By Jessica Steinhoff | Photography by Hillary Schave
It all started with an apartment. Betty Harris Custer was living with her parents while attending UW–Madison. She had wanted to attend college out of state, but it was out of reach financially. At the very least, she wanted a place to call her own.
“My dad said I had a perfectly good bedroom in their house, so I found a way to work full-time while going to school full-time to be able to live on my own,” she recalls.
People who know the founder and managing partner of Custer Financial Services might say, “I’m not surprised she pulled that off. She’s Wonder Woman.” But she’s a real woman with real problems that can’t be solved with a lasso.
Custer fell ill while trying to be superhuman. She had to put school on hold and move back in with her parents to recuperate. To save up for her next apartment, she got a job at a financial services firm.
“I had never thought about financial services as a career. I thought I was going to be a journalist,” she says. “When I returned to college, I stayed on part-time and eventually rose to the role of training director for new financial planners. My boss said, ‘If you’re going to work this hard, you should become a planner yourself.’”
When she turned 22, Custer decided to give it a shot. The next step was taking a psychological test. When she called the testing company to schedule it, they told her they’d never tested a woman before. This was 1971. Being seen as a curiosity was common for women in the field. Custer passed the test, but not with flying colors, much to her manager’s surprise. He put on his detective hat and called the testing company.
“He asked why I’d received such a low rating, and they told him I was off the charts for empathy, which was viewed in a negative light at the time,” she says. Thankfully, her boss could see the value of empathy and let her do the job. Before long, she was racking up accolades and making history — first as one of Wisconsin’s first women in the profession, then as the first woman in a leadership role in the eight-state region she oversaw as a regional vice president for Investors Life. Then she became one of the first women in a regional CEO role for Lincoln Financial Group.
The professional milestone that brings her the most pride, however, is launching Custer Financial Services, which creates customized plans that help families save for retirement, manage their investments or prepare a small business for the future. Custer started it 41 years ago, when she was almost eight months pregnant with her first child.
“I wanted to spend time with my child, and I didn’t want to do a lot of traveling,” she says. “I knew that starting my own business could offer me that flexibility.” Custer used her relationships from a previous venture — Personal Planning Services, a two-year partnership with a former colleague — to build the new business.
That colleague’s belief in her, and his willingness to give her an equal stake in the company, helped her thrive when critics assumed she was too young, too green or too female to steer the ship.
“I was 24 years old at that point, so quite a few men in our professional circles had questions,” she recalls. “One time someone asked him, ‘Why are you giving her 50% of the company when you’re bringing in all the clients?’ He told them, ‘I can’t do this without her. She knows how to do the work and does it better than almost anyone.’”
The pair started by working with stockbrokers and branched out to serve clients from the Medical College of Wisconsin, UW–Madison and other powerful institutions.
“Some of my clients from back then are still my clients today,” she says.
Over time, Custer Financial Services has evolved to meet the needs of a changing population and economic landscape. There are many more women in professional roles, including leadership positions, and they have more assets than ever before. Plus, there are new sources of worry — inflation and the rising costs of housing and education, to name a few — that can complicate financial decision-making.
Though Custer isn’t Wonder Woman, she says empathy is a superpower when it comes to helping people navigate change and manage these kinds of worries. It’s essential for building relationships that stand the test of time.
“Many women have the gift of empathy, which is why many women make fantastic financial planners,” she adds. “It’s one of the most important qualities a person can have.”
What would you tell a young woman starting her career?
“I’d tell her what a favorite teacher of mine told me in ninth grade: Be your own person. I grew up with an older sister who challenged me to work hard and succeed, as she was very bright and led the way. Today I’m more aware that I don’t have to compare myself to others to be successful, and that being my best self is a better goal.”
Read more from our “What Women Want at Work” feature here.