Women Leading The Finance Industry: “At the end of the day, it becomes less a focus on gender and more a focus on talent.” with Renee Newman of First Interstate Bank and Tyler Gallagher

I look at it from a statistical perspective. More women are entering and staying in the workforce. That shift has played a significant part in increasing the gender diversity we’re seeing in our industry. I also believe women bring a different perspective to their roles. Ultimately, having a gender-diverse, ethnically diverse group of people working […]

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I look at it from a statistical perspective. More women are entering and staying in the workforce. That shift has played a significant part in increasing the gender diversity we’re seeing in our industry. I also believe women bring a different perspective to their roles. Ultimately, having a gender-diverse, ethnically diverse group of people working together creates greater bottom-line impact for companies. At the end of the day, it becomes less a focus on gender and more a focus on talent.

I had the pleasure of interviewing First Interstate Bank’s Renee Newman.

Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Banking/Finance field?

It’s a standard joke in the industry that no one sets out to be a banker, and that is the case for me. I was graduating from college, and the initial path I had planned on didn’t work out. I stumbled upon banking. Once I entered the industry, I found I just loved helping people. It’s one of the best professions in that you’re able to help individuals and businesses achieve their goals. Being a part of that is very meaningful. Likewise, being a leader of teams focused on helping people and businesses magnifies the reward.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

How I happened upon First Interstate was interesting. In my previous role I was happy and not actively looking for change. When a recruiter called with the opportunity, I remember being passive about it and agreeing to look at the job description and share any possible candidates. I realized it was an opportunity at First Interstate; they were looking for a chief banking officer to oversee the bank’s western region. I assumed they wanted a “grizzled” veteran commercial lender, and that my diverse banking background might preclude me from consideration. Because I had an incredible amount of respect for the people I knew at First Interstate, many of whom I had met through Pacific Coast Banking School, I thought there would be no harm in forwarding my resume.

To my surprise I received a call back from the recruiter, who indicated that First Interstate wanted to meet with me. The meeting took an hour, and I left thinking that, if nothing else, it was such a pleasant group of people. It was as if we had already worked together before. So I was again surprised when, several weeks later, I was asked to come to Billings, Montana. After a full day of interviews with the entire executive team, I met with First Interstate’s CEO, Kevin Riley. We had a robust conversation, and I’ll never forget when he leaned across the table to ask, “Would you ever consider moving to Billings?” This was not part of the role I thought I was interviewing for. I asked what he had in mind, and after he finished sharing some thoughts, I indicated that I’d be open to further conversation. A few weeks later he called to offer me a very different role: to come to work for First Interstate in Billings as the president of wealth management, simultaneously serving as the executive responsible for client experience. I accepted the opportunity without hesitation.

There are a lot of lessons I’ve taken from that experience. It’s easy to assume your career should be linear. You take one role, which will lead to the next role, and it progresses accordingly. However, I’ve found that opportunities rarely present themselves this way, and you have to be willing to entertain the curveballs life throws you. If these unexpected prospects meet your needs, they’re often worth the risk. Throughout my career these different-than-expected opportunities have led to amazing roles that have helped me grow in this industry. In this case, I was presented with the opportunity to become chief banking officer for First Interstate after a few months. Taking smart leaps of faith will always keep things interesting and can materially change your career for the better.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

There are so many good things happening right now. The first initiative that comes to mind is our bank’s brand refresh. First Interstate has grown and changed through acquisition. This, unsurprisingly, has influenced our corporate identity. Our brand should reflect those changes, but when you think about a 50-year-old company with a long-standing history, a new brand direction was going to be a significant lift and effort.

We started from the premise of a brand promise. As First Interstate grows across our footprint, it’s important that we understand and can articulate who we are as a bank. Our research showed that First Interstate meant different things to different people in our markets. By understanding the needs of both clients and prospects, we worked on a plan to put the people we serve at the center of our brand refresh.

Armed with qualitative and quantitative support, we garnered internal buy-in and led the management team through a complete rebranding initiative. This meant vendor changes, footprint-wide surveys of internal teams, client focus groups, new ad campaigns and ultimately a comprehensive brand overhaul. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and it has immediately impacted client acquisition and retention rates. That we were able to go from creative direction in October 2018, to internal execution in February 2019, to an external launch this April with an internal team of three people is something we are very proud of.

Another big initiative for First Interstate has been to transform our Client Contact Center. First Interstate’s call center had been in existence for more than 20 years, but it was housed in the bank’s Operations Center, serving as more of a switchboard. The team wasn’t given the access required to be able to accommodate the needs of our clients. For example, if a client lost a checkbook, Contact Center professionals were unable to help the client solve that problem. On top of that, there wasn’t a digital contact center platform in place.

