ND Founders Profile #147: Proving Experience Pays, this Founder Invested 10 Years in Corporate Roles before Finding Success on Her Own

Author: Melanie Lux

Katie Dec 2023 Fb Web


Company Founded: Avant Strategy Year Graduated: 2015
Title: Founder and CEO Degree: BBA, Finance & Business Economics
Location: Chicago, IL Residence Hall: Lyons Hall

Katie Swartz laughs at a personal admission. “When I was 18, the furthest west I’d ever been was South Bend, Indiana. That was because my dad, a Notre Dame alumnus, would take me to Notre Dame football games. Aside from that, I rarely traveled far from home.”

The youngest of four children, Swartz grew up in Akron, Ohio, enjoying a typical Midwestern childhood. With such a large family, travel was limited. Not that Swartz missed it; her world was Akron. But when she followed in her father’s footsteps and enrolled at the University of Notre Dame, the entire trajectory of her life changed.

Today, nearly 20 years post-graduation, Swartz has traveled the globe and has the world in the palm of her hand. After a decade in high profile corporate roles building a war chest of experience, she launched her company, Avant Strategy, representing top tier corporations in assignments around the world. And it all started with her trips to Notre Dame as a kid.

“The reason I chose Notre Dame for school was the incredible academics and opportunities,” she says. “Being practical, I studied Finance because I knew there were a lot of job opportunities, and I had to repay my college loans.”

Part of her college experience was studying abroad her junior year in Australia, a year that also took her to Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. The exposure to different cultures was something Swartz says she could not have gotten elsewhere. It also whetted her appetite for travel.

So it wasn’t surprising when she accepted a job with GE Capital in its Financial Management Program, a two-year early career development program and a proven path for accelerated career growth. The program took her from Stamford, Connecticut, to Los Angeles, California, to Chicago, Illinois over the next 24 months.

“It was an incredibly competitive leadership development program,” Swartz says. “There were classes and tests, so it felt like I was still in college. It was very much project driven. I started in consumer finance, moved to sub-prime lending and then to GE’s insurance products business. At the end of the program, GE wanted me to join their corporate audit staff or take a finance position at NBC (then owned by GE) in Los Angeles, but I declined both offers.”

Instead, she accepted a position with Deloitte, the largest audit, consulting , tax, and advisory services firm in the world. “Deloitte was recruiting a number of ‘graduates’ of GE’s Financial Management Program, for their consulting business, and I was one of them. I took the job because while at GE, I discovered how much I enjoyed project work.”

For the next eight years, minus a two-year break to earn her MBA at the University of Michigan, Swartz was based in Deloitte’s Chicago office and travelled to clients all over the world on finance, operations, and strategy consulting engagements. When she was just 25, the firm sent her to Tokyo, Japan, where she lived for nearly a year. “The business culture in Japan is consensus-based and very different from what I had experienced elsewhere. It was an incredible opportunity to have so early in my career. Deloitte was an amazing job for someone in their 20s.”

Swartz was well on her way to partner at Deloitte. However, when she was approached about specializing in one area to become an expert, she balked.

“At this point, I’d worked in at least 12 industries and specializing in one did not appeal to me. There was also the non-stop grind of travel to multiple cities to serve clients. I concluded that becoming a Deloitte partner didn’t fit where I wanted to go with my life. So I left and founded my own management consulting firm, Avant Strategy,” she says.

Unlike a tech startup, Swartz didn’t need to fundraise or convince investors she had a sellable product and could scale the company. Instead, she bootstrapped Avant Strategy and hit the ground running, targeting engagements with billion-dollar companies that encompassed strategy, finance, mergers and acquisition (pre and post integration work), and operations.

Her client acquisition strategy was old school: networking, reaching out to former colleagues and clients, promoting herself on LinkedIn and on other professional sites. Her very first client was Deloitte. They wanted her expertise back for a project. Companies she’d previously worked with began seeking her out and also referring clients to her.

Swartz kept her value proposition simple and compelling. “You don’t need to hire an army of experts. Hire one expert and I’ll drive meaningful value for you. I can partner with senior people at global organizations and do the work of five people. Finally, I made it clear I was not trying to shove multi-million-dollar engagements or ridiculous add-on services down throats. Being up front worked to my advantage. I can have candid conversations I could not have working for a larger firm.”

Soon her client list read like a who’s who: Google, Microsoft, , Wal-Mart, Pfizer, Merck, AbbVie, KKR & Company, and many more. Swartz credits her clientele to one thing: her resume.

“I have a unique set of experiences: Notre Dame Finance degree, University of Michigan MBA, GE leadership training, and global experience with top tier companies with Deloitte. All of that and the results I secured for clients over a period of a decade set me apart,” she explains.

Swartz tends to accept longer engagements that often include add-on work. Her business development is largely organic; reputation and results attract new clients. “I stay pretty busy; I’m not searching for work. I have some clients try to hire me full-time, but I have no interest in what some would call a ‘real job.’ I love the diversity of industries, clients and projects. The revenue I am able to generate on my own versus a corporate job is certainly significant.”

Eight years into Avant Strategy, Swartz has begun adding hew skill sets. In January 2019, she earned her real estate license in Chicago. While she has helped friends buy homes, her primary interest is in real estate investing. Swartz focuses mainly on new construction condominiums in Chicago but has also purchased two condos in South Bend for rentals.

To diversify her investments, she joined IrishAngels and is now an angel investor, bringing her expertise and financial acumen to startup founders. She serves as a deal lead for two portfolio companies and works closely with founders and startup executives to help drive growth.

Swartz’s newest passion is serving as an adjunct professor teaching strategy at the Mendoza College of Business. Part of the core curriculum for undergraduates, her goal is to introduce students to real life experience. This involves giving students consulting projects with former clients.

“This is my way of giving back to Notre Dame,” she says. “Giving students something they can really use when they graduate. Such as how to present to clients and get feedback, and how to give and receive peer evaluations. Most college students don’t gain this type of experience until after they graduate.” Swartz just wrapped up her first semester and looks forward to the next group of students.

Although it may seem like success came easily to Swartz, it was built on ten years in the trenches working long hours on demanding projects for GE and Deloitte. Her biggest challenge with Avant Strategy is the long hours have not stopped. “The

biggest misconception about working for myself is that I go on a lot of vacations. The reality is finding time off is hard; I’m always working!“

She adds, “It is also odd that I no longer have a career path, focused on being promoted to CFO or COO. Instead, I focus on interesting assignments—working with whom I want, where I want.”

Swartz says her biggest win with Avant Strategy is finding financial and intellectual freedom. “I’m my own boss and have control over my future in a way most people don’t experience in their careers, if ever. It’s very freeing.”

Her advice to others who want to start a company or consultancy is this: just do it and do it now.

“People have reservations, don’t know where to start and are reluctant to pull the trigger. If you have the knowledge and skills, confidence and know how to network, those are all advantages. Put in the effort and dedication, and success will follow.”