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Industry Spotlight > Women in Wealth

15 women in insurance you need to know

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The world is becoming riskier, technology is becoming savvier and consumers are becoming smarter and more demanding.

In the midst of these changes, the insurance industry is facing both enormous challenge and enormous opportunity. The right leadership is critical. And, in every corner of the industry, women are stepping up to lead. 

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See also: Meet the 16 women who run state insurance departments

From home office executives to risk management visionaries to inventive educators, women are helping shape an industry that is equipped to take the world by storm. 

Here are 15 women in insurance you need to know:

Deborah Aldredge 
Chief administrative officer 
Farmers Insurance

LifeHealthPro: Why insurance? How did you get your start in the industry?

DA: I joined Farmers Insurance several years ago after spending the majority of my career in the wealth management industry. The insurance industry, in general, and Farmers, in particular, is going through a significant transition driven in large part by changes in the way customers engage with brands and by advances in how brands are incorporating technology into their traditional distribution and operational systems. These changes make it an exciting time to be part of this industry and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be in the middle of it.  

LHP: Describe what you do.

DA: I am chief administrative officer for Farmers Group, Inc., which means, in part, that no two days are ever alike. Things are always interesting, as I oversee human resources, the University of Farmers (yes, it’s a real place), and risk, in addition to administrative oversight for the internal audit team.

LHP: What is the biggest challenge you see for the industry right now?

DA: I think we have a real challenge — and opportunity — when it comes to attracting and keeping millenials in our profession. As an industry, we’ve often been misunderstood as a business uninterested in technology or of looking backward more than forward. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. We need to work to change the face of the industry so it is more attractive to younger folks looking to enter the workplace. As an industry, we also have to be better at engaging with and understanding how we can make ourselves a more attractive industry — be it by creating paths that attract them better, by demonstrating more clearly our social responsibility efforts or by showing a stronger connection between what we really do and how it impacts the lives of everyone around them.

LHP: What excites you most about the insurance industry today?

DA: I think we are making a lot of exciting changes. I mentioned earlier the changes in consumer engagement with brands and evolving technologies. Additionally, we are working to bring new perspectives and competencies into the industry by developing more leadership opportunities for women and people of color.

Unlike the stereotype of our industry, things really are changing and it’s a great time to be part of developing the strategies and work plans that will have a great impact on what our industry looks like in the future.

LHP: What one piece of advice would you give to women looking to enter the industry?

DA: Just do it. Any change in career is going to come with its ups and downs, but I can’t tell you how great it’s been to move over to insurance after such a long time in the wealth management industry. Don’t be intimidated by the current status of a male dominated industry. We are working to change that, but we can’t do it on our own. If there is something that interests you in insurance, go for it. Find a sponsor, put yourself out there and see how far you can go. 

Alyssa Bouchard 
Assistant executive director
American Association of Managing General Agents

LHP: How did you get your start in the industry?

AB: I was first made aware of careers in insurance when I was a student at Appalachian State University. I was a management major without a great deal of definition to my long-term career goals, until I discovered that one of the largest and highest quality risk management and insurance programs and Gamma Iota Sigma chapters in the country was a few doors down. A friend in the (risk management and insurance) program told me about the 95 percent job placement rate, plentiful scholarships and unique travel opportunities available to (risk management and insurance) majors. It was an easy sell, and I’ve been passionate about this industry ever since.

LHP: What responsibilities does your job entail?

AB: I work directly with AAMGA’s executive director in implementing the strategic goals and objectives of the organization, and improving the benefits and services the organization provides to its members. AAMGA provides specialized learning opportunities and training to its member firms through University East, University West and Underwriting Boot Camp, and I work with the Education Committee to plan and execute those events. I serve as AAMGA liaison for our committees, and provide the support they need to meet their goals. I am responsible for AAMGA student outreach, which includes a strong partnership with Gamma Iota Sigma, regular communication with (risk management and insurance) professors across the country, creating job and internship interview opportunities for students at select AAMGA events, facilitation of the AAMGA Student White Paper Research Contest, and implementation of our new Underwriting Certificate program being designed for insurance students across the country.

LHP: What is an achievement that you are especially proud of?

AB: I am completing the requirements of the Institutes’ CPCU designation, and anticipate confirming my successful completion of the program at the 2016 CPCU Society Annual Meeting in Hawaii. This is my proudest professional achievement.

LHP: What is the biggest challenge you see for the industry right now?

AB: Increasing consolidation is a challenging factor in the industry right now. M&A is on the rise in all segments of the industry. Investors are hungry for new opportunities, and the insurance industry is an attractive one. Many of the smaller firms are finding it increasingly difficult to compete, and large firms are getting larger. The industry always has and will continue to adapt, but this issue will be a pressing one as long as the economy improves and the number of eager buyers is high.

LHP: What excites you most about the insurance industry today?

AB: Our industry is addressing the talent gap head-on. Through involvement in Gamma Iota Sigma, revamped training programs, and more intentional student outreach efforts than ever before, companies are filling that talent gap with the best and brightest students in the business. This renewed commitment to young talent will maximize the potential of young entrepreneurs and companies in this industry.

LHP: What one piece of advice would you give to women looking to enter the industry?

AB: Do the “extras.” Get involved in trade associations, speak to students on-campus, earn designations, and volunteer for industry-wide community service days. As you share your passion for your job and this industry with others and use that to build relationships, it will enrich your career immensely.

Lazetta Braxton
CFP and founder
Financial Fountains

LHP: Why did you get started in the financial industry?

LB: I was raised by young parents who always seemed to struggle with money. I always wondered if it was a matter of choices or access to people who could really give them guidance on personal finance.

So I majored in finance in college and became an auditor and eventually began working for Brown Capital management in Baltimore, which is an investment management firm. The owner was an African American investment manager, and at the time, had $5 billion in assets under management. I worked as his personal executive assistant and as a portfolio administrator. He took me under his wing, and as a high-net-worth individual, I also got exposed to some of the planning. Obviously as a portfolio manager, I got more exposure to investments.

LHP: What are you most passionate about, when it comes to how the industry helps people manage their finances?

