Unifying Voices in Insurance: Forum Brings Together Industry Groups to Discuss Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

By | May 20, 2024

Bringing more diversity to the insurance industry will take intentional, deliberate effort and teamwork.

That’s the encouraging outlook from a panel of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) thought leaders that inspired the crowd at the Unifying Voices — Empowering Diversity in Insurance event, sponsored by United Insurance Networks, in Chicago.

The panel discussed challenges they face, successes they are seeing now, and what the industry can do to create a more diverse and inclusive future. Panelists included members and leadership from several insurance diversity organizations, including the National African American Insurance Association (NAAIA), Latin American Association of Insurance Agencies (LAAIA), the Asian American Insurance Network (AAIN), Association of the Professional Insurance Women (APIW) and Link USA, the LGBTQ+ Insurance Network.

Celebrating and implementing diversity measures is challenging in today’s political climate when many people are questioning the need or importance of diversity and inclusion initiatives and programs, said Javier Naranjo, president and CEO of Everest Insurance Programs and immediate past president of LAAIA.

“It’s difficult for us to do sometimes,” Naranjo said. “And it’s difficult for those who don’t understand the importance of why we need diversity, why is that important?” he said. “So, I think all of us need to carry that torch, so to speak, and open the doors for people sometimes.”

It can feel as though underrepresented communities bear a disproportionate part of the burden for making progress happen, Naranjo said. “Why do we need to do this? Why is it our responsibility to do it?” he said. “I would say forget about the why and just do it, and you’ll find that better results and opening up those doors of communication leads to good results.”

Finding Community

Brett Carter, a vice president and managing director at The Jacobson Group, and the president of the Chicago chapter of NAAIA, said he stumbled into the insurance industry 26 years ago and found himself alone in the crowd. “I didn’t really see anyone that looked like me in the organization largely or at the events that I would go to,” Carter said. “That stuck out to me … it didn’t always feel good, and it didn’t necessarily feel bad, but it didn’t necessarily feel good.”

After 10 years in the business, he found NAAIA and attended one of the group’s Chicago events. “I saw so many faces that looked like mine, and they were at all different levels of the industry, senior executives, middle managers, entry-level folks,” Carter said. “I felt so inspired and proud and just hopeful. So I’ve been involved with NAAIA ever since.”

LAAIA started out as a small organization in 1969, but now has four chapters, Naranjo said.

“At that time, it was Cubans, seven Cuban agents, retail agencies started this organization,” he said. “There was no power. We could not individually get the ear of a company to serve our communities and to listen to the needs of the communities.”

The spirit of community continues to drive the organization, which now has chapters across the country, he said.

“We are the second responders with the industry,” Naranjo said. “We aren’t the ones that run into the burning buildings. We aren’t the ones that pick up people from accidents on the street, but we’re the ones that make people whole. So, it’s important that there is a connection between the risk takers, the companies, the general agents, the retail agents, and the communities that we serve.”

Chris Riley, senior vice president and national practice leader at Amwins Group Benefits and co-chair of Link USA, said it will take a concerted effort among underrepresented groups to overcome the barriers inside the industry and society at large. “There’s so much divisiveness in the country, politics being played with human lives literally today, and there is just such a need to make sure that everybody is represented really well,” Riley said. “I think everybody needs to find their place in the industry, and it’s so important that we are here together.”

Hiring Diverse Talent

Finding and hiring diverse talent is critical for a more inclusive industry, but the first step is convincing the industry to make the effort, panelists said.

“One thing that I think I hear a lot is people will say, ‘I would like to find diverse talent, but I can’t find it. I don’t know where it is.’ We’re here, the talent is here, so are you really looking?” Carter said. “If the talent is here, you just have to really look. Who are you sending to find the talent?”

Carter often hears people say that finding and hiring diverse talent differs from finding talent. “No, no, no. It’s not different,” Carter said. “You’re dealing with human beings. You just have to be willing and intentional about it and connect in an authentic way,” he added.

“You can’t just go to the HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) career fair, slap down some brochures and think that your job is done,” Carter said. “You have to really intentionally connect with people.”

Jeff Chen, vice president of claims at EMC and AAIN representative, said it’s time to stop waiting for companies to get on board and to start recruiting diverse talent one-on-one.

“Let’s do this ourselves,” he said. “Whenever I’m at a networking event for my organization or any organization, I’m not sitting in the corner on my cell phone trying to get a few more emails done; I’m meeting as many people as I can. And not only am I meeting people, I’m talking to people about, ‘Hey, I’m from EMC, I love where I work. And let me tell you why.'”

Additionally, “every time I go to any AINN networking event, I’m shaking hands. I’m talking to people, ‘Hey, you do this. Are you happy? You’re not? Have you heard of EMC? We’re looking for somebody just like you right now. Give me your name. Give me your resume. Let’s have a conversation,'” he said.

“We have the power to start pushing these changes ahead,” Chen added. “Let’s stop waiting. Let’s make ourselves undeniable.”

Finding and hiring team members from the LGBTQ+ community presents unique challenges, Riley said, because about 50% of people who identify as LGBTQ+ are not out in the workplace. “We often say that we feel like we’re constantly coming out professionally because we don’t know whether we can be our authentic self with certain people. … We don’t know if that’s going to put an account at risk, whether we’re going to get somebody to give us the opportunity to earn their business,” Riley said.

“So, when you’re trying to go to your Rolodex, it’s kind of hard to find out, well, who amongst us is part of the LGBT community?” Riley said. That’s why making the industry more inclusive as a whole and across the board is critical. “Because what we’re trying to do is make sure that the LGBT community that’s within the insurance industry today, and the future individuals, look at the insurance industry and say it is more diverse. It is more inclusive.”

When individuals can bring their authentic self to work, then they’re going to give 100% of their effort, according to Riley. “And when they do that, our respective companies are going to benefit. We all win.”

Riley said the diversity of roles within the industry could help draw a more diverse field of job candidates. “This industry is not just a Jake from State Farm and Flo from Progressive,” Riley said. “It’s accounts, it’s finance, it’s marketing, it’s event planners, it’s actuaries. There are so many career opportunities here that I think the LGBT community and many people just don’t even think about the insurance industry as an opportunity. So, our mission is to kind of change that.”

Empowering Each Other

The panelists concurred that forums like the Unifying Voices event are a big step toward cooperation and collaboration between groups to make the industry more diverse.

“We want to see everyone win and succeed, but it’s not always easy to really reach out and connect with people that are different than you,” Carter said. “We all need to have courage, reach out, become active allies to all of us and really help support everyone. … We are different, and that’s okay, but we’re far more similar than we are different.”

Increasing diversity is a process that will inevitably have growing pains, Naranjo said. While there may be bumps in the road, tough conversations are important. Despite any differences, the goals are the same. “We want a better workplace. We want to help our communities. We want opportunities for growth as individuals within our own organizations,” he said.

Those common goals are worth fighting for, Chen said. “It’s not about color, gender, background; it’s about the fact that we’re all here,” Chen said, adding that the work is not done. “The work is ongoing.”

But with effort from all communities, the future is bright, Carter added.

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