Moving into Mentorship
Kristina Talkowski (BBA ’00) grew up dreaming of college.
It became a reality for Talkowski when she was accepted to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Excited to live her dream, Talkowski made it a point to take every opportunity available to her. From taking on projects outside the classroom to forming relationships with peers, faculty and staff, Talkowski embraced what it meant to be an eager Business Badger—a role she continues to play as an alumna recruiting current students into the workforce.
During her sophomore year at UW, Talkowski took a risk management and insurance class and fell in love with the subject.
“I knew that I was very interested in something analytical and had an interest in math, but also had an interest in working with individuals or companies to help people,” she says. “Risk management and insurance gave me both.”
After graduating, Talkowski started her career as a commercial underwriter at Liberty Mutual Insurance. Her work gave her the balance of analytical thinking and personal interaction that she sought. She progressed to manage a team of underwriters, working at four different companies over 17 years. Now the branch vice president of CNA Insurance since 2011, Talkowski is responsible for the profitable growth of the company’s Wisconsin operations.
“My job is a continuous balance of achieving the financial results for the business through understanding and addressing the needs of employees, clients, and agents and really hearing them, listening to them, and making sure we’re delivering for them,” she says. “In the process of all that, you learn so much about the people, industries, and the customers you serve.”
Talkowski credits her time at WSB with giving her an appreciation for continuous learning.
“A huge tenet at the Wisconsin School of Business is to always be contributing and learning,” she says. “I appreciated that our professors were always bringing industry professionals, current news, and current issues in the business environment to us. Nothing ever felt stale, and that was definitely part of the culture of the School when I attended—and I feel grateful that was part of my experience.”
Talkowski finds this dedication to learning to be characteristic of all Business Badgers—especially the ones she recruits. When she thinks back to the hard work and extra time she devoted to projects outside of class, she can see the same drive in younger Business Badgers.
“I have a tremendous amount of confidence in the future candidates and the individuals who go to UW-Madison, in particular at WSB,” says Talkowski. “I find that the students have that desire to learn, that strong work ethic, that willingness to go above and beyond, and that ability to seek out resources, because all of those things are things you have to do to be successful at the Wisconsin School of Business.”
As a first-generation college student, Talkowski had to find support outside of her parents for things like college applications, career advice, and a rigorous course load. She feels fortunate to have had many people willing to invest in her. While she was a student at WSB, Talkowski found support and guidance from Joan Schmit, American Family Insurance Distinguished Chair of Risk Management and Insurance at WSB.
—Kristina Talkowski (BBA ’00)
“She was very encouraging and willing to help students explore the different career possibilities we could consider in insurance, and introducing us to different companies that she had connections with,” Talkowski says. “It was based on her guidance and my own understanding of my skills that I decided to go into underwriting.”
Grateful for the support she received from people like Schmit, Talkowski looks for opportunities that allow her to provide the same kind of guidance she needed.
A job promotion took Talkowski to Indiana, where she found an opportunity to give back through the Starfish Initiative, a program that provides four-year, one-on-one mentorship to high-potential high school students to keep their goal of attending college in focus and attainable despite their economic situation. Talkowski and the student she mentored discussed class schedules, volunteered together, attended career fairs, toured college campuses, filled out financial aid forms, completed college and scholarship applications, and also just had fun together.
“I think what I can relate to is that, for people who don’t have means, college is not an automatic. There are more challenges and distractions in their life and things aren’t a given, that if you want to go to college it will just happen,” she says. “When I found the Starfish Initiative, I thought, 'This is what I was meant to do. I am meant to help somebody who is like me.'”
The Starfish Initiative’s name comes from a story about a child walking along a beach covered in stranded starfish. When the child starts throwing them back into the ocean one by one, the child’s parent asks, “Why bother? You’ll never help all these starfish.” The child replies, “I helped that one. And that one. And that one.”
Talkowski says the story serves as a reminder of the people who believed in her and gave her invaluable opportunities.
“I feel very grateful to so many people who grabbed me and threw me back into the ocean,” she says. “I feel a responsibility to give others the help and guidance that was given to me.”
Looking forward, Talkowski wants to continue learning all she can.
“My goals tend to be about collecting specific experiences,” she says. “That’s what my life and career are about–because experiences add to what you know and understand. I am going to continue on that journey and appreciate that there’s always more to do and learn.”