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How to Close the Diversity Gap With Better Opportunities

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Who wouldn't want to sell insurance at the highest level possible? 

But that reality is rarely presented to young professionals entering the workforce. 

That statement is even more true for people who fall outside of the traditional industry background. 

Their awareness of insurance struggles to go beyond the local main street agency. 

Ngozi Nnaji, Principle at AKO Brokerage Services and Managing Partner of AKO Insurance Consulting, talks about how we can increase that awareness and create more insurance inclusion.

For more Change Insurance episodes, click here.

Full Episode Transcript

Joey Giangola: Ngozi Njani, how are you doing today?

Ngozi Nnaji: I'm doing well, but it's Ngozi Nnaji.

Joey Giangola: Nnaji. I practiced and I'm just not good enough, Ngozi.

Ngozi Nnaji: That's okay.

Joey Giangola: We'll try better. We'll try better. So I will say, if I could say it right, your name, and I don't know if you've ever thought about this, but it feels like it could be a secret society of some kind that has existed for centuries, like option to move your rights to it. Sounds like a Batman League of Shadows type thing.

Ngozi Nnaji: I'm sure my kids will be happy to hear that.

Joey Giangola: Beause it kind of looks like Ninja, but not quite. And I don't know, it feels like it could be something very cool, like some sort of secret club. Anyways, Ngozi, how are you doing today? What is going on? What is happening in your world?

Ngozi Nnaji: Oh, today's a fabulous day. It's Friday. So the grind continues, but at least we have a little rest this weekend. But there's a lot going on, actually, in my world and this insurance industry that I'm a part of keeps surprising me. And so I keep taking advantage of those surprises and those opportunities and things keep popping up. So, you want me to go into a little bit of it now?

Joey Giangola: Sure. There's no rules here.

Ngozi Nnaji: Well, I am proud to say that I just found out yesterday that Insurance Business America does these recognitions throughout the year of insurance professionals and kind of the deeds and their actions right over the course of their careers. And so I was just recognized as one of the Leading The Change recipients, award recipient. For the work that I do around diversity and inclusion and the insurance industry. So I'm really excited about that. That's kind of a new area, a new passion for me. And I try to be intentional and deliberate about what I do in that area. So IBA recognized that passion. So yay.

Joey Giangola: That's exciting. And actually I caught that on LinkedIn right before we jumped on this call. I popped in and saw it. I was like, that's pretty cool. So you've had a pretty long career in the industry, how has that sort of impacted you to be at this place now to where you feel... Kind of to carry that torch. What does that look like? Because I know a lot of what you do, the reason you maybe, I might be speculating here, kind of got into the independent side of things was maybe to kind of shine a brighter light on that. And serve a community that might be maybe not as aware of certain insurance products and opportunities. Was there a moment, I guess, when that sort of light bulb went on? Like when you said, "I have to do this."

Ngozi Nnaji: Oh, a very definitive moment. So I was working for an insurance company, the last insurance company I worked for, and it was an experience where, in that environment, I just felt like as a black professional with experience and expertise, that my skill sets wasn't being valued and I felt kind of alone. I didn't feel like I really belonged. And so when I decided to leave the organization, I looked back over my 20 years and I was like, "What I done to prevent others, like me, professionals of color from being in a similar situation?" And the answer to that was I've done nothing. And so it really was an opportunity to check myself and kind of say, "Okay, now you can have another 20 years in this industry, what are you going to do with it?"

And so that's when I decided that the best way I thought that I could impact my industry is to become an independent agent because that allows me the opportunity to work with the community in one, educate them about insurance, not only as a tool, right? To kind of close the racial wealth gap, but then also insurance as a career. Right? And how do we bring in more people, more people of color, more black people into the industry?

I think the number one reason why we don't have a clear representation is because of awareness. I don't think people of color understand what insurance is and understand the opportunities that it creates from a career perspective. So then that just kind of bled into this additional passion, of really kind of increasing that representation, but doing it in a way that was meaningful. And so as I educate the community, I also look at opportunities of how do I help companies do better, right? And be thoughtful about how they do better and not just making the statement about doing better, but actually doing the work behind it.