LB: For me, financial planning is rooted in education. So what I see the industry embracing more is advice and not just investment management. For my practice, it really is a holistic approach to what people’s goals are, how they want to live and how many resources they have to help support their lifestyle by factoring in trade-offs. For me it’s a no-judgement zone, it’s bringing what we didn’t get in formal education, taking out the shame and guilt of what you think you should have known and even some of the choices you are proud of and some that you may not be proud of. It’s having a partner that can take the mystery out of financial planning and make it really practical so you can enjoy life.

LHP: Do you think there should be more financial education, at least on the basics, in high school?

LB: I think we should be educating even before high school. I have a 10-year-old daughter and for her STEM project, she’s looking at if children younger than 13 should be able to have a checking account. When she was younger, she wanted an American Girl doll, so I told her you can get a knock-off at Target for $20 versus paying $100 for an actual American Girl doll.  So she’s thinking through the basics of budgeting and common expenses.

I think the education should start way before high school and even before her age. In third and fourth grade at her school, they talked about interest rates. Those concepts have to start early. In college, personal finance becomes an elective and if people are trying to cram in what they actually need, they’re not going to take personal finance unless they’re really passionate about it.

LHP: OK, describe what you do on a day-to-day basis.

LB: At its core, my practice is a holistic planning practice. I call it four-course planning. So we’re looking at goal setting, debt management, cash flow, estate planning, investment planning, retirement planning, college planning, etc. We also cover the outliers such as if someone was to get married, we look at how couples can merge finances, how they can buy a home. These are sub-tiers of the main core planning.

We work together for 12 months so we build in different things monthly. It helps the system because you’re not overloaded with money upfront, and you’re not overloaded with information. Some planners like to do the plan within the first three months. I changed from that because it was just too much data and some people were fatigued by all the information. You’re taking on in essence classes because we’re walking through these topics, you’re looking at data, we’re doing analysis, and we’re having conversations. So I wanted to make it feel very approachable and not overwhelming.

Then I also have what I call my bite-size planning, which is for people who may have one topic area. This is ideal for folks who are just getting started and people who are maybe want me to help them set up employee benefits, which is the core of your financial planning. It’s also for someone who wants to launch a business and want to launch their cash flow. So we don’t focus on more than two to three planning areas [for these clients].

Then as a third type of area is investment management, and I do have people who just have it as a standalone. I also do workplace education with the goal of bringing financial planning and education to a mass group of people. 

LHP: Share an achievement you’re especially proud of.

LB: I think generally being recognized as a person who’s been committed to an underrepresented population. My passion is creating room and space for people to showcase their strengths and be part of the conversation. And I think because of that I’ve been recognized as an FPA diversity scholarship winner; I’ve also served as a chair on their committee. Now I’m president of the Association of African American Financial Advisors. I’m also on the Grant’s committee because I’ve been active in the community. I get to be a part of things that my other colleagues really can’t do because they are working with someone else. I always hope that I’m empowering people to shape conversations in their own offices or workplaces. It is risky putting yourself out there in a space that may or may not have a lot of traction. The topic of women has gained a lot of traction but talking about people of color is still pretty risky. Not a lot of people are tackling it head-on when it comes to how it affects our industry.

LHP: What do you see as the biggest challenge for industry, particularly with diversity within the industry?

LB: So let’s talk about the evolution of rights. Women came before people of color in terms of rights and other populations. Women are kind of the hot spot right now because they are seen as the CFOs of the households, and they are often breadwinners of the household now. I think the lag the industry is feeling in terms of people of color having significant wealth is delayed. We are seeing stats from the business bureau that demographics are changing pretty rapidly. With that lag there is less exposure. So ,when you think about succession planning, you usually go where you’re comfortable and pick people who are like you. But there aren’t a lot of options for minorities.

LHP: What excites you the most about the industry?

LB: That millennials are forcing us to be tech-savvy. Millennials like advice. They want things immediately, which is forcing the industry to be more engaging with our clients, to actively be part of the financial journey. They are also requesting more value out of the relationship.

LHP: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to women looking to enter the industry?

LB: I would say have a deep reserve of people who you trust and who understand where you want to go. Because a lot of women come with a lot of energy and competence, which gets defused very quickly if you’re not careful because the industry is still trying to embrace us. Those conversation partners have really helped me through my career.

Karen Clark
President and CEO
Karen Clark & Co.

LHP: Why insurance?

KC: It was really just by chance. In graduate school (MA in economics, MBA) I focused on macroeconomic modeling and statistical analysis, and I loved building statistical models on the computer. As I was finishing up my degrees, I went to just one job interview and it sounded great to me. It was at Commercial Union Insurance Co. (CU), and the position was a research associate in a small internal consulting department. The responsibilities included building models to aid in decision making.

One of my first projects was to help CU decide if they had too much exposure to hurricanes. I started building the first hurricane model there and became passionate about the potential for catastrophe models in the industry. Insurers have the most to gain from this technology.

LHP: Describe what you do.

KC: I’ve built companies to create catastrophe models and other risk management tools for the insurance industry. What drives me is developing advanced scientific models and software solutions to help companies make better decisions with respect to extreme event losses. 

In order to do this, I first have to figure out the most appropriate models for insurers — why and how they will use the tools. That requires extensive and open-minded listening to underwriters, risk officers, portfolio managers, CEOs and other senior management. What are their struggles and what would they like to have?

Then, it’s building the right teams that will share the vision for the future and execute the plan. Finally, it takes a lot of client education and training to embed the new tools into key decision-making processes.

It takes a lot, but I love challenges and solving problems — especially when people say it’s impossible. I don’t believe in that word and it really drives me when I hear it.

LHP: Share an achievement you’re especially proud of.

KC: Of course, one of my most important achievements was building the first catastrophe model and the first catastrophe modeling company — AIR. It was challenging to build the models and a company, but it was even more difficult to convince the industry to use these advanced scientific tools for catastrophe risk management. (This was in the late 1980s when the nearly 100 percent male and London-dominated reinsurance industry thought they had everything figured out.) I take some of the credit for that, but credit also goes to Hurricane Andrew — the event that proved our models right and demonstrated how important they are.

I’m even more proud of what my new company, Karen Clark & Co., is doing. We’re introducing to the market the first open loss-modeling platform that gives insurers complete transparency on the catastrophe models and control over the model assumptions. These new models have the power to radically transform the industry in more positive ways than the first generation of models.

