Class of 2009 Difference Makers

Kate Kane

Managing Director of the Springfield Office of the Northwestern Mutual Financial Network
Kate Kane

Kate Kane

Kate Kane was talking about Worcester, and, more specifically, her efforts to help create an extension of the program Dress for Success, which provides a set of clothes to underprivileged women for a job interview or their first day on a new job, in that city.

“It was a huge chore,” said Kane, managing director of the Springfield office of the Northwestern Mutual Financial Network. She was born in the Worcester area and worked there for some time, and her father was a “Worcester boy.” But she still found herself treated like an outsider in this endeavor, which made it hard to get things done.

“It’s a very closed community … people are very suspicious of those who did not grow up there,” she said, proffering the theory that this attitude likely results from that city’s historic competition with Boston. “I was out there for five years trying to start this charity — I was trying to give something away, and they made it so hard.

“It’s a very interesting experience trying to break through in that market, which is not at all like Springfield,” she continued. “Here, from the get-go, it’s been very easy to meet people, very easy to get involved; people welcome your help.”

For persevering in Worcester (that Dress for Success facility is finally slated to open in a few months), and for taking full advantage of the opportunities she’s been given to give back to the community in Western Mass., Kane has been named to the inaugural class of Difference Makers by BusinessWest. And it’s not just the long list of groups she serves — from Dress for Success to the Sisters of Providence Health System; from the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts to the Andrew M. Scibelli Enterprise Center at the Technology Park at STCC — but also the attitude she brings toward that work that has brought her this distinction.

“What I’ve tried to do is have a consistent orientation to the things I do,” she said. “One of those things is a sense of economic justice and helping people who haven’t been given the tools to learn about money and finances, and really try to provide them access to those tools.”

She says that people in her capacity and who possess her skills have a moral responsibility to find ways to utilize those skills to help those less fortunate. She told BusinessWest that she gives — time, energy, and expertise — but also receives back.

“To me, it’s about the gift,” she explained. “I’m giving the gift of my time, but in return for that I’m getting the gift of all these lessons that I get to learn.”

Kane was still planning to pursue a career in teaching when, soon after graduating from Vassar, she took a job in the Worcester office of Northwestern Mutual in 1986. But she adjusted her career plans in only a few short months.

She would still become a teacher, in a number of ways, but the setting and the actual work would be much different. She’s in the financial-services sector, not academia, and instead of English literature, she’s teaching sales professionals how to reach their maximum potential. She does so by taking them out of their comfort zone and imploring them to continually seek new and greater and challenges.

This, in a nutshell, is what her predecessor in Springfield, Paul Steffan, did with her several years ago, when he coaxed her into trading her position as ‘field director,’ in which she was quite comfortable, for the managing director’s seat. In that capacity, she recruits, develops talent, mentors rising stars, and sets a tone for the office. She describes herself as an able listener and, ultimately, a “doer.”

And it is these talents that she brings to the many kinds of work she does within the Western Mass. community, and also Hartford and, most recently, Worcester, where she tapped into more than a decade of experience with Dress for Success, which is now a national and international phenomenon. She co-wrote the original business plan for the Western Mass. chapter of Dress for Success — the first one in the Bay State — which now outfits, or ‘suits,’ nearly 500 women a year through a boutique located at the Mass. Career Development Institute in Springfield.

In recent years, she’s broadened the scope of her work to include everything from mentoring young entrepreneurs as they work to reach that proverbial next level to serving at the board at the SPHS and helping steer that system through a time of extreme challenge and uncertainty for all health care providers, to taking a board seat with Friends for the Homeless and assisting that group to find long-term solutions to one of nation’s most perplexing societal issues.

She’s also served as president of the Women’s Partnership, been part of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, and been a long-time board member and Governance Committee member with the Women’s Fund, which administers a $3 million endowment and donates tens of thousands of dollars each year to area nonprofits.

These groups have different missions, but there are common threads that Kane says appeal to that sense of economic justice she described. Meanwhile, she says each assignment allows her to grow professionally and personally.

“I try not to get stuck just doing the things I’m good at,” she said, referring specifically to her work with the Women’s Fund. “I’m an action person, a ‘do’ person — ‘let’s just do it.’ So it’s been good for me to be on a committee that’s all about process.

“I try to find ways to have the community-service work to teach me things,” she continued. “Such work can not only provide life lessons, but also help you run your businesses better; there’s a lot of things you can learn from the nonprofit environment and take back to your business.”

Returning to the subject of Worcester and trying to do charitable work there, Kane said that if more people had that experience, they would have a greater appreciation for working in Springfield. “It’s like night and day.”

Kane hasn’t merely worked in both cities, she’s broken through in both, and especially in the Pioneer Valley, where’s she’s been a learner and a teacher.

— George O’Brien