Julie Larson balances detail-oriented leadership with a generous heart: Last year, she hand-wrapped 250 presents for her staff. She also took on multiple crafting projects for her daughter’s wedding, from the flowers to the invitations – no detail is too small. 

“I guess I like to give,” Larson said, reflecting. “It’s a different outlet for me, because not all businesspeople are creative.”

Larson spent 34 years working at EMC Insurance Co., and the last six years as the vice president of information technology application and information systems director, where she managed a staff of more than 200. 

As the new vice president of AE Ventures LLC, Larson now works on a team of three. 

“I think the transparency with your staff – telling them where you are now, where you’re going and how you’re going to get there  – eases everybody’s minds. Otherwise they fill in the blanks,” she said. “Keeping your promises with your team – if you’re going to do something, do it – that’s part of being a great leader. Being a servant leader, where you’re not afraid to roll up your sleeves, get on the floor and test policies.” 

What was it that drew you to the role of vice president at AE Ventures?

I think it’s the excitement of something new, and getting to have partnerships with individuals that are starting new companies. A couple of weeks ago we went to a conference in Las Vegas called InsurTech, and there were 360 vendors there -- we sorted out who is in the health and life space, and went and talked to 100 different companies and startups. 

[We’re] meeting these people that are just starting in this industry, they’ve excited, they’re passionate about it, and [we talk about] how can we help them so we can bring that solution into our company for efficiencies to save money for American Enterprise. After that, we pilot with them and if that solution works, then can we invest in you? 

You’re making a difference in somebody’s life, you know, yet, you’re having to be really strategic and say, “Is this something that the rest of the world is going to invest in?” … It’s just an exciting challenge. 

When you work within an established company, how can you encourage the broader company to think differently? 

I think it’s through persuasion and being transparent.

Our business cards are a simple example. They designed them, they went outside of their comfort zone with us. We just went to a conference two days ago, and I bet I had 20 people saying, “Oh my gosh, the QR code -- wow.” They’re going to remember us because we are trying to think outside the box. 

The devil’s in the details -- you have to present your company and yourself so that people remember you. … We’re trying to do more communication through fireside chats, and what I mean by that is inviting people to come down and see our department, learn a little bit about us. 

What makes AE Ventures different from other firms?

 We have three pillars [capital investment, pilots and incubation]. 

In our capital investment pillar, we will invest very small amounts, up to a million dollars for each investment that we make, and we’ll do follow-up investments if they need it to continue to go. Where we differ is not all venture companies do pilots and try to bring efficiencies into the existing company. I think this incubation [pillar] really makes us stand out. … If somebody [inside or outside American Enterprise] has an idea, we incubate it. We would hire programmers and we would design that technology with that idea. We would possibly use it in-house to make American Enterprise better, but then we would also incubate that idea and go sell it to other companies to use. 

What’s the best piece of advice or feedback you’ve received since starting your role? 

At the conference I just went to, many people I have known from my previous role saw me, learned about what I was doing and they were excited for how far we’ve come in just a few months. That’s positive to see people that have admired your work for many years somewhere else, also seeing your work at your new company. … It just gives you a smile on your face. 

You are managing a smaller team in your new role. Has that changed your leadership style?

 It’s a team of three, counting me. [Larson works with Director of Innovative Solutions Julie Pearce and Technology Architect Chad Zelle.]

When you have 200 and some people, you work with a closer management team and had to be transparent, but you also had to communicate the same message to everybody. I always had quarterly meetings, I always had an open-door policy. … I was always transparent with my team, and I think they trusted me for that reason. 

I think as we get busier and busier we won’t all be in every investment meeting. We’re walking together right now, which is wonderful. We laugh together and then we refocus: … “What are we going to do for our goals?” Everybody steps up, and if we need to do a little extra work, we do it. It’s refreshing in a different way. 

What are your goals for AE Ventures a year from now? 

A year from now, everyone in [American Enterprise] should know exactly where we are, where we’re going and where we’ve been. That’s not the case right now, so I think a lot of people don’t even know what Ventures does in our company, not only on the inside but on the outside. I want everybody to know, so that’s a hefty goal. A lot of communication. 

What have you been reading/watching/listening to lately? 

I would say my favorite book is “The Corporate Athlete” [by Jack L. Groppel]. What I love about that book is that it brings in your work ethic, your fitness and your faith. It brings all three together and how you can make it work. … If you have all three, you’re a better person, you’re a better leader, and you’re just better at what you do. A lot of leaders say, oh, I don’t have time to exercise or I don’t have time for faith, this, that or whatever, and this book just gives you the insight. So that book always stood out to me.