I never thought I’d build models again, but after once again listening to insurers and the challenges key decision makers have with the first generation models, it became clear to me that the catastrophe models could be improved significantly. 

It’s turning out to be even more challenging to re-invent the cat modeling industry than it was to create it in the first place. So I’m glad I still have unwavering persistence when I know I have a good idea and the right vision for the future.

LHP: What is the biggest challenge for the industry right now?

KC: Obviously, the industry has to continue innovating, and do so more quickly, to keep up with rapidly changing technology and expanding threats to society.

For example, catastrophe losses continue to rise due to human activities (building in harm’s way as well as climate change), and new potential catastrophes are becoming more likely, such as cyber. These losses are gaining an increasingly large share of the total.

Historically, the industry has shied away from exposures that are difficult to understand — earthquakes and floods, for example — and as a result insurers are covering a shrinking portion of exposures. In the U.S., less than 50 percent of potential catastrophe losses are privately insured — outside the U.S. and in many developing economies, the proportion is much lower.

To maintain relevance, the industry needs to offer new solutions and work with regulators and governments to better protect societies from extreme events. These solutions can include new insurance products, mitigation and recovery initiatives.

LHP: What excites you most about the insurance industry today?

KC: The world is becoming riskier. Because the insurance industry helps businesses and individuals deal with this risk, the opportunities for the industry are growing. There will always be interesting challenges to tackle. For example, there are new private initiatives to cover flood exposures — I hope we see more.

LHP: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to women looking to enter the industry?

KC: First, know what you want. It’s much easier to get there when you know exactly where you want to go. Plan your strategy based on your goals (personal and professional).

Have confidence in communicating what you want. Be your own best advocate, promoter and marketing rep.

Finally, be flexible but persistent. Things may not, probably will not, work out exactly the way you envision, and you may have to make a few zigs and zags. But as long as you’re moving in the right direction, keep going.

This industry can be a bit stodgy and slow to change. But on the positive side, it’s stable and provides many opportunities along with enormous benefits to society. It’s also filled with good, honorable people. 

Mary Ann Cook 
Senior vice president, 
knowledge resources and content development
The Institutes

LHP: How did you get your start in the industry?

MAC: As a child, I had every intention of becoming an archaeologist. It wasn’t until I began working for my dad on summer breaks from school that insurance started to gain my attention. I would listen to the way he advised them, always being honest and fair, and hear how much they trusted him in return.

I learned that, in the best of times, insurance and benefits are the things you don’t think about at all. But when things go wrong, as they inevitably do — sometimes badly so — it’s vitally important to have the right people, the right advice and the right companies there to support you.

After I saw the difference my dad was able to make in other people’s lives, one account at a time, King Tut couldn’t hold a candle to that! I was hooked.

LHP: Describe what you do.

MAC: I am responsible for the groups that design, revise, and develop the content that goes into The Institutes’ solutions — be they a custom-created online course, a technical certification in claims, or a designation program like Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU) or Associate in Risk Management (ARM). I also develop and deliver presentations, seminars and webinars, serve on industry panels and write articles, interacting with risk management and insurance professionals across the country.

LHP: Name an achievement you are especially proud of.

MAC: I have done my share of balancing work life with family. I earned my MBA with honors while being responsible for providing elder care to my parents, who were stricken with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. This is one achievement I am really proud of. I could not have done it without the support of my family, as well as the support of the Institutes’ “family.” It is with the help of others that we can achieve more both personally and professionally.

LHP: What is the biggest challenge you see in the industry right now?

MAC: The accelerating rate of change, particularly in the area of technology, makes it hard for companies to maintain competitive levels of innovation and at the same time manage customers’ expectations. But there is a bright side to technology. Data analytics, and the actionable information we derive from it, enable insurers to better target specific markets of opportunity, detect fraud, hone pricing, manage risk, and understand and predict customer behaviors.

LHP: What excites you most about the insurance industry today?

MAC: Disruption and change bring potential. Every time I give a talk to current industry professionals or speak to a group of young people about the many career opportunities available to them in our business, I tell them that I have never seen as much potential in our industry as I see today. In terms of emerging talent, new technologies and an increasingly diverse and inclusive leadership field — I have never been more excited to be a part of who we are, what we do, and who we do it for. The sky is the limit for us and the people we serve!

LHP: What advice would you give to women looking to enter the industry?

MAC: Watch and listen. Work with a coach who will help guide you on your path. Stay humble and be willing to understand from her or him what ultimately will work best for you.

Learn. Never stop growing and learning as a professional. Don’t just do “the minimum” to get by.  You are selling yourself — and your clients — short. The enrichment that comes with continual professional development, whether through attending webinars and seminars, joining a professional association (such as, in my case for example, the CPCU Society), or completing professional certifications and designations, will only help you achieve greater credibility with your peers and enable you to provide the best value you can to your customers.

In the last couple of years I decided to test myself even further and, with the support of the Institutes, decided to pursue a doctorate in educational leadership.

And make a difference. Part of the responsibility of leadership is helping others, so as you grow and develop and look ahead, don’t forget to look around and see who else can use a helping hand in her or his career. Make that difference.

Diane Dixon 
Faith Focus Follow-Through Coaching

LHP:  Why insurance? How did you get your start in the industry?

DD: I guess I could say I have two starts. The first was when I was 19 years old. I was in Chattanooga, Tenn., living with my sister, and her insurance agent, Dave Corrie, called and asked if she knew anyone who could answer his phone for a couple of weeks and she volunteered me.

After two weeks and some changes on his team, he offered me a position and I took it. I had been  working with him for a couple of months, when I recall him standing here talking to me one day — this was back in the late ’70s — and he said, “Diane, if you get in here and bust your fanny and learn all you can learn, you can go anywhere.” And I remember thinking, “Gosh, I can work hard, and I like to learn. And going anywhere sounds pretty good.” I was green and hungry and needed a path, so I took that one. I had taken a break from college and called my mom and told her I wanted to give the industry a shot, and she in her wisdom said, “OK, I support that, but if it doesn’t work out, you need to go back and finish school.” I agreed.

