Kim Schwendeman's story is one of toughness, learning, perseverance, and the special job that teachers perform every day.
"When I was 13 years old, my mother passed away. I was left with my father and two brothers. At a time when I was leaving childhood and becoming a young woman, I had lost my closest female influence," said Schwendeman, who's now the chief of staff for global revenue at Elavon after a long and winding journey through her career and life.
With her mother gone, Schwendeman found new guidance from Nancy Litteral, her high school home economics teacher—one of those special teachers that we all have if we're lucky; a teacher that imparted a vision that Schwendeman has carried with her on her way to becoming a financial executive.
The teacher "connected with me. She cared. It was that simple," Schwendeman said. "She took me under her wing and mentored me. I tried to emulate how she acted and interacted with the world. To me, she epitomized grace and what it meant to be a strong, professional woman. Many times over the years when faced with difficult situations, I’ve asked myself, 'What would Mrs. Litteral do?' In that simple way, she continues to guide me. I am eternally grateful for the valuable life lessons she taught me during my teenage years that have molded my adult life."
Those lessons came early and often. Schwendeman grew up in rural Ohio, where steel and manufacturing were the primary industries. As those industries shrank, so did the local economy. At 21, Schwendeman was a single mother with an infant, raising her younger brother and working at a menial job.
"I was determined to create a better life for my family, so I moved to Columbus, Ohio, and worked as a prison guard. I went to college part-time and never gave up on my dream of improving the quality of our life," Schwendeman said. "When I finished college, I started my career as a programmer working in a windows manufacturing company, and quickly worked my way up to manage the Information Technology department."
In 2000, she was recruited by Vital Processing (now TSYS) in Phoenix and asked to lead a software development team that produced a PC-based point-of-sale product.
"I did not know anything about the payments industry at the time, but I did know about the technology they were using," she said. "After many conversations, I agreed to join their team, packed up the family and relocated to Phoenix to start a new career in payments."
Joining the payments industry was a huge leap, but she never looked back, and the two decades since have brought more growth — and more changes — for Schwendeman and the technology she works with.
One of the biggest surprises is the pace of innovation, according to Schwendeman, who's one of PaymentsSource's Most Influential Women in Payments for 2018. Just a few years ago, signing up a customer was a complex, cumbersome and entirely manual process. Now it can be done with just a few clicks, she said.
"When I think about the PC-based solution that was my first job in payments, I remember how it had to be deployed on CDs, shipped to a customer and physically installed," Schwendeman said. "That process seems so antiquated compared to how quickly a customer can be enabled for commerce today. It has been surprisingly satisfying to be on the forefront of that pace of change."
Her current role at Elavon is focused on sales enablement, where she's challenged to use technology to free up time for sales reps. The technology is becoming even more cutting edge, with artificial intelligence playing a role in boosting efficiency.
"Through advancements in channels like AI, it is becoming possible to provide a rep with an experience where the tools are constantly learning and improving every time they are used," Schwendeman said.
But there's also another side to AI for Schwendeman, who saw the manufacturing industries of her Ohio childhood succumb to automation.
"I think about AI from a human standpoint," she said. "It is not an investment in human capital, but it can enable humans to do more. What frightens me is the bigger picture. As technology evolves, some human roles will be replaced by machines. What will the economy of tomorrow look like as our workforce goes through this evolution?"
READ MORE: The Most Influential Women in Payments, 2018