Eileen McDonnell (’84) Wins Entrepreneur of the Year Award

By Hannah Werthan

Earlier this month, Eileen McDonnell ('84), Chairman and CEO of the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company, was awarded EY's (Ernst & Young's) Entrepreneur of the Year award in the Eileen McDonnell ('84)Transformational category for the greater Philadelphia area. As part of the judging process, Eileen sat through several rounds of interviews conducted by a panel of business leaders and past winners of the prestigious award. In addition, Penn Mutual submitted strategic and financial documents.

Penn Mutual recently celebrated its 170th anniversary. To receive an award in the Transformational category for leading a company that was founded in 1847 is especially exciting for Eileen. "Penn Mutual is a company that has survived and thrived and continues to evolve. I credit our entrepreneurial mindset. We strive to be curious and creative," she says.

As a regional winner, Eileen is now in the running for the national Entrepreneur of the Year award and will find out the results in November 2017. 

In light of Eileen's recent honor — among many other career achievements — we reached out to her to learn more about her path to becoming the successful leader of a Fortune 1000 company.

From Molloy Student to Penn Mutual CEO: Eileen's Story

Eileen initially pursued Nursing in college, following the advice of her father. She did well in her Nursing classes but, while respecting the field, she personally was not passionate about becoming a nurse.

Instead, a different program caught her attention: Computer Science. At the time, personal computers were new inventions, and Eileen saw an opportunity to pursue a career in that emerging field. Despite the change in her course of study midway through college, Eileen was able to graduate from Molloy a semester early with a major in Math and a minor in Computer Science.         

After graduation, Eileen received job offers from Wang Computers and IBM. She decided to work at Wang, despite the lower pay, because she knew the company was more nimble and she would have more opportunities for growth there.                

In 1986, she left Wang to work at Equitable Life Assurance Society, which is now AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company. She has been a leader in the insurance industry ever since.

Eileen quickly moved up the ladder in her career, and for that she credits not only her own perseverance and hard work but also the mentors that she has had along the way.  In particular, she is grateful that Mike Martin, who recently passed away, saw potential in her as she was starting her career in insurance. Mike was responsible for promoting Eileen from manager to a full vice president at Equitable when she was only 27 years old. He knew that, even though she had roughly half of the specific skill set for the vice president position on paper, Eileen would work hard, stretch herself, and tap into resources around her to get the job done.

By promoting her to vice president, Mike gave Eileen the confidence to realize that she could be a great leader and run an organization.

Now in her ninth year at Penn Mutual, Eileen aims to instill the same confidence in her employees by giving them opportunities to thrive. She recalls when the company became sponsors of the Collegiate Rugby Championship in Philadelphia. An employee who works at Penn Mutual learned that this was happening, raised her hand, and made the case to be in charge of the initiative. Though this person didn't have any direct history working in sports, she laid out three transferable skills she had that would help her in this role. Eileen, impressed by this individual's passion, offered her the position. Since then, the program has far exceeded Eileen's expectations.

For Eileen, the key to success is to always look five or ten years down the line. "Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky used to say, 'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.' I look at macro trends, and I rely on the resources around me. I surround myself with great people who are hands on, and I listen to their feedback," she says. The Molloy community can't wait to see what our distinguished alumna accomplishes next and wishes her the best of luck in the Entrepreneur of the Year national awards.

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