Here in Tampa Bay, rain and thunderstorms are the norm. So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself in the midst of a severe thunderstorm on the cusp of my next interview. At nearly 10am, the day outside was dark and brooding. The rain poured and the wind pushed against defiant palm trees as I prepped for my conversation with Jenn Addabbo.
A young entrepreneur and co-founder of CU Engage, Jenn and her business partner James Guild established their company to help credit unions compete in the financial industry. Not sure what a credit union is? No worries — a lot of people don’t seem to know. Credit unions are financial institutions owned by their members. To put it simply, they offer a lot of the same services as banks, but banks answer to shareholders. Credit unions answer to you, if you’re a member.
Jenn Addabbo’s company powers credit union success, which in turn benefits credit union members. But before she started CU Engage, she built her career by working her way through the historically male dominated finance industry. She made a name for herself in companies like Certegy (now FIS) and PCSU — heavy hitters in the Payments Processing market.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I felt a little intimidated. Fourteen years in finance. Founder of her own company. An accomplished professional with a young family, an entrepreneurial husband, and a new business venture. I wondered how she could make time for a lunch break, much less an interview with me. But I was excited to meet the woman behind the biographical facts, and to learn the secrets to her success.
Jenn, you’ve had an enviable career already, and you’re still just getting started. Has this always been your dream? Or did you have different ideas about life when you were a little girl?
It’s so funny when you reflect on what you wanted to be as a child. I mean, what did I want to be? It kind of changes as you go through life.
I was born in and spent most of my early childhood in Tampa. Then I moved to Maryland, where I would say I spent my most formative years, middle school and high school. I attended James Madison University in Virginia studying Media Arts and Design, thinking I would end up in Advertising or in Media Broadcasting.
When I was very little, I was a typical little girl, into dancing and recitals, so I’m sure I dreamed of doing that forever, but then realized I had to find a job that paid the bills.
At some point I decided to follow in my parents’ footsteps. My mom was a elementary school teacher, and my dad was in technology and finance. While I definitely leaned towards what my dad was doing in business, I also took a lot of what my mom taught me as a teacher.
Who did you look up to the most as a kid? Did you have any heroes?
As an only child I was, and still am, very close to my parents. It was easy to look up to my them because I was with them all the time. They were very, very supportive of anything I wanted to try, and I definitely looked at them as my heroes.
During the time we lived in Florida when I was very little, there weren’t really any sports programs for kids. When we moved to Maryland, the options seemed endless, and they really exposed me to every sport I could play. They wanted me to be around a lot of different people, experience different challenges, and discover what I really loved. Sports has played a huge role in my life, it fueled my competitive nature, taught me how to work as a team and ultimately how to lead.
How did you end up working in the finance industry?
I had this grand idea that when I graduated from college, I was going to hang out with my friends for the summer and live the life, after working so hard at school. My parents had different ideas for me.
I remember vividly being in my apartment as a senior and my parents saying that I needed to make sure that I had a job before I graduated. At the time, I didn’t really know where to start. So I just started with my dad’s company, which was based in Florida and at the time was known as Certegy.
The position I applied for was a marketing position, and through that job I was able to work with a really amazing, influential boss who gave me as much as I could handle. It was incredible exposure to the field financial services. I was doing all trade show management and marketing support for the sales people, as well as supporting the check processing division of that company. That’s basically how I got started in this business. My parents said I needed to find a job, and I said,”Well, your company is the first place I’m going to look!”
Working for a company where you have a family member, especially a parent, can be very tricky because you want to build you own reputation, and you don’t want anybody to think you got where you are because of who your dad might be. But it’s also a wonderful way to get your foot in the door for your first professional job and was nice to have the support of someone who understood the day to day challenges that came along with it.
What do you feel were the qualities that helped you find success as you grew your career?
I think I have a great work ethic, and I am great at multitasking. I have the ability to take on a larger workload than most, while remaining fully focused on the task at hand and my clients’ goals.
I’m also confident in my abilities. I believe a lot of that comes from having had opportunities to travel and be exposed to business environments when I was younger.
Those experiences made me feel very comfortable wherever I was. I am confident enough to take risks, and those risks have paid off in my career. So I think between confidence level and work ethic, that’s really helped me get to where I am today.
Are there any failures or mistakes that you feel may have helped you in the long run?
You don’t realize they are failures until you are through them, unfortunately. I look back on a pivotal moment in my career where I made a decision to take an opportunity to be a sales rep. I didn’t originally want to be a salesperson, because they have the reputation of being untrusted, and I didn’t want to be viewed as someone who wasn’t trustworthy.
But I took this step to get into sales, and actually really enjoyed it. Next, I was offered the opportunity to shift gears into managing a call center sales environment.
Taking this chance didn’t pan out as well as the one before. It became a very stressful time in my career, I was trying to accomplish great things but I felt like I was blocked because I didn’t have the support of a very difficult manager.
Looking back on that year, I learned how I didn’t want to be as a leader, if and when I got the opportunity to manage people. I don’t know that that’s a failure, but maybe failure to recognize I should have gotten out earlier than a I did.
How did you decide to take the leap from highly skilled professional to entrepreneur?