The solution has been a multi-tiered effort. First, the Client Contact Center’s service area was expanded, with the center serving as the primary point of contact for all incoming banking questions. Next, new lines of responsibility were established, and broader internal training efforts were instituted. We also put out an RFP in late 2018 for a vendor partner that would provide a virtual branch experience. We mapped the change, began development in January 2019 and launched the Contact Center solution in March. It’s made the daily lives of our agents much better and given clients a more streamlined, efficient and effective offering.

Lastly, First Interstate has also prepared the launch of several digital service platforms in the last year. My teams formalized First Interstate’s online offerings and mapped a self-created client ecosystem using the Salesforce platform. Our digital wealth platform and online mortgage offering went live to customers this April, and we are set to launch both small business banking and consumer credit card digital platforms by the end of the year.

These are very significant changes for the company. Given the magnitude of these projects, and that these initiatives all began in October 2018, we couldn’t be more pleased with our progress and the outcomes.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

There are so many things that make First Interstate stand out. At the heart of it, it’s our people. No place is perfect, but it truly is a place where people are congenial and collaborative. You have this hum of people who are working together for the greater good of the organization. The talented bankers we have working at First Interstate want to make a difference for our clients, and our internal partners work seamlessly to support this effort.

If we didn’t have talented people in those roles, or partners who wanted to work toward the common good, none of the past year’s initiatives would have been possible. It’s so inspiring to know our employees are equally committed to providing service excellence within their roles at the bank while making the communities in which they live a better place. We have the most amazing group of people here. They really take every day and try to make it their best day.

Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all-white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?

I look at it from a statistical perspective. More women are entering and staying in the workforce. That shift has played a significant part in increasing the gender diversity we’re seeing in our industry. I also believe women bring a different perspective to their roles. Ultimately, having a gender-diverse, ethnically diverse group of people working together creates greater bottom-line impact for companies. At the end of the day, it becomes less a focus on gender and more a focus on talent.

When you are in a place where you have low employment, and there’s a war for good talent, it doesn’t matter what your gender is. If you can get things done, that’s what matters.

I see that at First Interstate. We’re working to be innovative, to be relevant. As a result, our CEO looks for the best talent, regardless of gender. Now three of our top five executives are women. It’s a very different world today than it was in the past.

Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?

I’ve spoken with women in other industries, and many face the same challenges as the financial services industry: how to attract and retain women in the workforce. It’s often difficult when women face both the demands of work and the needs of home. In speaking for myself, my job doesn’t end when I leave work. I am still responsible for my family and my children when I go home. That creates a lot of stress for women, especially those with families. If women find that their roles don’t provide flexibility, that there aren’t other women to connect or identify with, that can create challenges. The more we can do as industries and as businesses to create ease in onboarding, and building connections for women, the better we all will be.

I know of a company in another industry that has created onboarding specifically for women. As part of that process they set up each female engineer with a counterpart in the organization. They’ve realized the ratio of women to men is so skewed that women can find it challenging to fit in. Creating those opportunities within every industry — particularly the financial services industry — where you can bring women together and create support groups is very beneficial.

Using the investment world as an example, our investment specialists and wealth advisors are salaried instead of paid solely by commission. I think that makes a significant difference for women who are entering the field. A position with no guaranteed salary can be overwhelming. It keeps a lot of talented people from entering the industry, and First Interstate is looking at making a difference there.

We’re blessed at First Interstate with an abundance of women in leadership roles across the organization. Naturally, career development is something we are very mindful of. We make sure we are appropriately highlighting, promoting and creating career development opportunities for every employee across the board. It’s gender-neutral, but we’ve seen this approach help women across the financial services industry.

You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each.

Financial literacy is something I have a considerable amount of passion for, especially when it comes to giving women the tools to be financially secure. Unfortunately, our society is placing less and less emphasis on teaching financial literacy in the classroom. I have two young sons, and educating them on how to be good stewards of their money has been a huge priority for my husband and me. Many of our conversations center on making sure they understand the following:

· How to make and follow a budget

· Cash inflows and outflows

· Getting a bank account and knowing the mechanics of it

· The power of compound interest

· How to use and manage credit and debt

For our family, we focus on three key parts of managing money: how to spend, save and share.


We talk a lot about whether something the kids would like to buy is a “want” or a “need.” As part of that, we have a tradition in our house every New Year’s Day where my husband and I share personal budgets and financial statements with our kids. We also put together a “Top 10 Wants List.” After each of us creates a list, we swap lists, and then we can freely cross things off each other’s lists that we don’t deem appropriate. At the end, we work together to come up with a shared, unified Top-10 Wants List for the family. My husband and I are very mindful about instilling disciplined spending practices.