From 19 until I was 26, I worked in a variety of roles at different agencies. At 26 I was actually a recruiter, working for the same man who had offered me my first job in the industry. And so I recruited myself to be an advisor. I set up a luncheon at one of his favorite lunch spots, and told him I had an advisor for him to meet that I thought he would love. He showed up and it was me. So they gave me a contract; I don’t think they could really say no to that! That was in 1985.

The thing that I remember thinking as I watched Dave Corrie is, “Wow, I love this man’s lifestyle, I love the relationships that he has with his clients, I especially like the flexibility because he had great control of his schedule, so if I can work really hard and go anywhere, why wouldn’t I take this opportunity?”

LHP: Describe what you do.

DD: Fifteen years ago I launched my coaching practice. I help my clients, financial advisors, get clear about the what and why of what they really want. I help them focus on their strengths and what’s important. I give them guidance that is designed to move them closer to their teams. I work to improve commitment and performance.

LHP: Share an achievement you are especially proud of.

DD: I’m very proud of the fact that I recruited myself to the industry back when there were very few women in that role. I had never been in sales, I was in a new community without existing relationships, and I qualified for MDRT my first year. I did that by working a system, putting in the work and keeping the faith. The first nine months it was all about the grind. But by the end of the year I had qualified for Round Table, and it was because I did the grind.

A second thing I’m proud of is that I left my core financial services practice — a successful practice — and I went to our home office to launch and lead what was known as our women’s agent initiative. We had very strong success in recruiting and retention. Our net growth of women tripled while I was there.

But what I am most proud of is making those extra phone calls and following up when people told me “no” the first time and challenging clients to do the right thing and refusing to back off of recommendations when I knew they were right. Today, I still receive notes from clients thanking me for the work I’ve done that has made a huge difference in their lives and in their families’ lives. I haven’t been in sales for 15 years, and I still receive these notes. I think that is a powerful testament to the impact of the work we do.  

LHP: What is the biggest challenge you see for the industry right now?

DD: I don’t know if it’s the biggest, but I think growing and keeping a strong distribution system is a big challenge for the industry. We need to purposefully and successfully recruit and develop women, Latinos and other markets. The talent pool has changed, but our field force is still very heavily weighted toward white males. It’s going to be hard to grow and keep a strong distribution system if we don’t go to those other channels. We can’t continue to grow and thrive unless we successfully and purposefully grow those talent pools, because the marketplace wants us to as well.

LHP: What excites you most about the insurance industry today?

DD: This career stands the test of time. From the first time I walked in the door of that insurance agency when I was 19 years old to today, at 58 years old, I’ve watched it stand the test of time. Through various changes in our world, through technology and competitive challenges, it stands the test of time. Robots aren’t going to replace us. What we do is still an eyeball-to-eyeball business. That’s most exciting. It’s an industry you can count on.

LHP: What one piece of advice would you give to women looking to enter the industry?

DD: Come. Do it. If you do, you will find great support.

I think when women come into this industry, because it’s still highly dominated by men, it’s really important to find a good mentor. Get connected with Women in Insurance and Financial Services, with Million Dollar Round Table or National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors. All of these organizations are interested in helping women come into this industry and have a great experience. On a related note, I would challenge women entering this industry to ask for what they want and need, to teach leadership how to inspire them. This industry cares. We want them to be their best, but we’re just not always the best at asking what they need to succeed. I want women to be really supported, and part of that responsibility is feeling empowered to ask for what they want and teaching leadership how to support them.  

Paula Downey 
President and CEO
CSAA Insurance Group

LHP: Why insurance? How did you get your start in the industry?

PD: I joined AAA as a high school intern in claims and loved the experience of helping people. Starting in a customer-facing role gave real meaning to what the business was about, and I was hooked. And, I was fortunate to join a great brand, AAA, that cared for its members and employees. I was supported in my pursuit of education from earning my bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Michigan, Dearborn, through my MBA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I stayed with AAA because the organization’s values align with my core values and I am proud to lead an organization that exists to support AAA policyholders during their time of need. 

LHP: Describe what you do.

PD: Every day, I have the privilege of leading a values-based organization that is committed to serving AAA members and clubs by making insurance simple, proactive and personal. I work to ensure that we have a winning strategy and culture, and the best talent so we’re best positioned for continued success in an ever-changing marketplace.

LHP: Share an achievement of which you are especially proud.

PD: I’m really proud of the progress we’ve made to transform our company to ensure that we have a scalable and agile platform (technology, product and people) to enable growth and innovation. We have new products, policy and claims administration systems, data, digital and CRM capabilities to drive greater value for AAA and our members. We’re working to increase our speed to market of innovative products and create the perfect customer experience. These capabilities are essential to compete in a marketplace that is evolving faster than ever.

LHP: What is the biggest challenge you see for the industry right now?

PD: The insurance industry needs to be more adaptable and ready to meet change. For example, we need to:

  • Keep pace with digital technology to meet customer expectations, which are increasingly defined by companies outside the insurance industry.

  • Leverage data to create products and services targeted to more refined customer segments.

  • Ensure customer data is safe from increasingly sophisticated hackers.

  • Build an innovative culture that enables a company to quickly respond to — or even create — changes in the marketplace.

  • Attract diverse talent to the insurance industry, including millennials.

Within each challenge lies an opportunity if we are adaptable and forward-thinking as an industry.

LHP: What excites you most about the insurance industry today?

PD: We have the chance to showcase our industry’s expertise and resiliency in how we respond and adapt to emerging innovations and technologies that are impacting our business. As we have in the past, the industry must adapt to the needs of our customers and the market, and it’s an exciting challenge. 

LHP: What one piece of advice would you give to women looking to enter the industry?

PD: I’d really encourage everyone, including women, to consider a career in the insurance industry because it’s an exciting and fast-paced industry that provides a wide variety of career opportunities.

Lives and livelihoods get rebuilt following loss thanks to the insurance industry, and it’s important to note that our industry supplies the products and services that enable businesses to function and innovate, companies to grow, and individuals to thrive.

It’s critical that the industry better reflects the communities we serve and that’s why we need to continue to engage, educate and enlist the next generation to join the insurance industry. It’s a place where individuals can work together to make a collective impact.

