It has been a unique journey filled with competition, travel and self-discovery that led Jackson National Life Insurance Company Vice President Heather Strang to where she is today. Valued personally and professionally by her coworkers, Strang seems perfectly at home in Jackson’s impressive headquarters building in Lansing. But one must not be fooled by the humility she exudes in and out of the spotlight … Strang means business.
Diving in Head FirstBorn and raised in Lansing, Strang found her passion early in life. The water was like home to her. “I actually started [swim] training when I was 10 on a small club team here [in Lansing],” said Strang. “I had a few people that believed I had some natural talent, and I just enjoyed it. I enjoyed the competitive side and the team side of it; I enjoyed the travel.” At the young age of 13, Strang recognized her potential after going from the Michigan AAU state meet, to junior nationals, to senior nationals (1980 Olympic Trials) in less than a year. “[At senior nationals] I was sitting around everyone I had ever read about,” said Strang. “I was just like a kid in a candy store.” By her freshman year of high school, Strang was on international traveling teams for the U.S., competing in Brazil, New Zealand and Australia. At age 15, Strang left Lansing to pursue her passion for swimming. Attending a total of four high schools in different states including Virginia and Florida, she finally graduated in California. Sound like a lot for a teenager? That’s not even half of it. All the while, she was focused on school and conquering in the swimming pool. During her travels, she had her mother to help keep her grounded. “I never got to swim in a race unless my grades held up, said Strang. “My mom was huge in keeping that balance.” It was a mother-daughter bond that couldn’t be broken, even being half-way around the world. “It’s just been my mom and I,” said Strang. “We have always had a really tight relationship. I’m not a parent today but I can’t imagine letting a 15-year-old travel the world without standing next to them. She’s my right hand … she’s everything to me.” After winning a bronze medal at the 1980 Trials, Strang competed four years later in the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. But, she just missed qualifying by a couple of tenths of a second. “You go through the highs of highs and the lows of lows,” said Strang, a lesson she keeps with her to this day. Many colleges began recruiting her in high school. With a 3.9 GPA and determined to get the best education she could, she negotiated and accepted a full athletic scholarship at the University of Southern California (USC) and swam four additional years in college. “It’s funny when you learn how to negotiate at a young age, it follows you throughout your whole life,” said Strang. “After all my mother had done for me; all the years of swimming expenses, I said [to myself], ‘there’s no way she should have to pay for college too.’” Never losing focus, Strang graduated from USC with a major in accounting and a minor in advertising/marketing. After graduating, she decided not to compete in the 1988 Olympic Trials and instead set her sights on the business world.
Getting Down to BusinessSo how did Strang transition from being a global athlete to a high-ranking insurance executive? It was a winding road, with a few bumps along the way. Starting in public accounting right out of college, Strang was hit with the realization that she’d have to start at the bottom once again to work her way up. “I think anytime someone comes out of college, you get this sense of self-worth and then you get another set of rules to learn in the business world,” said Strang, but she did not let that deter her. “I thought, okay, this is what I have to do. They don’t care that I have a four year degree or a high GPA, this is their world now. All the rules change.” Taking opportunity where she saw it, she moved up in accounting. Eventually she ended up in Chicago on a real-estate investment trust transaction deal, constantly traveling and on the road for 50 weeks out of the year. “I woke up mid-November after traveling to yet another city the day before and thought ‘I don’t know where I am’, and I realized that it was terrible,” recalls Strang. “I couldn’t keep a pet or plant alive. I was done. I was burnt out. So, I chucked my career.” At 27, Strang had what she playfully calls an “early mid-life crisis”.
Smooth Sailing … for a While.Strang picked up and relocated to St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. There, she sailed as a “first-mate” on a 50-foot charter sail boat that took day trips to the British Virgin Islands. “I basically entertained, took people on snorkeling tours, told them funny stories about the islands,” said Strang. “Ironically, I thought I hated accounting, but while I was down there, I realized that it was the environment I didn’t like, not the job itself.”
A Return HomeDuring her six-months sailing in the islands, believe it or not, Strang became bored. She moved back to Michigan and resumed her accounting career. “Since I grew up here, a lot of people knew my name. I had started up my own business, but I had distributed my resume in the meantime and Andy Hopping, [Jackson National] CFO, who I had mutual friends with, called me up,” said Strang. Not quite sure about entering the insurance industry, she agreed to meet with him. “I met with a few of the folks at Jackson and I thought, ‘this is anything but stodgy … this is anything but a typical insurance company,’” said Strang. “And I believed in them, and I still believe in them.” And thus began her time with Jackson National, which has been the longest job that she’s ever had. But don’t let her fool you, this doesn’t mean she’s finally standing still. Being a vice president at Jackson National has Strang traveling all over the world, from London to Mumbai. “I enjoy [traveling] because I like seeing the different ways people look at things in the world. The world has become so small, that I think it’s become a very important part of being a business person,” said Strang, who travels consistently for work. “The opportunity to experience [new ways of seeing the world], … I wouldn’t change that for anything.”
The PresentStrang has certainly lived a fulfilling and adventurous life thus far. Throughout all of her experiences, she has learned many lessons, but the thing closest to her heart is her family. She attributes her success and drive in life to her family whom she never wanted to disappoint. “I have a great story of my grandfather,” said Strang. “We were at a meet and I swam an event that my competitor was expected to win, but I won. It was a huge ordeal … Afterwards, he told me ‘That medal you have right there is really nice and I’m really proud of you, but it won’t make any difference the next time you swim against her,’ and that’s my motto — you have to try your hardest everyday.” Strang believes in going for what she wants. “A lot of things are hard in a woman’s world,” she said. “But the proverbial glass ceiling, I’m sure it was there, but I never accepted it.”
Free TimeStrang is also the second vice chair of the Boys and Girls Club of Lansing Board of Directors and she also recently joined the First Tee of Mid-Michigan Board. “I spend a lot of time being focused, but I’m a beach bum and a tom boy at heart,” said Strang, who still swims, but more for mental rest and reflection than exercise. “Stay true to who you are and it will take you through life just fine.” Whether on the beach, in the pool, in the office or with loved ones, Strang continues to set her own path while leaving a trail of sand, ocean, high-heel shoe prints and pool water behind her.