Competitive skier-turned-banker shares her view from the top

March 05, 2019

U.S. Bank is growing its role as a leader in financing the ski industry under Jennifer Kaufman.

Jennifer Kaufman finds her inner peace at the top of a mountain. So ever since the competitive skier with a knack for finance was able to combine her personal and professional lives in a role at U.S. Bank, she has become a model for leading with authenticity.

Much like on the slopes, Kaufman’s route to becoming a commercial banker to the ski industry has taken twists and turns. She grew up in Kalispell, in the far northwest corner of Montana. She was competitive runner and skier in her youth and parlayed national success in ski racing to Middlebury College in Vermont. 

While there, she studied German and Russian, which led her halfway around the world to Moscow, where she taught and explored a variety of jobs for four years. She returned to the U.S. to attend graduate school, earning an MBA from NYU Stern School of Business. 

Upon completion, Kaufman took a job in New York City at a major bank and was soon managing large debt deals, the first being a $6 billion transaction. She was also working 60- or 70-hour weeks, which left little time for anything else in her life. Gradually, the passions of her youth began to “call” and she moved to Denver to be nearer to her family, the outdoors and the physical pursuits she’d missed. 

She found an opportunity assisting a tech startup, while she looked for a “real job.” It wasn’t long before good fortune struck. A call from a recruiter led to an interview with the U.S. Bank Denver-area market president seeking a candidate to manage the company’s ski industry portfolio, and her strong skiing background was an intriguing fit. That was 2005, and she’s thrived in the role ever since and hasn’t looked back.

“Finding something that you’re passionate about makes you feel better,” she said. “Bringing more enthusiasm to your job has so many great benefits. You think better and problem solve better. I always tell my team to ‘find what motivates you.’”

Today Kaufman leads a team which counts all the major ski hill operators, and several other single-mountain resorts, as customers. In addition to lending, the bank has been providing a variety of other banking services to the ski industry for more than 30 years.

Just as importantly, she’s reconnected with her authentic self, the one who loves the outdoors, craves physical activity, and enjoys challenging herself. She’s also not shy about sharing these personal passions with colleagues – leading 14,000-plus-foot mountain hikes as team-building exercises, for example.

“Being inclusive means, it’s not all about me,” she said. “I can help facilitate interactive experiences with the whole team, so our clients or prospects can really see the breadth and depth of the talent supporting them.”

That sentiment extends across U.S. Bank, which counts drawing strength from diversity among its core values. With 75,000 employees from many places, cultures and backgrounds, the bank celebrates racial and ethnic heritages through dedicated business resource groups (BRGs). 

Kaufman takes advantage of these programs and encourages others to do so. She serves as the management advisor for the local Development Network BRG and regularly participates in events held by the local U.S. Bank Women BRG chapter. She also has team members that serve in leadership positions for the groups.

For Kaufman, leadership means learning from one another, celebrating diverse backgrounds and creating an environment in which employees are able to bring their authentic selves to work. Although she is a fierce competitor at heart, she understands that business is about a lot more than winning.

“I’m not afraid to fail or admit when I’m wrong,” Jennifer said. “I think my team appreciates this, and that we can communicate in open and honest ways. I think my confidence and willingness to put myself out there is a direct result of my competitive nature, and my skiing background.”

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