Joey Giangola: What do you think is missing in that awareness? What's the thing that's kind of maybe holding someone back from making the choice that you did? What are they looking at this industry and saying they just maybe have it on the radar. I was like, "Oh, this is this thing." Or maybe they don't have access to as many insurance buying opportunities as maybe they should. What's the one thing that you think is sort of the gateway or that they might be overlooking as to maybe a misconception of the industry?

Ngozi Nnaji: So I think the the number one misconception is that I think people of color look at insurance, and they only think of kind of the man in the white suit, right? That comes around and sells kind of life insurance policies, right? Knocking on the door. Granted, we're far removed from that now that we go Google life insurance, and you can buy it online. But I think that's a misconception, like insurance is just all about this one sales guy and who wants to be knocking on doors and grinding to that extent. But I do have to say, if it wasn't for my father and my... You know, I'm Nigerian and I am one of three girls. And so if you think of culturally about the woman's place in the African culture, and now granted that's changing, but historically. My dad was very deliberate about kind of, "That's not going to be my daughters." Right?

"My daughters are going to be... They're not going to be domesticated. They're going to be professionals. They're going to make something of themselves in a sense, and really be productive in society." And so he hand picked our industries and where we were going to have our careers. And I was good in math. I was in high school, right? I mean, who's thinking about a career in high school? I'm just trying to play basketball and get ready for prom and stuff. But he hand picked. At that time, Actuarial Science was the number one profession because of the professional development, the salary, the compensation, the reduced stress in that field. And so he was like, "That's what you're going to do." And I'm like, you know you don't talk back to dad, you say, "Okay." Life goes on.

And so I got a degree in Actuarial Science from Florida A&M University, at a historically black college and university, and the rest is history. And so I don't think everyone, I know not everyone, especially families of color, have individuals, like my dad, who took the time to kind of do that research. But I also think to your original question, I think that misconception about what insurance is, and what professions are in the insurance industry is one that we need to dispel. I mean, insurance is kind of is one of the few industries where regardless of your background, you could have an English degree, you could have an IT degree, you could have an engineering degree and find a role in the insurance industry. And that's what's so cool about it. I tell my kids all the time, because I'm trying to bring them into the industry, "Hey, you can do it."

And they're like... Because they like football and basketball. They want to go to like Florida state, LSU, all those football schools. And I was like, "If you happen to be one of the ones that doesn't make it..." Because there's a high probability that will happen. They won't make it to the NFL. I mean, NFL players need insurance for their high value houses and cars and they insure their hands and their feet. Right? Because that's what makes them money. The NFL buys insurance, right? To cover them against potential loss revenue for games. And so I just said, "It's a take all comers" Right? It touches every industry. It's recession proof. And we just need to advocate better as an industry, especially in those communities of color, about the professions.

Joey Giangola: Ngozi, insurance is filled with people who wanted to do something else. That's for sure. A lot of which were pro athletes. And I find a disproportionate amount of musicians too, but that's just my experience. What I love about that and I think is fascinating is that you didn't really low ball them in terms of what the opportunities are available for them and insurance. Hey, listen, there are people that you are interested in. You know, you can always align yourself with that industry or that thing that you may not be in the 1%, or whatever it is, to kind of do, but you can at least align yourself in some way with it. And that's still on the higher end of insurance.

We have the traditional sort of experience of, "Hey, we're going to open up the local agency and we're going to go to the chamber of commerce." And that sort of thing, but really what you described as I think sort of next level new thinking towards, "Hey, we can be really specific. We can be really high end on it." Is that something that you also think is important to kind of help create awareness for the opportunities that do exist here?

Ngozi Nnaji: I do. I think, especially on the agency side, right? We deal with clients directly. And so I think there's an opportunity for people who might consider the insurance industry to see potentially how lucrative it is, right? It can be. But not only how lucrative it could be, but I own my own business. I actually own two insurance businesses. And so, I'm an entrepreneur, I'm a small business owner, whatever name you want to call me, but it's mine. Right? And it's something from a legacy perspective, I can pass down to my kids. So I think that's another component of it. Right? You can own your own space and place in the insurance industry and it doesn't have to be an insurance agency. Right?