There are a lot of conversations in our house about saving and putting things away for the future. It will get more specific once the kids have jobs. They understand that everyone needs to have a “save bucket,” and know what should go in that bucket.


Philanthropy is a big teaching point. It’s important for our children to understand the importance of giving back to our communities. To help with that, when our kids are old enough, we give them an amount of money from the family’s philanthropy bucket. We ask them to research philanthropic causes they would like to support. We’ll let them come back to us at a family meeting and present which organization they’d like to support, and we make that donation in their names.

For us it’s very important that our finances are a part of natural conversation; we never want money to be a topic of angst. We recognize that there can be a lot of passion and emotion around the subject, and our goal is to model honest and open conversations about money to our kids.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have so many! I feel so fortunate to have had a chance to work with so many great people. My accidental banking career would never have started without Tom Moore. I was told by a branch manager at my first banking interview that I would never get hired — seemingly, there was no room for a city slicker who talked too fast. Since the bank president made all the hiring decisions, I had one last interview with him. That’s when I met Tom, who hired me on the spot. Because of him I developed my passion for helping others and my community banking spirit.

Steve Polzin was another wonderful individual I met after the first bank I worked at was acquired. He showed me what it was to be a servant leader. The first day I met him, he came up, shook my hand, knew who I was and was wholly focused on me. I remember thinking, wow, if I ever become a leader, I want to be like him. Several years later Steve left to start a bank and reached out to me to see if I wanted to join. I accepted immediately because I admired and respected him. I had a wonderful experience as the fifth employee of a bank in formation. The industry insight he shared was incredible, but the most meaningful thing he gave me was support when my father was diagnosed with colon cancer. I will be forever grateful for his guidance.

Ezra Eckhardt is another wonderful human being who really sees the value people can create in an organization. Once you’re part of his tribe, you are forever part of his tribe. I’m eternally grateful for his thoughtfulness, his humor and how real he is with me. He has made so many contributions to my career.

As well, there are countless women in my life I’m grateful for. I’ve relied on so many different support groups in my career, and I feel so fortunate to have found amazing women wherever I’ve landed. They’ve served as guides, stewards and counselors to me, and most of them are still in my life to this day. Marty Forsmann is someone who took me under her wing at Wells Fargo. I have so valued her truth and honesty over the years. Jeanne Firstenburg, president of First Independent, saw potential in me and gave me incredible, challenging opportunities to grow.

I could name so many more people! Each of them has been a wonderful gift. I sincerely hope that by putting their wisdom and grace into action, I’ve been able to provide them with a living legacy to their service.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My ninth-grade biology teacher, Ms. Rudfeld, had several meaningful words up on her classroom wall my first day of class: “Adapt, Migrate, or Become Extinct.” In this ever-changing banking world, these words resonate so much with me. I’ve been a part of more acquisitions and mergers than I can count, and through this change, these words have been my guiding principle. I had to be able to adapt to my new circumstances and surroundings. If a role is not working for you, it might be time to migrate. And, of course, you want to do everything you can to avoid becoming extinct; make sure you are always providing value.

If only Ms. Rudfeld had known the impact she would have on my life and career.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

For me, it’s all about giving back. It’s why I feel so passionate about sharing the philosophy of donating time and resources with my children. Whether via donation dollars or volunteer efforts, aptly targeted and timed philanthropy can make a community better. That simple gesture can have a positive butterfly affect around the world.

It’s been wonderful to watch this through my children’s eyes; they can help nonprofit organizations do even more. I believe this is a movement and effort that could be embraced by everyone. I love the premise of finding a passion and working with a passion. Everyone should consider what they can set aside so they can maximize what they give back to their communities, making the greatest positive change.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

About The Author:

Tyler Gallagher is the CEO and Founder of Regal Assets, a “Bitcoin IRA” company. Regal Assets is an international alternative assets firm with offices in the United States, Canada, London and Dubai focused on helping private and institutional wealth procure alternative assets for their investment portfolios. Regal Assets is an Inc. 500 company and has been featured in many publications such as Forbes, Bloomberg, Market Watch and Reuters. With offices in multiple countries, Regal Assets is uniquely positioned as an international leader in the alternative assets industry and was awarded the first ever crypto-commodities license by the DMCC in late 2017. Regal Assets is currently the only firm in the world that holds a license to legally buy and sell cryptos within the Middle East and works closely with the DMCC to help evolve and grow the understanding and application of blockchain technology. In addition to his role with Regal Assets, Tyler is a regular contributor to Forbes, Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global and Authority Magazine. Tyler has also been featured in many news publications and has been a guest expert on “The News with Ed Shultz”. Tyler is a proud member of the Forbes Finance Council a private invite only-group of hand-selected industry leaders.

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