Features

Brett Thelen – SET SEG

CIO-turned-COO harnesses tech to benefit public schools

Brett Thelen has seen the best and the worst that technology can do. He’s used his IT expertise behind the scenes to help public school officials secure their systems so educators can focus on teaching kids. He’s also helped lead an internal task force and a partnership with Michigan educational technology leaders to protect schools from ransomware attacks.

Thelen is the current chief operating officer and former chief information officer at SET SEG, a Michigan-based nonprofit that provides insurance coverage and employee benefits to public schools in the state.

Brett Thelen | Chief Operating Officer | SET SEG

Brett Thelen | Chief Operating Officer | SET SEG

“It gives me tremendous satisfaction to know that not only are we protecting school districts across the state, but I’m personally able to see the impact our organization has in the small district where my own kids attend school and play sports,” he says.

Whether that means mitigating extreme weather events—getting a flooded gym floor assessed and replaced, for example—repairing facilities after incidents of violence or preventing ransomware attacks, SET SEG is helping local educators manage risk. The company also handles everything from workers’ comp to filing over 50,000 forms for districts to make them compliant with Affordable Care Act regulations.

SET SEG even runs its own health centers for teachers and other school professionals. School district employees and their families can visit the centers, often staffed with a doctor or a nurse practitioner, for primary care. They can also access pharmacy services there and get X-rays, labs or other tests.

“That’s been great for retention and recruitment within our districts,” Thelen says. “Not only with teachers, but also bus drivers, paraprofessionals and other positions that are really hard to fill right now. At a very low cost, districts can provide their staff with free access to outstanding medical care.”

People and partnerships

Thelen has made a concerted effort to develop expertise at the company by recruiting IT, data and project management experts. He has built operational teams for specific projects, shifting people into roles where they could perform at their highest level. And he’s hired new staff or promoted from within for certain projects to make sure the right people manage the right portfolios.

Where gaps exist, Thelen has turned to external specialists. For example, SET SEG has partnered with Arctic Wolf, an information and cybersecurity firm that has provided resources to Michigan schools to help them improve their security postures at no cost to those districts. SET SEG itself does pay Arctic Wolf for its services.

Brett Thelen | Chief Operating Officer | SET SEG

From security strategies that help districts create backup systems to IT training for school employees, Arctic Wolf’s cyber platform has helped district administrators to identify areas where schools need help.

“The partnership with Arctic Wolf has been outstanding, and they’ve really gone above and beyond to understand the unique struggles and risks that districts face,” Thelen says. “They’ve incorporated our input into their cyber platform, helped us with presentations and training for district IT staff, and translated the requirements of cyber carriers into real-world, actionable steps.”

Putting schools first

SET SEG has also partnered with other companies—among them an industry leader in online enrollment software, which has helped the company’s school districts do away with paper-based benefit enrollment systems. The result: more seamless, efficient ways of entering information and selecting benefits. Thelen and his team started that project in 2021 and completed its implementation at the end of last year.

“I think the biggest challenge any time you change critical systems is optimizing the user experience for your customers and internal staff, to the extent possible,” he says. “And so, for us, with this being such a customer-facing initiative, we ended up pursuing a much longer and more comprehensive rollout strategy as a result.”

Brett Thelen | Chief Operating Officer | SET SEG

That strategy involved tackling one small group of schools at a time rather than trying to coordinate a massive rollout.

“That’s what separates us from the rest of the market,” Thelen says. “We always put our schools first. So, at the end of the day, this became a very positive experience for our districts, rather than something they felt like they were rushed through.”

Technology as multiplier

Since he’s become COO, Thelen has been co-sponsoring a new partnership with an underwriting software company that helps SET SEG with property and casualty insurance and workers’ comp. The transition to that new software is slated to take effect in autumn 2023. He’s also leading an initiative to automate the company’s benefit quoting tool to ensure greater accuracy with a fraction of the internal effort, he says.

Long before he joined SET SEG as CIO, Thelen had an interest in how IT contributes to broader business goals and operations. After graduating from Western Michigan University in 2003 with a degree in computer science, he got his MBA from Michigan State University in 2007.

“I see technology as a multiplier of sorts,” he says. “The times I’ve been most excited about an accomplishment have been when we’ve come together as a team and leveraged technology to craft a unique solution that significantly improves the lives of our staff and districts for years to come.”

Brett Thelen | Chief Operating Officer | SET SEG

While in college, Thelen worked as an assistant network administrator for Alta Resources. After graduation, he became an application developer for Thomson, then joined Health Management Associates as an IT specialist in 2004. He rose to IT manager there before joining Sparrow Health System in 2015. In 2019, he joined SET SEG.

“I truly look forward to coming to work each and every day, and I believe the rest of our organization feels the same way,” Thelen says. “Every employee has strong expertise in their field, a positive attitude and a passion for solving the unique challenges our districts face, so our districts can do what they do best: educate our Michigan youth.”

View this feature in the Spring I 2023 Edition here.

Published on: April 5, 2023

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