Why Northwestern Mutual CEO Is Turning Milwaukee Into A Tech Hub

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John Schlifske is on a mission–big time. He wants to remake Northwestern Mutual into a company on the “leading edge of technology.” And he’s leading the way to transform Northwestern’s headquarters city, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, into a tech hub.

Wait a minute. Northwestern is in the business of selling life insurance. For 160 years it’s been helping American families grow their savings. And Milwaukee is hundreds of miles away from entrepreneurial hot spots like Silicon Valley. So how does this tech talk fit into all this?

“I think the future is around technology,” explains Schlifske, saying that Northwestern has been remaking itself into a digital platform company focused on financial planning tools and investment strategies, not only life insurance. “Just five, ten years ago, the amount of tech workers we had was the minority. We were hiring lawyers, investment professionals and actuaries. Now over half of our new jobs are technology.  That’s where our business is going.”

Schlifske has been  working with Wisconsin business leaders to build a technology ecosystem in Milwaukee and to attract tech talent and a start up community with entrepreneurs. He has created big venture capital funds at Northwestern to invest in tech companies. He has opened an innovation lab at the company. He has raised money for a data science institute. And he’s also making a  push to improve education for school children, especially in computer science and math.  He sees things are beginning to happen.

Schlifske says his personal success story has influenced the direction of Northwestern’s transformation. A Milwaukee native, Schlifske says he grew up in a “typical middle class family” and he describes himself as “lucky” to be the first person in his family to graduate from college. Now as the CEO of a giant Fortune 500 company with revenues of nearly $30 billion he says “I’m a big believer in education. The only reason I am where I am is because of education.”

And as a business leader, he believes he has a responsibility to pay that forward.

“I think the notion that the CEO should only be focused on the company and not the health of the community is sort of myopic,” Schlifske explains. “In the old days we had a foundation that gave away money and we felt good about it. Now we’re saying we don’t want to just give away money. We want to measure the impact. Are we making a change?

Watch the video above for more from my interview with Schlifske.