Women Lead: Finance Professor Katherine Spiess

Author: Carol Elliott

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Katherine Spiess’ path to becoming a finance professor and the associate dean of graduate business programs at Mendoza College of Business appears to conform to a standard storyline: She had a goal, she achieved that goal; she discovered that goal wasn’t what she wanted after all; she found her true path.

But a closer look reveals that her story illustrates a more basic motivational theme, one she would later employ to guide the many students she would teach and advise: When your life plans don’t work out, keep moving.

“I ABSOLUTELY BELIEVE THAT DOORS TEND TO OPEN, AND YOU MUST HAVE THE COURAGE TO WALK THROUGH THEM.” 

“Taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves has been a very good career strategy for me.”

A Mendoza faculty member since 1991, Spiess has built a successful teaching, research and administrative career, with numerous distinctions and awards to her name, including an All Star Paper recognition from the Journal of Financial Economics, a Kaneb Teaching Award, Outstanding Teacher in the M.S. in Management program and a BP Amoco Outstanding Teacher Award.
 

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Her research has focused on the stock market impact of security offerings, exploring topics such as equity offerings and securities regulation. In the classroom she helps undergraduate and graduate business students learn the fundamentals of corporate finance, as well as advanced subjects such as mergers and acquisitions, risk management and real options. It’s a common sight to see her seated with a student in her office, books and notes spread across the table while she patiently talks through the finer points of corporate finance.

But Spiess’ career path began far away from any epicenter of finance, and far away from Notre Dame, for that matter, and certainly without a predetermined plan of a teaching career in a business school.

She grew up in the tiny town of Green Ridge, Missouri (population, 490); her graduating class was a notch above tiny (32). Her mother, Mary, was a high school teacher; her father, Robert, a meat cutter.

She was determined to attend college, study biochemistry and eventually become a biochemist, perhaps engaged in cancer research. In high school, Spiess became laser-focused on earning the valedictorian spot because the University of Missouri offered a full scholarship to all Missouri high school graduates who received that distinction.

And all of her plans came to pass, to a point.

Spiess did get the scholarship, she did go to college, and she did earn a degree in biochemistry. She earned money during her undergraduate years by carrying a heavy load of tutoring and working as a teaching assistant – jobs she came to love because they involved working with people and because she had a comfortable familiarity with teaching due to her mother’s example.

Her first job after college was working in a small cancer research lab, filling test tubes with a pipette, carrying out the testing carefully planned by the senior researchers — exactly where Spiess had envisioned herself. And suddenly, exactly where she couldn’t envision her future.

“It was interesting work, but it wasn’t intellectually stimulating because I was at an entry level,” Spiess says. “I knew right away that I was going to have to go back to school. And that was really my crossroad. I liked what I was doing, but there was always a part of my brain that was interested in broader questions. I wanted something more people-facing, more interactive.”

Spiess changed course and chose an MBA program at the University of Missouri to accommodate that “people” part of her brain. Her plan was to get the education she needed to pursue a business position in a science industry. However, fairly early in the program she realized that this wasn’t her path, either.

Fortuitously, the next door opened. The finance department was considering ways to improve the academic qualifications of the applicants to its Ph.D. program, specifically in the area of mathematics. The admissions team decided to look at the current MBA students to see if they could identify those with strong science and math backgrounds, and entice them into the Ph.D. program.

“They held a wine and cheese reception at a faculty member’s house,” recalls Spiess. “I got there, and they pitched the Ph.D. program. As soon as I heard about it I realized this was the fit I was looking for. It’s quantitative, it’s research, it’s teaching.”

Based on her life experience, Spiess has shared considerable advice over the years with individual students, during dorm-sponsored discernment dinners and events, and as part of Notre Dame mentoring programs such as Building Bridges and Residential Scholars.

“If there is a theme, it’s that you have to come to terms with your own expectations and motivations as opposed to what others deem valuable,” says Spiess. “I looked for the opportunities where I could be fully committed and successful. I’ve always found that the doors do – and will – open."

Learn more about Katherine Spiess.