Feature Story

Fearless and bold

Donna (Williams) Vieira (’87) builds exceptional career in advertising, marketing, finance
By: Aloma Jardine

Excellence. Joy. Gratitude. These are the three words that guide Donna Vieira.

“They are the mottoes of how I live my life,” she says. “Every year I write a personal mission statement for the year, and they always start with those same foundations: gratitude, joy, and excellence. I want to live a joyous life, express gratitude every day to my family, friends, and colleagues, and do everything with excellence.”

For the past year, Vieira has been bringing her personal brand to the role of executive vice-president and chief marketing officer for Sallie Mae, the largest private student loan lender in the U.S. It’s just the latest move forward in her remarkable more than 30-year career.

Vieira grew up in Trinidad. She ended up at Mount Allison because several members of a family her parents knew attended the University and spoke highly of it.

“I had to choose whether to go to the U.S. or Canada. My grandparents lived in the U.S., but my mother didn’t want me in New York City,” she says. “So, she bought my ticket for Sackville and said, ‘That is where you are going.’” 

Vieira had always been interested in business — her father owned an insurance company and she often helped out in the office — so she decided to give Commerce a try.

“I went in not knowing much about it,” she says. “But I’m glad I tried it. It was such a rigorous and well-rounded program. And I didn’t land on marketing right away, so I really got schooled in all things business. That made me so well-prepared not only for graduate school but also for the challenges and opportunities as I started and advanced my career. It really set me on my path.”

Shortly after graduation Vieira married her high school sweetheart and the couple moved to Brooklyn, NY. (They have now been married 33 years and have two grown children.)

“One of my immediate challenges, of course, was finding my first job. I didn’t have many contacts,” she says.

In an effort to build her network, she joined The Advertising Club of New York’s young professionals group.

“I went to everything the Advertising Club put on,” she says. “One presenter was the CEO of the Magazine Publishers of America. I went and spoke with him and he said, ‘You should come by and see me.’ I’m not sure he expected me to take him up on it, but I absolutely did. That meeting led to my first job as a marketing research analyst.”

That toe in the door was the beginning of an impressive career that has left her with a resumé that reads like a who’s who of the business world: JPMorgan Chase, American Express, Dun & Bradstreet, Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal, and Merrill Lynch, in addition to Sallie Mae.

“In every job I learned something that prepared me for my next opportunity,” she says.

Vieira developed a reputation for being smart, versatile, and for getting the job done. She also learned how to build on each position, so she was ready for the next step forward when the opportunity appeared.

“Schooling is the price of entry, but you have to have grit and determination to succeed,” she says. “You have to be very bold about it and you have to be a little bit fearless. I was never shy about pursuing opportunities because the worst that could have happened, was they might say no.” 

There were challenges along the way.

“At the time, I didn’t have a lot of people in the business who looked like me to really help me believe, people who had already made it,” she says. “I was finding my way in this massive industry that was not as welcoming, back then, of women and minorities.”

Vieira also had to find her place in New York City after coming from an island with a total population of one million followed by four years in Sackville, population approximately 5,500.

“I didn’t know anybody and I had to figure out my way. That was challenging, but at the same time it was also rewarding and led to my success because it forced me to be resourceful,” she says.

Although Vieira began her career in advertising, her work with financial services clients ultimately led her to a career in marketing and finance.

“American Express was my first finance job,” she says. “I originally didn’t think I wanted a career in finance and banking, but American Express totally changed my mind. I had people who really took me under their wing and taught me how to grow. They were just willing to invest in me and that helped me quickly work my way up to a vice-president.”

At Sallie Mae, Vieira is overseeing product development, sales, marketing, government relations, communications, and community relations. She has responsibility for the company’s consumer lines of business including private student loans, retail banking, and credit cards.

“Part of my job is to define the next chapter of Sallie Mae, how we are going to grow, a re-invention in some ways. That is what is exciting for me,” she says. “And this role, to me, is much more purposeful. We are in the business of building prosperous futures through college and continuous education. Education has been an incredible gift in my life. It is something I am passionate about and this job allows me to bring my passion and purpose together, so it is ideal.”

Excellence. Joy. And gratitude.

“The thing that brings it all together is gratitude,” she says. “I’m grateful for the opportunities that have come my way, for the education that I had. I’m grateful for this life.”