The only reason I had the guts to do it is because I have a great partner. When I was VP of sales at PSCU, I worked for James Guild. He was one of those great bosses; he really elevated me, pushed me and gave me the opportunity to be the VP of sales when I was 32. Managing a group of very skilled, tenured salespeople at that age is a difficult job. He really gave me the confidence and support to do wonderful things in that role.
In our roles at PSCU, we would work with a lot of consultants, and we didn’t feel like there was any single consultant out there that was combining payments and channels. My background is in channels, and James’ background is in payments, so we made a great team.
During visits or calls with prospects and clients, we would often comment how great it would be to help credit unions by combining payment and channel strategies. With our backgrounds we’d be able to do it effectively, and we love the educational aspect of consulting. After discussing the opportunities in front of us, we finally decided to make it happen together.
It’s very tough to go out on your own, but it’s easier when you’ve got someone else to bounce ideas off of, pat yourselves on the back when things go well, and pick each other up when things aren’t going your way. It has been really helpful for both of us to be able to work through the challenges together.
Your husband Mike is also an entrepreneur. Did he inspire you? Or the other way around?
He is an entrepreneur at heart. I would classify myself as a traditional corporate America business person. I always envisioned there was this ladder, and I would climb it. That’s how I would make my way through my career. Mike has always wanted to be his own boss and make his own mark.
He started a very successful staffing agency very early on in our marriage. Then he totally shifted industries and owns an indoor bounce house for kids (Playgrounds of Tampa). He has always been a risk taker, when he sees an opportunity to capitalize, he takes it, full force.
We’ve always been able to balance out the risks though. I was in a stable corporate position, while he was taking risks in his businesses. And then when he built up his companies, it gave me the opportunity to take a risk in starting CU Engage.
Two entrepreneurs in one house! And kids. Sounds like a hectic schedule. How do you and your husband make it work?
In one word, family. My parents are nearby and they are a huge help with our 2 kids. And I couldn’t do this without the support of my husband.
I have participated in a some women’s leadership groups with these powerful, influential, great women leaders, and the common theme as you look around the room is that every single one of us really attest our success to the support of our husband or spouse.
Mike gives me the opportunity to take on new challenges in my career and to travel — and I can do that because I know that my kids are in good hands. We also have a great support system around us to help us. It takes a group of trusted people who love you and want to see you succeed, personally and professionally.
In building CU Engage, how have you guided their mission and culture? What do you look for in a new team member?
We are very focused on the people we bring into our team. Being a small business, the fit of the individual contributor is so important. We are a little family unto ourselves so teamwork is huge for us.
We look for employees who have personality; definitely personality. Someone that likes to be around people. Someone who is a good leader. No matter what your role at CU Engage, no matter your title — we are all leaders. We need people who are strong in their values and comfortable managing complex projects for our clients. Adaptability is important as well. Being able to work on one thing and then totally shift gears to help someone else, without losing your focus. That’s the culture of our team.
We’re all really passionate about credit unions and the opportunities that credit unions have right now to really empower their growth. Everybody that works with us sees huge opportunities and is really excited about where we are going to take the company and our credit union partners.
What next? Where would you like to take CU Engage and your credit unions?
We are in the process of building out some really exciting software within CU Engage. So much of what we have built the foundation of our company on is consulting and leading credit unions through difficult vendor situations.
We’re building out a software solution right now that is going to help us become more efficient and effective, and allow credit unions and vendors to interact with CU Engage in a very transparent way. We want to help credit unions of all sizes leverage a consulting solution that benefits them.
There are many small credit unions out there that need a lot of help but can’t necessarily afford to pay to bring in a consulting team. We want to make sure that we are able to provide services to all credit unions of all sizes through their vendors selections.
The new software will hopefully launch in 2017, and we are very excited about that.
What about you, personally? Any big plans for the future?
We’ve had a lot of exciting times in my family over the past few years and I’m really looking forward to continued growth within CU Engage. Meanwhile, personally, I’m working on my personal health and fitness to make sure that I can continue to be a good example for my kids.
You are an incredibly successful woman. What would you consider your greatest achievement?
I have to say being a mom, which is timely considering this past weekend was Mother’s Day. Everybody always tells me that my kids are such well behaved, kind souls. That makes me happier than any professional accomplishment ever could.
I’m so proud of the people they are growing up to be, and hope continue to watch that for the next 50 + years.
What advice would you offer young women as they begin building their lives and careers?
I would say to make sure that you are strong enough in your own self confidence to be able to stand on your own two feet both personally and professionally. A confident woman can take more risks and be able to deliver on them, without depending on someone else to drive your success. There will always be times when support is necessary. But being confident in your own abilities can make you a better partner, a better overall person, and help you succeed.
I myself am an avid reader. So I have to ask. If you could only have one book to read for the rest of your life, what book would it be and why?
I wish I had time to read! I would say one book that is on my nightstand and that will probably stay there forever is called “Stronger Mothers, Stronger Sons” by Meg Meeker. I think it’s a book that I would use as a reference point throughout my life as my kids grow up, and as the relationships between us changes as they grow. It’s a book that I feel I can go back to at any time, and still learn something from it no matter how many times I’ve read it.
Learn more about Jenn Addabbo and CU Engage.