It could be a TPA, it could be a risk managements company. I have a good friend of mine who has a mediation company, that she owns. And so again, I think to your point, we need to expand the definition of what insurance is and the career opportunities. And we don't need to low ball it. Right? Because what 15 year old kid will be interested in some administrative role, right? Granted, entry level position, right? You got to get your feet wet somehow, but that's not what's going to appeal. What's going to appeal is kind of, where can I take that entry level position? What can I become after that entry level position? And again, better job advocating.

Joey Giangola: Yeah. And so, from your personal experience, what has that journey been like coming from that sort of corporate carrier side into that independent space, owning the business, making all the decisions? What have you found most rewarding or we'll say even surprising that you didn't expect you were getting yourself into?

Ngozi Nnaji: I always knew it was a very different grind, right? Working for an insurance company, kind of having your world laid out for you in a sense, right? As to what you do and what you don't do. And then kind of the expectations in management or leadership has of you. I mean, when you own your own company, you create your own expectations, right? Your grind is your grind. And so I think that surprised me a little bit, that the grind is very different. The work is very different, even though we're in the same industry, I tell people all the time, I work all day, right? It's not that I have a nine to five. Right? Especially when I have clients who have claims, right? They're calling me maybe in the middle of the night, they're calling me at 6:00 AM in the morning.

They're calling me whenever that claim occurs. And so again, it becomes a matter of managing your time, but also recognizing, when you own your own business, it's a 24 hour job. Right? But I think it was also a shift for me because being an underwriter, you're used to kind of saying, "No, no, no." Limitations, restrictions, right? When you become an agent or a broker, you can't tell your client, "No." You won't get the business, right? So I really had to adjust to kind of, "Yes, yes, yes." And try to kind of put parameters if there were limitations around it. But again, that was a little unique and different for me, just kind of changing that mentality. But starting off in underwriting really helped me for this role as well, as an independent agent. Because you better understand what the underwriter is looking for. Right? You better understand their process. And then I can better negotiate on my client's behalf because I've been in that role. Right? I know what they're looking at and what they're looking for. So it's definitely had its benefits as well.

Joey Giangola: So I mean, you brought us here and Ngozi, the role of the agent versus the underwriter, that relationship is always a special one. Having been on both sides of the fence, what do you think... If you could talk to either side and say, "Listen, this is the one place that we all really need to get on the same page with, we need to just kind of put everything else aside." Because it is that constant... It's not really a battle, but more of a back and forth like a game of tennis, I guess. But is there something that you feel, having now experienced it from both sides of that, that you think could help benefit everybody just from taking a step back?

Ngozi Nnaji: I think communication is key. As agents, as underwriters, we're always posturing, right? Because that's just what we do with each other, right? It's that constant struggle, as you referenced. But I think it comes to a point where in order to build the rapport, in order to kind of have this effective relationship, you have to communicate and manage expectations. Right?

I hate submitting something to an underwriter and their desk is full and it's not something they want, but I'm waiting on a response. You know, Manage my expectations. But on the flip side, being an underwriter, you hate getting submissions in where you don't really even have a chance. Right? And so then you're spinning your wheels and who needs practice quoting it, right? And so I think it's just a matter of, we got to be honest and direct and manage expectations because we all are kind of limited on time, we're all being expected to do more with less. And so if we're kind of creating the sufficiency for each other, I think we can also have better effective relationships related to that.

Joey Giangola: I agree. I think a lot is lost on the agent side of things with realizing that what's on their desk is very similar to the business that you have on your desk as an agent. Right? You know, that mobile home that's down the street or whatever you're like, "We're going to get to the nicer house that's going to pay me a little bit more."

So they're going to prioritize similar to how you're going to prioritize. And I think that is maybe something that we find lost in translation, but I'm kind of curious to hear more about how you maybe found your way into kind of the business that you're selling now. Like, did you experiment with some different types of insurance that you thought you might want him to sell? Or was it really, you kind of knew from the beginning, what direction you wanted to go in and what was going to work? Or was there some kind of missteps along the way?

