Kathy Kay got a unique chance as a young adult. The lessons she learned changed the course of her life.
One day, a letter arrived at high schooler Kathy Kay’s Detroit home, inviting her to a retreat sponsored by Focus: HOPE. The organization’s goal was to help students like her—bright, motivated, and underprivileged—learn more about post-high school opportunities.
For a teen whose hardworking parents didn’t have college degrees, that gathering marked a turning point in Kay’s life. “My mom was an administrative assistant, but she didn’t have the chance to finish high school,” Kay says. “I’d always been interested in math and science but didn’t know someone like me could go to college. The retreat was a chance to make all of us students realize we could do something more.”
Kay hasn’t forgotten that message: Your potential is only as good as your access to the tools to make things happen. In Kay’s case, that unexpected, long-ago letter germinated into a robust career, a role as executive vice president and chief information officer at Principal®, and a commitment to leveraging education and technology to help more people realize their own turning points.
“This was the company for me.”
After the high school retreat, Kay doubled down on grades and won a full-ride scholarship to Wayne State University. Initially, she pursued a pre-med track, but quickly concluded biology wasn’t for her. Computer science beckoned; ever mindful of her family’s hardworking history, Kay knew those jobs paid well. “I loved those classes,” she says. “Machines do exactly what you tell them to do and have the potential to make a positive impact.”
The first in her family to graduate from college, Kay began her career at General Motors, earned a master’s degree while working, and held positions at SunTrust and Pacific Gas and Electric, among others. In 2020, an offer from Principal brought her back to the Midwest from San Francisco.
The job supplied fresh challenges, but the culture of Principal was just as enticing. “I did some homework and realized how many amazing things Principal does,” Kay says. “Working for a company that aligns with my beliefs, with a leadership team that’s straightforward and genuine, is critical.”
“By the time I got through the first set of interviews, I knew this was the company for me.”
Less friction, better results
Kay’s role at Principal charges her with overseeing global technology, digital strategies and operations, and future innovation. She and her team analyze what tech today’s consumers need, and how tomorrow’s tech will change their experiences. The real focus of both challenges? “Being customer-centric,” Kay says. “I can’t tell you exactly what technology looks like in five or 10 years, but I do know we’re always focused on how we can understand and solve problems for customers.”
Kay knows tech can do more to reduce friction for both small businesses and individuals so they can get what they need, when they need it. “A lot of people are unsure about finances and they’re afraid to ask,” Kay says. “Tech has reduced some of that, but we can use information and data in these moments of truth to provide an experience that helps.”
Another challenge for tech: a super-competitive employment landscape. “Tech professionals have been in demand my whole career, so you offer opportunities to learn and upskill as well as mentorship,” Kay says. “There’s a reason tech companies provide free breakfast, lunch, and dinner—they want you to work as much as you’ll let them. Principal doesn’t expect that of our people. We’ve listened and been thoughtful, especially with our flip to flexibility.”
Advocating, sharing, and learning
As children of the Depression, Kay’s parents were very clear with their family: Live within your means and save. “I didn’t realize that it’s not always taught in school, and many may not have access to resources they need,” Kay says.
She wants to change that. For example, some people who apply for Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity homes are turned down. Why? “They have to demonstrate some financial acumen,” Kay says. Through her spot on the organization’s board, she’s working on how to help potential applicants get the resources they need before they even apply.
She also wants to continue to change the make-up of tech, both for students and professionals. “Girls start to fall out of love with math and computers in middle school, and it undermines their confidence,” Kay says.
Organizations such as Pi515, which Kay is involved with, help by teaching coding to underserved young people. At Principal, the Pi515 Technology Mentorship Program meets twice a week in the Principal Community Learning Center, giving those enrolled real-world access to mentorship. Finding those connections at every age is a necessity, Kay says; she also serves on the board of the Technology Association of Iowa. “A network is really important,” Kay says. “You need people who will advocate for you, who share and learn with each other.”
She’s found that at Principal. “Many companies say they believe in diversity and inclusion, but we really live it at Principal,” Kay says. “We all have to be personally accountable and ask if we’re doing everything we can to turn the tides.”
Decades ago, Kay was given a challenge and a chance. She’s never forgotten. “It was a diverse group of high school kids who had hard discussions about race and tensions and how we could be leaders and respect one another,” Kay says. “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for them. There isn’t anything I’m afraid to tackle.”