In her sophomore year at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Nancy Skeans was held captive in a dark box the size of a casket for more than five hours to see how she would react.
Sleep deprivation scenes also played out as she was required to sit on a one-legged stool, alone in a room for extended periods during what was called Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training.
“I learned that if I could go through SERE training, I could do anything,” said Ms. Skeans, CEO of Schneider Downs Wealth Management Advisors, Downtown. “The training simulated what it was like to be thrown into a prisoner of war camp. … Then we were chased into the wilderness.”
As head of the $2.2 billion Pittsburgh-based firm since 2018, Ms. Skeans is still doing just what she did 39 years ago as one of the Air Force Academy’s earliest female graduates — blazing new trails for women in careers dominated by men.
After nearly 20 years at Schneider Downs, she has done almost every job at the firm and currently wears multiple hats in addition to being CEO. She continues to advise high-net-worth clients as a senior wealth manager. She’s also responsible for making sure the firm is fulfilling its regulatory requirements in her role as chief compliance officer.
Perhaps the most fulfilling part of her job is helping clients successfully reach the point of retirement. But that is never the end of the journey. Just the next phase, she said.
“I also love being part of those retirement years,” Ms. Skeans said. “Since I’ve been in this industry for 30 years, I have been privileged to be part of many families’ lives.
“I now work with first, second and even the third generation of some families,” she said.
Prior to becoming a financial adviser, Ms. Skeans worked as a tax accountant at Deloitte in Pittsburgh.
A thrilling challenge
While stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, she enrolled at Wright State University near Dayton and earned an MBA in accounting. She was married in 1986. She left the Air Force in 1989 and earned her CPA certification that same year. When her now-ex-husband was relocated to Western Pennsylvania, she joined the Deloitte tax firm in 1990.
She left Deloitte in 1992 to join a friend in starting their own small practice in the North Hills, providing tax and financial planning services to executives and high-net-worth individuals.
In 2003, Ms. Skeans merged that small practice with Schneider Downs and became a partner.
She said her path to the executive C-Suite started at the military academy.
“I can honestly say that my experience at the Air Force Academy and as an officer in the U.S. Air Force helped define the person I am today,” she said.
Ms. Skeans entered the Air Force Academy in 1980, the same year that the historic first class of women to enroll in the academy, in 1976, were graduating.
No one in her family had a military background. But the challenge thrilled her.
As an honor roll student from small town Wynne, Ark., she had a chance to hear a female cadet from the Air Force Academy speak at a summer internship program for top rising high school seniors called “Girls State.” Ms. Skeans was so inspired, she decided to do everything necessary to get admitted to the academy.
Image DescriptionNancy Skeans makes Captain in the US Air Force. (Courtesy of Nancy Skeans)
“I knew that it was a good school on par with the Ivy League schools and that admission meant a four-year scholarship,” she said. “I had the grades and wanted the opportunity to attend one of the best schools in the country. So I did it.”
She was one of about 130 women who entered the academy as freshmen in 1980. They joined about 1,500 male cadets. Only about 1,000 of them stuck it out to graduation day in 1984, including roughly 80 women, she said.
‘Prepared for anything’
The academic challenges were only part of the experience. Ms. Skeans had to pass rigorous physical tests to graduate.
The training that perhaps left the strongest mark on her was the SERE training in the summer before her sophomore year.
SERE training prepared the future officers to evade capture by enemy forces, taught survival skills and stressed the mandate to uphold the Military Code of Conduct if captured.
All cadets had to pass the training to graduate and be commissioned as officers in the Air Force.
“They did not change the expectations for female cadets when teams were required to lift trees, transport supplies and meet rigid schedules and deadlines as part of training exercises,” she said. “We had to march as far and do as much as men.
“When you go through all of these things and come out on the other end, you feel prepared for anything,” Ms. Skeans said. “Even today, I can say I’ve never experienced anything as difficult as that. So, I deal with stress and pressure much differently than had I never received that training.”
Ms. Skeans rose to the rank of captain before leaving the Air Force.
During her five-year tour of duty, she served in the F-16 System Project at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which controls much of the Air Force’s military equipment.
“I worked in the System Project Office for one of the hottest aircrafts the Air Force had at that time,” she said. “We were selling the plane to allies around the world.”
One of those allies was Egypt. Since Ms. Skean’s degree was in international affairs with a specialty in the Middle East and North Africa, she was made part of the joint U.S.-Egyptian team and was the only woman officer at the table.
That experience wasn’t without bumps. She was a 23-year-old first lieutenant, assigned to co-chair a committee with an Egyptian colonel. When the colonel wanted Ms. Skeans to take meeting notes, she refused and reminded him that she was co-chair of the committee, and an officer representing the United States.
During the negotiations with contractor Pratt & Whitney, she said, the Egyptian colonel later requested a “quid pro quo” favor of the contractor. Ms. Skeans objected, saying it was an inappropriate request. The colonel halted the meeting, she said, and went to find her boss to have her removed.
“But my boss didn’t remove me from my role,” she said. “He came into the meeting, and quietly sat in the back corner for the rest of it. I never had a problem with that officer again.”
She went on to work on F-16 projects with the Israeli military. The cultures of military groups in different countries varied. The constant was that they consisted mostly of men.
Still, she thrived in those environments.
Image DescriptionNancy Skeans and her mom at Parents Weekend during her freshman year as a Cadet in the US Air Force Academy.(Courtesy of Nancy Skeans)
“While I could not compete athletically with the guys, I could compete academically and intellectually,” she said. “I learned that in order to be heard, in order to be respected, and in order to progress, I needed to be prepared. I never showed up to a classroom or a meeting unprepared.”
Many of her most trusted working relationships, mentorships and friendships are with men, she said. She has only worked for one woman in her entire professional career — Carol MacPhail, her former boss at Deloitte.
Ms. MacPhail was the hiring partner at the Pittsburgh office of the international tax firm in 1990. She hired Ms. Skeans.
“Nancy was impressive then and she remains impressive,” said Ms. MacPhail, who is retired from Deloitte, but still works as an associate professor at Robert Morris University teaching accounting, taxation and financial planning.
“First of all, women in public accounting were few and far between,” Ms. MacPhail said. “When I made partner, there were two other women partners in the city among all firms. The whole thing was run by the guys. But that’s not true today.”
On her first day of work at Deloitte, Ms. Skeans revealed that she was pregnant.
“I just took it in stride and said, ‘OK. Let’s move on. We get maternity leave at this firm’,” said Ms. MacPhail, a mother of three.
Ms. Skeans at the time was about six or seven weeks pregnant with her only child from her only marriage, which ended in 1996. Her son is now 31.
“I asked her if she wanted to rescind the [job] offer. She said absolutely not,” Ms. Skeans said. “The landscape for women was very different. It was hard to have credibility as a woman.”
Women in male-dominated careers don’t automatically get the same trust and respect as men in similar job positions, she said.
“The world of finance was not much different than the Air Force when I began in this industry,” Ms. Skeans said. “In many ways, the world of finance is still dominated by men. But it has changed for the better over the years.”
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