Mary Agnes O'Keefe

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"Mary is a leader of great accomplishment in our region, who is as comfortable at high corporate board meetings, as she is in rolling up her sleeves and working with young people. She is respected by leadership at all levels because her genuineness and work ethic are apparent in all she does. She is often the only woman at corporate or community leadership tables. Yet, she never forgets the learning experiences of her own early years and the need to mentor and lead young women in opportunities to realize their dreams."

- Martha Willits, 2013


Mary A. O’Keefe is a retired senior vice president and chief marketing officer of the Principal Financial Group. For twenty five years, she was responsible for corporate marketing, branding, communications, corporate giving and community relations.  In addition, O’Keefe has had responsibilities for Human Resources and Strategic Development at The Principal.

In 1990, O’Keefe joined the Principal Financial Group as media relations manager.  She was promoted to vice president in 1994 and became the company’s first female senior vice president in 1997.  The first female member of the senior management strategy cabinet, she has overseen corporate and board of directors strategic planning. Her marketing expertise has helped build The Principal global brand and contributed to the recognition of Des Moines as a world class city. 

During her time at The Principal, Mary mentored countless young women (and men) at The Principal and throughout the community. She was always open to meetings to help those new to the community, people looking to advance in their careers, and women looking to find solutions to the age old conflict between being the primary family caregiver and meaningful careers. Mary has been an advocate for flexibility in the workplace, particularly during women’s early years of parenthood.  She has given her staff opportunities to develop innovative worksite and home solutions.

Just a few of her many accomplishments include: developing the vision and leading the team for the completion of the Principal Riverwalk; being a key driver in downtown development in Des Moines; and raising millions in charitable donations for Iowa non-profit organizations through the Principal Charity Classic, United Way, and the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines. She is a co-founder and volunteer member of Maddie’s Circle, a program to mentor women in community leadership and inspire more philanthropy among women. As chairperson of the Principal Charity Classic, she led the event to raising in excess of $1 million per year for children’s charities and being recognized at the top event and the top charity on the PGA Champion’s Tour.  Mary also developed the Hire Our Heroes program, to encourage the hiring of military veterans. Those who spoke of Mary’s accomplishments commented that she is an “action-oriented doer,” not just a name on the board roster.

Beginning her career as a social worker in job training programs at North Iowa Area Community College, O’Keefe’s clients were unemployed parolees, welfare recipients and adults with disabilities.  Her counseling and management jobs in workforce development added to her appreciation for the struggles facing the most fragile members of our communities.  O’Keefe worked in job training programs in Mason City/North Central Iowa, Council Bluffs/Southwest Iowa and the Quad Cities/Eastern Iowa.  In 1984, O’Keefe joined the Iowa Development Commission and the Iowa Department of Economic Development working to market the state through job training tax credits, the Iowa Existing Industry Program and developing advertising and public relations programs to promote the state.

She has been recognized as a Woman of Influence and Outstanding/Best Female Business Leader by the Des Moines Business Record, was named a “Woman to Watch” in Ad Age Magazine in 2007, featured in the book Women Who Mean Business: Success Stories of Women Over Forty by A. Mikaelian, featured in several marketing books, including The Best of Branding by James R. Gregory and honored with induction into the Iowa Volunteer Hall of Fame in 2012.

O’Keefe was born the seventh of eleven children to Bill and Celeste O’Keefe in Chicago’s south side where she learned the values of hard work, community service, faith, love and family.  Her parents worked multiple jobs to support their large family and the medical bills of her younger brother, who died after a three year illness.  Due to her parents’ financial stress, the family moved frequently and Mary attended seven different grammar schools and worked to put herself through parochial high school and college.  During high school and college she volunteered to help adults with disabilities, completed a full time internship in juvenile probation and worked on a suicide prevention hot line at a county mental health center.  She graduated from Northern Illinois University with a bachelor degree in Family Social Services and relocated to Iowa in 1978.   In 1993, she earned the APR designation (Accreditation in Public Relations) from the Public Relations Society of America.