Joanne Spigner ’76 changed my life. Honestly. After we spent two hours talking in the Tap Room a few weeks ago, I emerged with a new outlook on senior year, the job market and life beyond Colgate. Her energy and optimism were captivating, while her life lessons and advice were more than I could have ever hoped to gain from an article assignment. To say Spigner is passionate about her family, as well as her work, is quite an understatement. She embodies what it means to be a determined businesswoman and working mother, and she has paved her own unique path to success.
When Spigner graduated from Colgate without definite work plans, she moved to Boston because one of her college friends needed a roommate. She signed up for a job at a department store during the Christmas season and ended up working with the company for the next five years. From her early experiences in the store’s management training program to her later position as a menswear buyer, Spigner came to realize that enjoying the workplace depended on respecting her coworkers and feeling good about what she was doing. She said her bosses were great and her colleagues were a lot of fun, but she had not stopped once since graduation to figure out what she really wanted to do with her life.
As a psychology major at Colgate, Spigner said business school was probably the last place she would have pictured herself. Yet she went on to earn a MBA from New York University and then worked in debt financing at Prudential. Her position in the corporate world was a far cry from her original plans of becoming a psychologist, but she followed her interest in business and loved what she was doing. “I was in this job for about 10 years and then my life changed when I was pregnant,” Spigner said. “And for the first time, when I was six months pregnant, I asked myself, ‘How am I going to do this?'”
Nervous about being able to return to the business sector after giving birth, Spigner grew very interested in figuring out the “balancing act of how you can have kids, a family and a life, all while holding a demanding job.” Spigner said she began to look around and noticed that fewer women were returning to work after having children. “This intellectually intrigued me, but it also scared the heck out of me. I loved working and I desperately wanted to be a mother too, so all of the sudden I was confronted with ‘Maybe you can’t do both?'”
Spigner’s first of two sons was born in 1990, when an influx of women in the workforce began dealing with similar situations. Spigner returned to work at Prudential, but this time worked in the newly-developed field of work family strategy. “My job was to help Prudential figure out what strategies it needed to help its employees balance their work life and life outside of work,” Spigner said. “The intellectual curiosity in me said this is a really big business issue because we’re spending a lot of money recruiting and training and we have these really good people, but what’s the point if they don’t come back?”
Spigner was right, as many large corporations also began to see it as a business issue. After her two-year assignment was complete, Spigner ended up leaving Prudential and going out on her own. Spigner’s job search soon evolved into her launching VisionFirst in 1999 with business partner Janice Maffei. “Basically, we plan for big companies – we don’t come up with the answers, but rather we help you come up with the answers. Then we figure out who should be at what meetings and conventions, and plan ahead for the company,” Spigner said. “I’m there to help them decide what kind of issues they want to wrestle with, what decisions they want to make, and what conversations are necessary to reach certain outcomes.”
Along with running meetings, Spigner also leads training programs to help people figure out how to work better together. She teaches participants how different personalities can work together without driving each other crazy. “You need all different styles of people, so I explain how you can bring out the best of everybody and how to work together for the better,” Spigner said.
The company’s first mainstream product, Vision-In-A-Box, was a quick way to get groups “all on the same page. People loved our methods so much that they asked us to start teaching. [Vision-In-A-Box] emerged from client need – and it evolved from there,” Spigner said.
By owning and operating her own company, Spigner is able to be there for her family while still maintaining an impressive lineup of clientele. “I feel very fortunate that I get to do work that I feel very confident in, that I love doing, and I get to work with a lot of different people. And I can manage to still have a lot of time to devote to my volunteer work and still have a lot of flexibility to be with my kids,” she said. “My days are very fluid. When I’m doing a meeting, I’m there for very long days, but when I’m not, I can have a conference call with a client in Switzerland in the morning, eat lunch with Colgate grads who are looking for jobs, and manage to be there for my kid’s soccer game in the afternoon.”
In addition to her VisionFirst work and volunteer projects, Spigner has served on Colgate’s Alumni Corporation Board for seven years and is currently the President. “People on the Alumni Board who I’ve gotten to work with are all such wonderful people; all are very different, across generations, across geographies, across professional choices and life choices… it’s such a wonderful group,” Spigner said.
As a student here, she never really thought twice about running for such a position after graduation. “When I graduated, I was a typical active Colgate grad in that I went to a lot of Colgate events and had a big circle of Colgate friends in Boston,” Spigner said. “But it was when I left my corporate job that I realized I needed something to anchor me. The more involved I got, the more connection I felt again to the University and really the more respect I felt for the people who run the University.”
Along with connection to the school, Spigner also expressed her feelings for a liberal arts education and the importance of taking advantage of all that Colgate has to offer. “Major in what excites you the most – enjoy the Liberal Arts! As I look back on it, I am such a believer in the liberal arts. Appreciate its employability and its value – don’t take [a class] because you think it’s your ticket to Wall Street or law school. It’s not the content of what you learn, it’s the process of how you learn it and how you can reflect on and apply it. People are not hiring you for the knowledge you bring, they’re hiring you for the potential you have. They want to be able to train you, to have you get along with other people in the company, and to be confident that you can interact with others.”
One way to gain potential as a candidate is to take time off and explore what the world has to offer you. “Once you’ve taken time away from the classroom, you get more out of school because you’ve had experiences beyond being a full-time student…you also appreciate it a lot more,” Spigner said. “Taking time off can teach you things you just can’t learn in the classroom – by being out in the world doing things.”
Whether students decide to take time off or not, Spigner highly advises that they stay in contact with their professors and take every possible graduate exam while still in “an academic mode.” Spigner was out of school for five years before she decided to go to NYU, but luckily her professors remembered her and offered to write her recommendations. “I was praying my teachers would remember me…here I was getting my psychology professor to write me a letter for business school, but that is the beauty of Colgate – your professors will remember you,” she said.
The best advice Spigner has to offer is for students panicked about landing the perfect job right out of college. “As a famous quote says, ‘follow your passion and the money will follow.’ Your first job out of college isn’t going to make you wealthy, but what you do, what you learn and how you look for the next opportunity over the long term – that’s what you will walk away with. Find a job that intrigues you, fascinates you, that you think you’ll learn from,” Spigner said.
Judging by her personal success both in and out of the professional sector, any advice from Spigner is advice worth heeding. She describes her career path as “winding,” and sometimes that’s the most exciting part about life. Like Spigner says, “There’s a long path ahead of you, and nothing is a mistake unless you are unhappy with doing it and you don’t make a change. Love what you do, because the more you like it, the better you’ll be at it.”