The enduring concept of America is one where all are created equal, regardless of race, creed or color. But as we all know, the reality has often fallen far short of the ideal. Native Americans, African-Americans, European immigrants, Jews, Asian immigrants, Hispanics and others have all felt the cruelty of racism while chasing the American dream. But as America becomes more diverse and more tolerant, the life and health insurance industry is playing a key role in making things right.

According to Census Bureau projections, by the year 2030 the United States will become what some demographics experts call a “minority majority.” That is, the non-Hispanic white population will be smaller than the combined populations of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other racial groups. It is a sea change that will re-knit the fabric of American life, but it is also one that is already having a big impact on how the life and health industry is doing business.

Ever since the civil rights movement, the business world has, in fits and starts, employed diversity training and focused on selling to racial, ethnic and cultural markets as a matter of business opportunity. This accelerated especially during the heyday of “political correctness” in the 1990s and on through to today. Some industries have been more aggressive about this than others, and across much of the public, the notion persists that insurance, and life insurance in particular, is a white person’s industry. But as some of the industry’s best and brightest minority producers are proving, with the help of home office diversity training and support, that is no longer the case…if it ever was the case to begin with.

Luis Hernandez, an American of Cuban descent and a Miami-based general agent with MassMutual, disagrees that insurance is a monochromatic industry. But he also acknowledges that MassMutual’s robust diversity program has not only been helpful to his own career, it proves that when it comes to promoting diversity, MassMutual (and other home offices like it), are putting their money where their mouth is.

The centerpiece of MassMutual’s diversity program is a Match to Market initiative wherein the company has dedicated itself to making sure the demographics of its own workforce match the demographics of society at large. To that end, MassMutual actively recruits, trains and supports agents from various racial, ethnic and cultural markets. It also supports those agents in the field with, among other things, multi-lingual marketing materials. For Hernandez, who at one point left MassMutual, one of the things that guided him back to the company was the Match to Market program.

But he is quick to stress that diversity programs are just one factor out of many that makes for a successful agent, minority or otherwise. He sees himself as having no advantage or disadvantage to anyone else in the industry simply because of his ethnic background.

“One of the biggest misconceptions within the industry is that you have to be Hispanic to sell to Hispanics or you have to be Jewish to sell to Jews,” Hernandez says. “I think that is a myth.”

Other producers National Underwriter has spoken to echo Hernandez’ sentiment. A Korean agent, they say, is unlikely to be strongly steered toward selling specifically to the Korean marketplace because sales acumen, not race, is what most determines an agent’s success or failure. That said, those same producers admit that having the type of intimate knowledge about a certain culture that accompanies being part of that community will undoubtedly ease the initial conversations with a prospective client. But it is never enough to close a sale.

In some instances, selling to individuals within one’s own ethnic background can, in fact, act as a hindrance to the success of a producer. Gaurang Parikh, Long Island, NY-based financial professional of Indian descent with the Prudential Insurance Company of America, explains that in certain instances, more affluent members of Indian-American society will not want to do business with an Indian-American producer.

“The reason behind their hesitance to do business within the community is that potential Indian-American clients do not want another professional in the community to know the finances or assets that they have out of fear that they may talk about their net worth or their income to somebody else within the community,” Pairkh says. To do otherwise violates the sense of humility many Indian-Americans hold dear.

Parikh was quick to speak positively on the steps that Prudential has taken within its own ranks to focus on diversity, however. But as with many other minority producers, he feels that there is still much more that could be done.

Eszylfie Taylor, an African-American agent with New York Life, working in Los Angeles, deals with the wide variety of ethnic groups present in that market specifically, but what is also becoming a familiar blend of cultures in any major city. Taylor says that he uses a uniform sales approach no matter what the ethnic background of the potential client may be. This seems to be a common practice among minority producers and it is one that speaks to the importance of sales techniques over ethnic similarities. However, Mr. Taylor says that New York Life makes available a wide variety of tools that give him materials that he can use to speak to a specific group. More than any specific sales materials (literature in a variety of languages for example), Taylor says that the support that New York Life gives him as an African-American agent has been a huge factor in helping him succeed.

Old stereotypes die hard and slow, however, and when the industry is still primarily populated with older, white males, especially among the topmost levels of executive leadership, it is difficult for many companies to represent among their workforces the same diversity found in their clients. Mr. Taylor, speaking completely from his own personal experience, says that the perception that this is an old white man’s industry would have to be “right on.”

Case in point: as a Chairman’s Council agent at New York Life, he is one of only six African-Americans representing over 800 African-American agents at this level in the company. Although the trend is changing slowly, he is able to put a positive spin on the current situation by using it is a motivational force to help him succeed in the market. “At no point did I ever feel overwhelmed by my ethnicity,” he says.

Jaydev Patel, a New York Life agent of Indian descent, had high praise for the steps that the company has taken to embrace diversity among its agents as well as its customers, noting that 40% of New York Life cases are generated by agents working in cultural markets. Mr. Patel does not believe that the industry is still dominated by white males although he is aware of the perception and admits that it used to be the case. He is also a passionate detractor from the myth that it is easier for agents to sell to people from their own ethnic background, quipping that he began selling to managers at gas stations where he would fill up his car on his way to and from work, and they were mostly white. He envisions the future of the industry being dominated by people that produce no matter what ethnic background they have.

Ronald Allen, chairman of the National African-American Insurance Association, (NAAIA) contends that racial diversity must be a focal issue for insurance companies not just for one month out of the year, (namely February) but for the whole year through in order to have success in the marketplace.

Before becoming chairman of the NAAIA, Allen was an Allstate agent for 42 years, spending the last 15 of them operating his own independent agency within Allstate as an agency owner. He found the need for networking within the minority insurance community to be a motivating factor to joining the NAAIA. Mr. Allen, who came of age in the industry during the civil rights movement contends that the life insurance industry was a “white man’s game” until the mid-sixties, when he saw major companies starting to hire minority agents that could help them tap into certain demographics, mainly African-Americans. However, Allen does not see there being any overwhelming advantages that minorities have while selling within their own communities. One reason is sheer numbers: even with 100% market penetration, no one single market currently is more than a fraction of the size of the mainstream white market. By focusing solely on an ethnic, racial or cultural market, producers are inherently limiting their sales potential. The bottom line is that selling along racial lines can only be a single part of a larger successful sales strategy, and nobody knows it better than the industry’s minority producers.

So what does all of this mean? As the saying goes, racism is something everybody in this country likes to talk about, except not to each other. To prove the point, this article is the first time in years that this publication has even mentioned minority markets, let alone do any kind of reality check on what it means to be a minority insurance producer. As for the industry itself, while robust diversity programs are laudable, what would be even better is if the industry had no need for them.

Ultimately, the minority experience in this industry teaches that one’s drive, skill and heart contribute more to success than skin color. It is a lesson that white producers will be smart to keep in mind when one day, they are part of just another minority themselves.