Madelyn Flannagan 
Vice president, agent development, research and education
Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America

LHP: How did you get your start in the industry?

MF: Like many in our industry, I fell into insurance. I was just out of high school, starting community college and considering a career in forestry when someone offered me a job as a receptionist at an insurance agency. The person who was supposed to train me, and who was the only (customer service representative) in the agency, left the day after I started for a vacation and never returned. So the agency owner gave me a crash course in agency operations and coverages, I studied for my license, passed the exam and the rest is history. I worked for several independent agencies in the Northern Virginia area for more than 18 years before joining the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America staff in 1995.

LHP: What responsibilities does your job entail?

MF: As Big “I” vice president of agent development, research, and information services, I oversee a group of programs aimed at keeping the independent agency systems relevant, successful and sustainable. Our Big “I” Virtual University provides members with expert advice and research, the Best Practices program identifies the best operating agencies in the U.S. and provides metrics to help all agencies be as successful, the InVEST program trains high school and community college students about insurance and agency operations, the Agents Council for Technology is a leader in helping agencies and carriers implement technology to enhance operations, the Young Agents program encourages younger agents to get involved in the industry and the association, and the Big “I” Diversity Task Force creates an awareness of the opportunities and benefits available by embracing diversity. My responsibilities also include coordinating our biennial Future One research project known as the Agency Universe Study, authoring our annual market share report, and serving as a resource for other industry research projects. Additionally, I serve as an industry expert and association spokesperson for a variety of member, industry and consumer press and other media (print, television, online, etc.). In addition to supporting a gifted and dedicated staff on a daily basis, I provide information resources to our members and state associations.

LHP: What is an achievement that you are especially proud of?

MF: First and foremost, I am most proud to be the mother of a great son, Jeremy. He is a college junior and is beginning to show an interest in the insurance industry! Next, I’m proud of my transition from the agency world to the association world. While the transition surely had some learning curves, it has allowed me to continue to be a student of the insurance industry, while being able to serve the independent agency system in a capacity and at a level that I could not as an agent. I enjoy every interaction that I have with our member agents and others in the industry. I thrive on the opportunity to research complex insurance issues and provide answers and advice to help others do their jobs better and faster.

LHP: What is the biggest challenge you see for the industry right now?

MF: Adaptability. The insurance industry is faced with rapid changes in the fields of cyber, social, customer experience, product development and data analytics to name only a few. There are also a wide array of new tools, toys and technologies that need to be insured. There are start-up businesses with business models and product, services and applications that don’t fit the standard mold of existing insurance policy coverage forms. Our industry needs to keep pace with these changes and continue to be innovative and agile in the development of products, services and coverages.

LHP: What excites you most about the insurance industry today?

MF: Everything! There are so many opportunities in the industry, especially the independent agency system. For young professionals interested in a global industry, there are thousands of employment opportunities in countless areas of the industry. Insurance is one of the few industries that values professional development and rewards professional qualifications. With the prediction that there will be 400,000 positions available in the industry by 2020 as the baby boomer generation retires, the environment exists for a whole new generation of creative thinkers and digital natives to innovate and move the industry forward at a rapid pace. For agencies, there are ample opportunities to evolve into the customer-centric, digital driven industry that consumers are seeking. It is exciting to see agencies still serving the role of trusted adviser that is valued by baby boomers, millennials and Gen Z, while also providing their customers the ability to self-serve via mobile or other technology 24/7.

LHP: What one piece of advice would you give to women looking to enter the industry?

MF: You can have it all! There is no ceiling or door that should be keeping you from being successful in the insurance industry. Women are ideally suited for every aspect of this industry as they possess emotional intelligence, aren’t afraid to take risks, are excellent communicators and can more easily create consensus. It’s also imperative to note that no matter what their area of study, the insurance industry has opportunity. If you studied or have a background in anything from cyber to legal, there is a career in the insurance industry for you!

Heather Garbers 
Vice president of voluntary benefits & technology
HUB International

LHP: Why insurance? How did you get your start in the industry?

HG: I got my start working in the family business. After graduating from high school, I worked in my mother’s agency — this was the beginning of my career in the insurance industry. I discovered that I really enjoyed the challenge of finding the right product to fit each individual’s needs.

Later, after graduating from the University of Nebraska, I was recruited to Allstate Benefits as a training specialist. And so began my insurance career.

LHP: Describe what you do.

HG: I partner with my team and clients to build voluntary strategies and solutions around clients’ unique needs, while emphasizing the importance of employee understanding and engagement. 

LHP: Name an achievement you are especially proud of.

HG: I’m very proud of being named a board member on the National Advisory Board of the Voluntary Benefit Association. Our board has members from all facets of the industry and we collaboratively work to push the industry to the next level. I am the youngest board member to date and am honored to be able to share ideas with industry leaders and icons.

LHP: What is the biggest challenge you see for the industry right now?

HG: The biggest challenge is the need for our leaders to reevaluate the way things have always been done, and determine where the industry needs to go next. The current era features the most change our industry has ever seen due to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), a changing workforce and a more competitive landscape.

LHP: What excites you most about the insurance industry today?

HG: The great amount of new products and tools that are entering the market from an insurance and non-insurance benefit standpoint. Employers understand the need to enhance their workplace benefits to attract and retain employees, and are looking for us to proactively provide them with these solutions. This is an exciting and dynamic environment for us and for our clients.

LHP: What one piece of advice would you give to women looking to enter the industry?

HG: Have the confidence and drive to go after your dreams — and the knowledge and business acumen to execute them.

Beth M. Graber, CPCU 
Executive director
Insurance Society of Philadelphia  

LHP: How did you get your start in the industry?

BG: As a marketing major at the University of Delaware, a career in the insurance industry wasn’t on my radar, but a chance encounter would change that. As I was getting ready to graduate and looking at options for the first step in my professional career, I met with a friend who had a position as a training coordinator within one of the industry’s top brands. She began talking to me about everything the insurance industry dealt with. I had no idea it was so far-reaching. I was fascinated by the property & casualty sector and everything that went along with it. The day-to-day responsibilities of a claims representative intrigued me. The entire process of investigating and evaluating cases was like putting together a puzzle. What I hadn’t realized at the time was that our conversation was my first job interview and the first step in a great career.

