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Seven questions with: Donna Vieira

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Sallie Mae focuses on ‘outcomes’ as it works to help students and families fund their college educations

As chief marketing officer for Sallie Mae, Executive Vice President Donna Vieira oversees product development, sales, marketing, government relations, and communications for Sallie Mae’s consumer businesses, including private student loans, retail banking, personal loans, and credit cards.

Prior to joining Sallie Mae in 2019, Donna served as chief marketing officer for consumer banking and wealth management at JPMorgan Chase. There, she led the development of strategic marketing and brand initiatives to grow deposit and investment balances and customer relationships. Prior to that, Donna served as product and marketing chief for Chase business banking, where she focused on product and innovation development. She has also held executive leadership roles at Dun & Bradstreet, Merrill Lynch, and American Express.

Sallie Mae had $23.7 billion in total education loan assets at the end of 2019, a 12% increase over 2018, and originated $5.6 billion new private education loans in 2019, a 5.8% increase over 2018.

Donna Vieira | Photo courtesy of Sallie Mae

1. Are you losing sleep as the debate heats up among the presidential candidates about the cost of a college education and the benefits of eliminating tuition at public schools or forgiving debt?

Frankly, it’s encouraging that higher education is getting attention on the campaign trail. When it comes down to it, I firmly believe that education is the foundation and pathway to a prosperous future. Still, it’s a significant investment and to ensure it is an investment that pays off, it needs to be made responsibly.

Whether it’s the federal government or the private sector, student loan providers have an obligation to lend responsibly. Our lending philosophy centers around just that: responsibility. Our private loans provide gap financing to help families meet the cost of education only after scholarships, grants, and other financial aid are fully exhausted. We underwrite the programs and the applicants, and we carefully assess every applicant’s ability to repay. If they don’t demonstrate the ability to handle the debt, we say no.

It’s an ongoing conversation and the right one to have. And we expect the final result will be a combination of federal and private solutions for millions of students with incredibly diverse resources and needs.

2. What is Sallie Mae doing to drive a narrative that you’re part of the solution and not a big part of the problem in that area?

You’re right, we are a part of the solution, and we will be much more visible in telling our story. You’ll see a lot of that in 2020.

Our mission is to build prosperous futures through college and continuous education by providing access, planning outcomes, and helping students and families responsibly fund their future. The way we fulfill that mission is changing significantly. We recognize not everyone needs a four-year degree, so we are developing tools to help students assess their options and consider their future in the process. We know it is important to complete your course of study and know your financial health, so we are considering innovative ways to assist students in these areas. We are transforming our brand and digital experiences in the process and revamping our technology stack so that we meet our customers where they are and make our experiences simple, intuitive, personalized, and mobile first.

At the end of the day, it is about outcomes. Outcomes matter. We are incredibly proud that 91% of our customers complete their course of study; 91% of them are employed; and 98% of them successfully manage their student loans. When we talk about building prosperous futures and empowering financial independence, that is what we are talking about.

3. What have you learned from the students and parents that you talk to that have impacted the way you approach product launches or service enhancements?

Listening to our customers drives all we do at Sallie Mae. We are only successful if they are. We want to help them find the right answer for today, but with tomorrow in mind. So that’s where we start, no matter the product or the initiative.We start with the customer.

Take the launch of our new suite of credit cards, for example. They were literally co-created with consumers. We conducted research and focus groups and spoke to customers, students, parents, and partners about what’s important to them. They told us they wanted simplicity, to be financially responsible, and be rewarded for it. So, we designed a suite of credit cards that do just that, including the only card that offers a cash-back bonus when cardholders apply their rewards to pay down a student loan. Any student loan, not just ours.

It all speaks to the fact that customers are changing and evolving, and it’s important for us to stay relevant on their journey.

Much of that work is already underway. We are on a significant digital transformation journey, to dramatically simplify our customer experience and advance our mobile-first strategy. We are innovating around a theme of simplicity to meet our customers where they are and most importantly how they want to engage with us.

We are also advancing our own scholarship programs, like our Bridging the Dream Scholarship Program for undergraduates and graduate students that has provided nearly $1 million in scholarships to deserving students across the country, including right here in Delaware. Our free scholarship search includes more than 5 million college scholarships worth $25 billion. Last year, 20,000 people who used it won $61 million in scholarships.

4. You recently announced that you’d stop originating personal loans after only two years. You built a $1 billion portfolio in a fairly short period of time. Why get out?

While the personal loan business was generally successful, as an organization, we need to be much more focused. We are doubling down on our core customers to invest those resources to help students and families more effectively access, plan, fund their college and continuous education journey.

5. In November, J.D. Power announced you had earned its Certified Customer Service distinction for delivering an outstanding customer service experience for phone support. Beyond the internal reinforcement, how does recognition like that impact your sales and marketing efforts?

You know, it’s easy for companies to talk the talk when it comes to customer service, but when an organization like J.D. Power certifies your efforts, that makes a tremendous difference. It is a symbol of our commitment to our customers. And you are right, it is such a point of pride for our customer service teams and all of us at Sallie Mae. Our team members are consistently looking for ways to improve systems, enhance convenience, and assist our customers. Being recognized by J.D. Power is a testament to those efforts.

6. How are you using credit cards to support and fuel future growth?

Given our relationships with college students and recent graduates, we feel there is no company better positioned to offer unique and differentiated credit cards that can help consumers get where they are headed with confidence.

Just like our private student loans, our credit cards promote and reward financial responsibility. We have differentiated our value propositions and developed a seamless and effortless digital and mobile experience. We’ve incorporated universal benefits that provide security and peace of mind for customers, and of course we will continue to innovate and bring new features to each of the cards to market. In the end, it’s about providing products that ultimately empower our customers to financial independence.

7. What do you hope customers are saying about Sallie Mae, even if they’re facing personal financial challenges or have large balances that they worry about paying off over time?

I think about this question a lot. The higher education journey is so filled with emotion and anxiety for students and families. As a parent of a college student, I am in the midst of this journey. We all want our children to have the best chance for a bright, prosperous and fulfilling future. I want our customers to see us as “the most essential brand” to helping them achieve their prosperous futures. It’s a big, audacious vision for sure but one I am absolutely committed to achieving. When it comes down to it, I want customers to feel confident about the decisions they’ve made, that their experience with us is excellent, simple, that we give easy-to-understand and reliable information, and that they trust us. 

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