Jennifer Brase Becomes Senior Official at Northwestern MutualDec 01, 2021 12:49PM ● By Andrew J. Nelson
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
A few years ago, senior officials at Northwestern Mutual met to address a problem: The company had tried different strategies to bring women into the business, but levels of female participation had been flat for years.
Jennifer Brase, then Northwestern’s vice president for leadership development and diversity and inclusion, was there. Brase, a 1989 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, proposed a gender caucus, consisting of influential people in the company and lower-level people from the field.
The caucus met in four sessions to identify barriers to the success of women, not only within Northwestern Mutual, but in the insurance industry. This led to Northwestern Mutual’s Advancing Women initiative.
“She made sure that we asked important questions to the women in our business—those who stayed and those who left,” said Samantha Kolbe, an assistant director on the company’s distribution performance team. “She was so artful in her ability to stay in that mess until we really understood what challenges we were facing, and then she moved us on to solutioning. And the ideas and strategies that have come out of there have really shifted our entire company.”
According to information provided by Northwestern Mutual, the number of women recruits and leaders more than doubled by 2020 over what it had been in 2011. The number of women financial advisers had gone from 581 in 2011 to 973 in 2020.
Brase, now 54 and living in Omaha, is the first female managing partner in the 157-year history of Northwestern Mutual in Nebraska. She brings decades of experience mentoring and helping other women, and also men.
“She seeks to understand, just truly getting to know, people for who they are, the character they have, even before they show up professionally,” said Nate Kruse, 34, a wealth management adviser and managing director for Lincoln. “She tries to look for areas where she can assist, add value, and support.”
When Brase assumed her new role on June 1, she became responsible for all sales, service, and supervisory operations for Nebraska. Her responsibilities include creating the vision for long-term growth, setting priorities, and partnering with a wide range of financial service experts, according to information from the company. She is also responsible for attracting new advisers to the firm.
Brase joined Northwestern Mutual in 1990 and has been with the company ever since.
She did not linger in Lincoln. She soon moved to the training department at Northwestern’s corporate headquarters in Milwaukee.
“I think what was really important about that move was that I recognized early that I had more of an entrepreneurial spirit, and I wanted to have more ownership of my career,” she said.
At a leadership development clinic she met Lew Derrickson, managing partner in Indianapolis. He flew her down to talk to her about an opportunity to take a leadership role there.
She told him she wasn’t ready.
“He basically said, ‘why can’t you do what I think I see in you? Why won’t you take this opportunity and this chance?’” she said. “It was the way he said it. He gave me permission to take the risk. He gave me the permission to see myself more capable of things other than maybe what I saw I was capable of.”
That experience was key not only for her career, but also in how she leads and mentors others today.
“I want people’s opinions, so I ask for input,” she said. “And it goes back to my experience with him. I think the big thing is helping people see their future. So what is their vision? What is their why?”
Brase continued, “I have got to give people opportunities and demonstrate that I believe in them. And sometimes that’s before they believe in themselves.”
Brase eventually became a managing partner in Kansas City. After that, it was back to Milwaukee, where from 2011-2020 she led the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts, then the move
Her advice: Be yourself.
“I probably spent the first 20 years of my career trying to fit in and be one of the guys,” she said. “I think that had hurt me in how I developed and led other women. And I would say, if I could go back and tell my old self: Encourage yourself and other women to be yourselves. Lead the way you lead.”
She continued, “I think sometimes [leading is] saying to women, ‘Do your best. Give yourself grace. Move on. Move forward. Don’t worry about being perfect.’”
Beyond her work at NWM, Brase and husband Kent have two children: Jake, 19, a freshman at UNL, and Jordyn, 14, a freshman at Elkhorn South. She is a board member for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Nebraska chapter.
Her interest in leukemia is profound: Kent suffers from leukemia but is in remission after being diagnosed three years ago.
Kolbe found Brase’s support has been key, advocating for Kolbe to step in temporarily for a managing partner out on maternity leave.
“Jennifer has believed in my potential, probably more than any anybody else ever has. Sometimes I wondered why, but she just saw something in me early on,” Kolbe said. “It gives me more confidence to rely on my own skill sets, and really believe I can get to where she thinks I can get to.”
Visit northwesternmutual.com for more information.
This article originally appeared in the November/December issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.