Jennifer Steans '89: Poised between business and philanthropy
By Rachel Farrell
During her first year at the Kellogg School, Jennifer Steans '89 heard a lecture that she still thinks about today.
"My professor said that he thought the most well-rounded people had a career in three areas," she says. "Nonprofit, the public sector and the business sector. And you needed experience in all three to have the right perspective."
In her own career, Steans has proven her professor's theory. A former high school math teacher, Steans divides her time today between serving as an active philanthropist and as president of Financial Investment Corporation (FIC), a Chicago-based real estate and venture capital investment firm. She co-founded FIC with her father, former LaSalle Bank Chairman Harrison Steans, in 1994.
Throughout Steans' childhood, she and her sisters Robin and Heather (her twin) were actively involved in charitable organizations. "We were raised that, the more you have, the more responsibility you have to give back," she says. Each December, the Steans "adopted" a needy family in Chicago and bought Christmas presents for them. In the summer, through a church program, they invited a young girl from the Cabrini-Green housing projects to live with them in their home. And in 1986, after founding the Steans Family Foundation, the family launched the "I Have a Dream" program, which offered mentoring and college scholarships to a class of 36 students at a Chicago elementary school.
At FIC, Steans starts work at 6 a.m. each morning, oversees 15 employees, and maintains about 50 investments that total between $500 million and $600 million. And yet, she still finds time to give back. She spends about 10 percent of her time supporting the Steans Family Foundation, which shares office space with FIC in Chicago. For several years, she has been involved in organizations such as Leadership Great Chicago, City Year Chicago, Swedish Covenant Hospital and Midtown Educational Foundation. And once a month, she gathers her husband, father-in-law and 11-year-old son to cook at a homeless shelter in the city.
Steans has maintained this pace for some time. At Kellogg, Steans set two goals for herself: To hit a certain GPA and get involved in campus organizations. She achieved both through juggling a busy class schedule, serving as class social chair and participating in "Business with a Heart," the school's charitable organization. For her achievements, Steans was awarded the Dean's Distinguished Award and the $5,000 Entrepreneurship Award.
Despite a lifetime of achievements, Steans maintains a striking degree of modesty. She's uncomfortable in the spotlight; she prefers giving credit to other people. Her father taught her that "the best leaders give credit to everybody else, and make everybody else feel good," Steans says. "It can be counter to human nature, but it's a better way to run the railroad." She also believes that it's healthy — and good for business — if one is honest about one's weaknesses in the workplace. "Everyone has weaknesses," she says. Being candid about one's flaws helps managers "figure out the best places to put you. The key is having everyone play their game best."
The wisdom that Steans has developed through her business career has also served her well at the Steans Family Foundation. "You have to have high expectations — whether for your employees or your students," she says. "I'm a big believer that people rise to expectations."
If that's the case, it's clear that Steans set a high bar for herself — and then surpassed it.