LHP: What responsibilities does your job entail?

BG: As executive director of the Insurance Society of Philadelphia (ISOP), I manage one of the nation’s oldest and most prominent insurance educational and networking societies. ISOP is comprised of 10,000 members from more than 200 insurance organizations, risk management operations and law firms from across the greater Philadelphia region. In conjunction with our board, I manage strategic planning, financial stewardship, events such as the Independence Gala and Philly I-Day, membership recruitment and retention and development of member benefits. I also am responsible for expanding educational and professional development programming, as well as charitable engagement and scholarship fundraising for the area’s nationally rankedcollegiate insurance and risk management programs.

LHP: What is an achievement that you are especially proud of?

BG: ISOP has been very privileged to have dedicated members who are interested in giving back to the community. So much so we were able to work with the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation to expand ISOP participation from a “day of giving” into a “week of giving.” This past September, ISOP volunteers performed a variety of community service activities, including harvesting an urban garden, cleaning local parks, installing smoke detectors within inner-city homes, preparing meals for the homeless and renovating an apartment for those transitioning from homelessness. I am very proud to have been a part of organizing these wonderful and impactful activities.

LHP: What is the biggest challenge you see for the industry right now?

BG: Our industry has a bright future. In order to reach our fullest potential, we need to focus on reaching out to a diverse community to attract new talent at all levels.

LHP: What excites you most about the insurance industry today?

BG: I love how our industry in constantly involved in innovation. We play an integral role when it comes to cutting edge technologies, societal changes and reaching new frontiers. You never stop learning and there is always something new to investigate and discover.

LHP: What one piece of advice would you give to women looking to enter the industry?

BG: It’s important for women in our industry to focus on their education and to pursue opportunities that lead to professional development. Pursuing an MBA, enrolling in professional designation programs and continuing to stay at the forefront of industry trends are great resources that will lead to a successful career. There are a variety of in-person and online resources that can be pursued without shifting a work-life balance, and they will set those who pursue them apart from others.

Kris Hackney 
Executive vice president of customer experience
Applied Systems

LHP: Why insurance? How did you get your start in the industry?

KH: I have spent more than 20 years in the software industry, primarily focused on business intelligence and predictive analytics, which gave me an opportunity to be exposed to many industries, including retail, insurance, telco, manufacturing and government. I was drawn to Applied, and thus to a focus on insurance, because of the great opportunity to leverage technology to empower such a critical industry.

LHP: What responsibilities does your job entail?

KH: At Applied, our mission is to continuously improve the business of insurance through innovative software solutions. In my role as the leader of customer experience, I’m responsible for customer delivery strategy and operational execution for Applied’s professional services, support and cloud-based solutions. My team and I focus on ensuring Applied’s customers –whether an agency, brokerage or carrier — get maximum value from their investments in our technology.

LHP: What is an achievement that you are especially proud of?

KH: Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to build great teams. At Applied, we’ve brought together experts in insurance and technology, and successfully partnered with our customers to make Applied Epic the fastest growing agency management system in the world. I’m especially proud of how we’ve coupled deeply experienced experts in insurance with individuals from diverse technical backgrounds who bring new perspectives to the table — true innovation takes strong, collaborative teams focused on challenging the status quo.

LHP: What is the biggest challenge you see for the industry right now?

KH: Today’s insurance industry is facing a number of changes — increasing industry consolidation, the evolving workforce and changing consumer demands — and opportunities. Consumer demand for anywhere, anytime access to information is challenging agents to scale their resources to provide around-the-clock service. These new customer experience expectations are creating significant opportunities for insurance agencies and carriers to adopt new technologies that extend the personal touch and trusted guidance of an insurance agent to a 24/7 insurance experience. Consumers are quoting, purchasing and reviewing insurance information — all on their mobile devices. For both millennial and Generation Z consumers, mobile access to information and online service is critically important when choosing an insurance provider.

To provide a 24/7 customer experience, digital agencies require client self-service software that allows their clients to review policy information, request changes, make premium payments and manage claims processing via online portals and mobile apps. Native mobile apps offer clients quicker, more convenient access to insurance information directly from their smartphone or tablet, providing greater flexibility and servicing options while keeping their agencies trusted advice top of mind.

While the blurring of physical and digital worlds presents its challenges for agents, it provides far greater opportunity to provide customized client experiences to drive client satisfaction, retention and growth

LHP: What excites you most about the insurance industry today?

KH: Insurance is undergoing rapid digital transformation, reshaping fundamental business practices in an environment of constant change and evolving competitive landscape. As mentioned earlier, digital technology has also simultaneously created a different kind of insurance consumer — one who asks for on-demand self-service from their computer, tablet or smartphone from every company they do business with. As mentioned earlier, younger consumers like millennials and Generation Z expect mobile and self-service applications that enable them to communicate and make purchases on their terms. The convergence of technology and changing consumer preferences in the insurance industry has agencies adopting new, innovative technologies that blend the personal, trusted advice of the agent with customer preferences for interaction — and that is a tremendous business opportunity to capitalize on.

LHP: What one piece of advice would you give to women looking to enter the industry?

KH: Now is a great time to pursue a career in the insurance industry. We need strong leaders who bring new perspectives from other industries to the table and aren’t afraid to challenge “how it’s always been done.” 

If you’re new to the industry, my advice is to seek out a strong mentor, perhaps a woman who can show you the ropes and also be a sounding board as you carve out your role in the digital transformation of insurance. Building your network and learning from those who have come before you is critical for success — and then, down the road, be sure to help others by becoming a mentor yourself.

Janice Ochenkowski
Global head of risk Management
Jones Lang Lasalle

LHP:  Why risk management? How did you get your start in the industry?

JO: I wish I could say that I grew up dreaming of being a risk manager or became intrigued after I read about risk management, but my story is similar to so many others. I went to Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wis., and majored in English. When I graduated I needed a job and I applied to LaSalle Partners, the predecessor to Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL). Despite my lack of experience I was hired.

The plan at LaSalle Partners was for me to work for the person who was then the risk manager as well as the IT manager, initially as an analyst while studying for the ARM [associate in risk management] designation. I would assume greater responsibility as I took classes, and I would become the risk manager when I received the designation.

