This Women’s History Month, we are profiling a series of National Life leaders to hear their experiences navigating both life and the financial industry as a woman. Check back for more posts throughout the month of March and beyond.
Sarah VanBeck is Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer for National Life Group. Sarah is a mom of four kids and passionate about the local food movement. She holds a BBA from the University of Iowa and is a Certified Public Accountant.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What’s your career pathway been like? How did you get to where you are now?
A: I definitely did not take a direct path to where I am today. I majored in business at the University of Iowa and chose accounting because it was “the hardest” business major and ensured a job post-graduation. After a couple of years working as an accountant, I felt I was meant to do something more creative, so I quit my job and applied for graduate school in architecture at the University of Houston. That program was focused on art and design, so it was a challenge and I found that I could learn to do things I didn’t think I could do. At the same time, it was tough working with the other side of my brain, and architecture is the kind of thing you do because you can’t imagine doing anything else. After a year, I returned to accounting and felt more comfortable that it was the right choice for me. I love to write, and while many people don’t think of writing as part of accounting, I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of it as my career has been focused in financial and SEC reporting and technical accounting. After having my kids, I moved between part-time and full-time roles, including controller of AIG’s VALIC and Western National retirement businesses, and eventually transitioned to a contract basis so I could manage my hours. Some people treated me differently in a contract/part-time role vs a full-time role, which didn’t make sense to me given I had the same 20+ years of insurance and financial experience and expertise. After my kids got to high school, I went back to full time as the controller for AIG Life and Retirement, and then had the opportunity to come to National Life, initially as the Controller
Q: What do you like most about what you do at National Life?
A: I like being at a smaller company where I am able to get more involved in all aspects of the business. Learning more about product, in-force, distribution etc. is so much easier here because of our size.
Q: Has the industry landscape changed during your career? If so, what changes have you seen?
A: Family leave policies and the opportunity for flexible work schedules have been a big improvement. Where I worked, we weren’t really allowed to wear pants until 1998. We even had a written dress code that said women shouldn’t wear bright colors (when I read that, I wore a red suit the next day). I used to wear tailored suits and ironed shirts and had a whole collection of little bowties!
Q: In honor of women’s history month, is there a woman who has inspired you in your life?
A: My grandmother was one of my earliest sources of inspiration. She was born in a small town in Indiana and got married straight out of high school and raised four kids. She went to college when she was in her fifties, which was kind of unheard of at the time in the 1960’s, to study art education. She was so creative and outspoken, and just an empowering woman who had a dream and went for it.
Q: What advice would you give to young women who are just beginning their careers?
A: Be a person who knows how to get things done. When you come into a situation, look around at what needs to get done, and start doing it. That’s going to make you very valuable.
Q: What leadership quality do you most admire and aspire to?
A: Humility and connectedness. I really value how Mehran lives those values and expects that of his leadership team.
Q: Do you have a cause or a favorite “Do good” passion?
A: I’m very passionate about sustainable food. I’m on the board of Community Harvest of Central VT. Community Harvest organizes volunteers to glean unused produce in farmer’s fields in and around Washington County, VT, and delivers that food to meal programs and food shelters. Last year, we donated 65,000 lbs. of food. I’m also really into safe food production as it relates to health and the environment.
Q: What attracted you to National Life and what would you tell someone who is considering an opportunity with us?
A: It was really about the culture of the company for me. I really liked that National Life has the policy holder’s interest at heart. We also do so much around education which is really appealing for me.
Q: Any other words of wisdom that you’d like to share?
A: Trust your instincts. Do that thing you wanted to do, but you thought you couldn’t.