said. “For me, networking is not walking into a conference with 500 people, but instead it’s having lunch or coffee with one or two people – that is much more suited to my style.”