Six months after I started, the risk manager left the company. I was told, “Well, you’re all we’ve got, so let’s give it a try.” It’s 35 years later and here I am, still trying it.

LHP:  Describe what you do.

JO: I’m responsible for global risk management for all regions and all business of JLL. I have 13 in my risk management group at JLL, and there are four risk managers who work in our major subsidiaries.

We’re charged with identifying risks and purchasing insurance for all of our corporate needs. In addition, we’re charged with purchasing insurance for the assets and investments of many of our clients. For example, in the property management business, we have an insurance program that our clients can participate in that is tailored to their specific needs and risks.

I also work closely with the legal group on the wording of documents, including contracts and leases, and the risk managers often negotiate directly with our counterparties.

JLL doesn’t self-insure, but we provide claim reports and manage and monitor insured claims. We work with our professional standards group to develop training in areas that we’ve identified as needing more attention through claims analysis. Working directly with business groups, the risk management team helps assess the risks of new initiatives as well as ongoing operations for insurance coverage and training requirements.

I personally am involved with the larger (merger and acquisition) activity, but my group is involved with all mergers and acquisitions, which we had 25 of during 2015. I’m part of the Global Operating Board for JLL, which involves crisis planning and business continuity, among other things.

In addition, I’m actively involved with RIMS as the current vice chair of the government affairs committee.

LHP:  Share an achievement you are especially proud of.

JO: On a professional level, I’m especially proud of the role that risk management plays in our company. The business leaders want the risk managers to consult with them on new business initiatives and problems as they arise, which shows that risk management is well integrated into our corporate culture and adds value.

On a personal level, I’m proud of and grateful for having been promoted to the rank of international director. It’s the highest level in the company and there are approximately 350 of us out of more than 60,000 employees.

LHP: What is the biggest challenge you see for the P&C insurance industry right now?

JO: I think the biggest challenge is keeping up with the pace of change within the business and ensuring that we accurately assess those risks. Think about globalization of business, increased use of technology, reliance on big data, creation of new products and equipment, and technology such as drones, just to name a few.

They all bring new risks and opportunities to businesses to create new products. The challenge for risk managers is to accurately understand and assess the risks, and the challenge for the insurance industry is to create new products and services to effectively transfer the new risks.

LHP: What excites you most about the insurance industry today?

JO: I’m excited about the evolution of risk management, and we’re at an important point in that evolution. For example, the growth of data analytics gives risk managers a better way of managing and understanding risks. I’m also excited about the evolution of existing insurance products to meet changing conditions.

Data and analytics are becoming vitally important to the risk management process and the insurance purchase process, and I think managing and understanding those risks as well as those opportunities is a challenge.

I’m also pleased that I’m seeing more women in risk management that are my counterparts around the globe. I see more women senior risk managers than I’ve observed women in senior insurance industry positions.

LHP:  What advice would you give to women looking to enter the risk management industry?

JO: If you’re just entering the risk management field, it’s key to align yourself with your company and its industry. Your role is to translate your company’s needs to the insurance industry, and convey insurance terms and issues back to your company in an understandable way.

Remember that you’re a risk manager, not a risk exterminator. Your job is to mitigate the downside of the company’s operations and manage the opportunity. If you’re far too quick to say “no” when a business unit asks for help or advice, they’ll stop asking.

Keep up with what’s happening and anticipate problems, then communicate directly with managers when you can. You should raise issues strategically that affect where the company is now and where it wants to go.

I also would encourage women in risk management to participate in RIMS. It’s an extraordinary source of value to women, and as a volunteer there are all kinds of leadership roles available as well as networking opportunities. Your membership in RIMS allows you a safe way to make mistakes and learn to be a better leader and more effective communicator without career consequences.

Being a woman in risk management for me personally has been extraordinarily rewarding and a lot of fun, and you can’t forget that. You need to find what makes your job rewarding and fun or you’re not going to be able to keep doing it.

Deanna Strable
President, U.S. insurance solutions
Principal Financial Group

LHP: Why insurance? How did you get your start in the industry?

DS: When I was in college, I decided to pursue a career in actuarial science due to its ability to allow me to utilize my math skills in a business environment. The insurance industry was the most common path for this career. I started at Principal right out of college as an actuarial student and have been at the company ever since, serving in a number of leadership roles throughout the company.

LHP: Describe what you do.

DS: I am one of the four division presidents at Principal, overseeing [the] U.S. insurance Solutions [division] as well as our Principal Advisor Network. This division of the company encompasses our individual life business as well as our specialty benefits business. This allows me to be involved in all aspects of the business including distribution, product development, pricing, marketing, IT, operations and underwriting. In addition, I serve on our executive management group, which sets the strategic vision and plans for the entire organization.

LHP: Share an achievement you are especially proud of.

DS: Back in 2003, I was asked to develop a strategy for our group benefits business, a business that hadn’t historically been focused on at the company and the financial results reflected that. I was then asked to lead the business and put it on a path toward enhanced success. I assembled a team to lead the business and implemented the strategies that we had developed. Since 2003, the earnings on that business have increased by over 400 percent and our annual premium growth has exceeded industry averages. Specifically, 2015 was a record year for that business with record sales, premium, and earnings.

In addition, I am especially proud when one of my team members move to another part of the company and find great success in their new role. My role in developing other leaders is something I am passionate about and take great pride in when I see others excel in their positions.

LHP: What is the biggest challenge you see for the industry right now?

DS: First, Americans are more underinsured, under-saved, and more underprepared for their financial future than they have ever been. For example, life insurance ownership is at a 50-year low in this country and about half of working-age households do not own any retirement accounts. We as an industry need to be focused on determining ways to reverse that trend.

In addition, we have external challenges, such as economic headwinds (interest rates, equity market levels) and regulation that impact our results as well as our business models. Most front and center is (the Department of Labor’s) proposed fiduciary rule, which will be finalized soon. This rule has the potential to hinder the ability for individuals to save for retirement, which none of us want to happen.

LHP: What excites you most about the insurance industry today?

DS: Insurance and the products we offer are definitely needed by individuals as they aim to protect their assets and save for retirement. What excites me is an opportunity to rethink how we remain relevant to our potential consumers through different marketing, product and positioning approaches.

LHP: What one piece of advice would you give to women looking to enter the industry?

DS: The industry has been very exciting to me and has given me the opportunity to do many different things during my 25-year career. It can, however, be intimidating, given the lack of females in senior roles. For example, it is not unusual for me to attend an industry event and be the only female in the room. However, I have never felt unwelcomed in those settings. My advice is to embrace the variety of opportunities within the industry and recognize that they can make a difference both professionally and personally. 

Margo Thompson
Principal and CEO
The Annuity Source

LHP: How did you get your start in the industry?

MT: My father was in the insurance business his entire career, so when I got out of college and was trying to figure out what to do, my dad introduced me to the industry. 

I went to work for the company that he worked for. We worked together for two year before he passed away suddenly. I ended up taking my knowledge from the insurance company and starting my own marketing organization. We just celebrated 25 years as the Annuity Source this year. 

LHP: Was there ever like a moment that you thought, “This industry is definitely where I need to be?” 

MT: Well, I always felt that this is a very male dominated industry. It always has been and still is. But I always felt I could differentiate myself. Back when I was younger, I could differentiate myself by my age and the fact that I was a woman, and I definitely used that to my advantage.

There was a need — and is a need — for smart women. Smart women can actually stand out in this business. I have an office full of women here and our Cincinnati office is an office full of women, as well. I’ve always felt that a smart, aggressive woman can do very, very well in this business even though it’s male dominated. So I felt passionate about supporting smart women in this business.

LHP: Describe what you do.

MT: We are an independent marketing organization. What that means is we represent about 50 insurance companies on the annuity side, as well as the life side. We’re on the broker side of the house, so we represent the insurance company to the financial advisor. We’re the middle person in the equation. Our customers are financial planners, stockbrokers, insurance agents, RIAs and the financial professionals. They’ll come to us for the specific need of the product that we market, which traditionally is fixed annuities, immediate annuities and traditional annuities. More recently, we’ve also added life insurance to our product portfolio.

LHP: Share an achievement you are especially proud of.

MT: Honestly being in this business and being successful for 25 years is an achievement I’m proud of. Being able to be nimble enough to succeed after 25 years in the same field is probably my greatest accomplishment at this point.

One other thing I am proud of is the fact that I have been able to hire, cultivate and have really bright women that work with me; not necessarily for me but with me. I feel really good about the fact that I have a team of two offices of very bright women that are just killing it in this business.

LHP: What is one of the biggest challenges you see for the industry as a whole right now?

MT: Well, the Department of Labor and (its) coming fiduciary rule. That is definitely the biggest challenge to our industry right now. Not really knowing what it’s going to look like and how it’s going to transform our business.

Our goal is to continue to succeed, to thrive in this industry, in whatever form or fashion it ends up looking like after the DOL changes have hit. For me, not really knowing quite yet what that’s going to look like when it gets implemented is a challenge. One of the reasons that we’ve decided to add life insurance on a heavier emphasis is because of the uncertainty of how the DOL is going to affect the annuity world. 

LHP: What excites you most about the industry today?

MT: The opportunity. If you’re smart and have the right folks on your team there really is endless opportunity to grow, change and be part of the industry. By being a small business owner and not having somebody tell me, “You can’t do this” or “You have to do it this way,” the opportunity really is endless. It’s just a matter of where you take it. I think the opportunity to change and move forward is always exciting.

LHP: What is one piece of advice that you would give women looking to enter the industry?

MT: I think the best piece of advice I could give a women entering the business is to embrace the fact that it’s a male-dominated business. Embrace the fact that you are unique in the business because you’re a woman and use that to your advantage. Don’t try and compete on the same playing field; have a different playing field, have a different platform and be your own unique person.

Emily Viner
Vice president of agency growth & development
Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America

LHP: Why insurance? How did you get your start in the industry? 

EV: I really fell into sales in 1984 out of college as a way to escape marketing jobs where I was sat down at an electric typewriter for a typing test! I saw an ad for a sales position in finance and took a chance. As I learned what it meant to be in sales, everything came together for me.

First, I knew I would get a fair shake in this industry, as I would earn the same as my male colleagues. A commission dollar is a commission dollar and not 63 cents on the dollar like my friends were earning in 1984.

Second, there was no typing test and third, I realized that I could sell something that changes lives and could have changed mine. When I was in high school, my father suddenly and unexpectedly died at just 48 years old. Understanding that a commission-based career represented equal opportunity and knowing what our work could positively impact families was motivation enough for me to jump into a career that I did not know existed.

In retrospect, it was truly a gift to experience that kind of life catalyst or serendipity by finding a career that gave me passion and purpose early in my professional life. 

LHP: Describe what you do.

EV: I am blessed to be involved in agency growth and development at the Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America (Guardian) for the past 18 years. I am passionate about leadership development and helping agencies create gender, ethnic and generational diversity within their advisor ranks and leadership ranks. The relevancy of our system depends on it. 

LHP: Share an achievement you are especially proud of.

EV: I am proud of the women and men that I have coached and impacted over the years … and, of course, my family. 

LHP: What is the biggest challenge you see for the industry right now?

EV: Remaining relevant to consumers is our biggest challenge. I believe we need to be committed to making changes in the way we do business. At Guardian we have been on a mission to bring gender intelligence to our field organization to create an inclusive, supportive environment where women and men not only survive but thrive. Our firms that are embracing this describe tangible shifts in their culture resulting in greater productivity and diversity across multiple dimensions. We need to look at everything we do with fresh eyes. We need to redefine the job and get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. I believe we have to help millennials understand what sales is and means when connected to purpose and passion.  

LHP: What excites you most about the insurance industry today?

EV: I am very excited about the opportunity to secure the future of advisor distribution by challenging what we’ve always done. Primarily, I’m excited about bringing this career into the ‘consideration set’ to people that are underrepresented in our field force.

LHP: What one piece of advice would you give to women looking to enter the industry?

EV: Be authentic always. The gifts you bring to the table will always shine through. Say yes to opportunities when you don’t know the outcome or are unsure. I promise you, you will figure it out. Seek out knowledge and people who are natural teachers. 

See also:

20 top companies for women in the finance and insurance industries

Women in insurance and the champions of change

20 women in insurance you need to know

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