Ngozi Nnaji: [inaudible] missteps. So it's interesting because in my 20 years prior to becoming an independent agent, I was solely focused in the healthcare industry. I did medical malpractice. That wasn't my specialty. So I was very proficient in it. When I left the company, the company [inaudible 00:15:29], and went and started my agency, I thought I could leverage that. Right? I thought I could step into this new space, as an agent, and still be able to kind of do medical malpractice. But what I've found is that it's a very different proposition. I think one, as clients, they kind of look at you differently, right? You are my underwriter and now you're trying to be my broker, my agent. Wait, how does that work? Right. But I also think, again, going back to that diversity play, I think also, because medical malpractice is such a specialization in such a niche, there wasn't many people that looked like me on the buyer's side.

And so I think I struggled with kind of creating opportunities for myself where... People like to do business with people that look like them, let's be honest. Right? And I think that was an obstacle for me. And not that I'm putting all the blame on that, but I think that definitely was a factor. And so what happened was, as I'm trying to supplement this new book of business I'm trying to create in the healthcare field, I started to get referrals in from black small business owners. I started to get referrals in from black families who needed homeowners and auto. I mean, [inaudible] I never really kind of participated in. It just wasn't my thing. I was more, like I said, more complex risks, but larger risk.

And so what I started to realize is that, you know what, I'm not going to be able to survive if I'm solely focusing on my practice. And not only did I realize that, but I realized if you're really trying to make a difference, Ngozi, these are the clients you should be working with anyway. Right? These are the people you're trying to touch and reach anyway. So why are you focused on medical malpractice? Where it's the black family, it's a black community, it's a black business owner that needs your wisdom, your experience and your expertise. And so quickly after I realized that, at a droplet of a dime, my whole kind of marketing changed and shift changed around what my clientele looked like.

Joey Giangola: Okay, well then I got to know, if it changed quickly, how quickly did the business fall? Is that something that you kind of noticed like immediately just in the results? Did it happened pretty quick?

Ngozi Nnaji: It happened pretty quick, because then I started to talk with more families. Really talk about I'm doing in the black church. Right? So I would go to church on Sundays, right? Talk about, here I am, an agent. Even kind of getting referrals from other black, small business owners. So I think once I started to put time and effort into making that my business, it was positively received.

Joey Giangola: And I mean, back to that awareness on the consumer side of things, how were you looking or hoping to close that gap? And what have you seen work? What are the things that maybe surprised you? In terms of just, like you said, just the lack of awareness or introduction to certain things. What impact have you been seeing there?

Ngozi Nnaji: So it's a slow process, right? Because I do think because of misconceptions about insurance in general, for people of color, they don't fully understand the first time around kind of what they should be doing with their money, right? And how insurance can protect them and protect their assets. And so I often find myself having multiple conversations, right? And the sales process taking longer than I think it should, but that's okay. I'm in here, I'm doing this for the long haul. But you know, what I started to do was research about the buying habits of black people, especially as it relates to life insurance. And what I found out through LIMRA, which is the resource organization that's actually headquartered here in Connecticut, but it's a global organization. They determined based on some research that African Americans, blacks, purchase life insurance at a higher rate than other races and demographics, the issue is that they don't purchase enough. Right?

They purchased the bare minimum just to cover burial expenses. So when we talk about closing racial wealth gaps, it becomes a hard proposition to kind of overcome when you're only purchasing enough to cover your burial expenses. It's not enough to pass on generationally to your subsequent family members. And so it's that kind of education and that kind of knowledge that I try to pass on to say, "Hey guys, look, I know you believe in life insurance, right? We're purchasing it at a higher rate. Let's educate you on what you need to purchase and how it impacts you and your family."

Joey Giangola: I'm kind of curious what that conversation has been like, when you bring them into that conversation, maybe they're buying the 10,000, the 50,000, something like that, to just handle the burial expenses. But then when you say, "Listen, if you sit down, you go up to 250, a million..." When you start like saying like, it's not that much... If you get them at the right time, it's not as dramatic of a price increase. So what does that conversation... How are they reacting to kind of coming to terms with that realization and saying, "Oh, this isn't maybe that bad of a deal all along."?

Ngozi Nnaji: It's like a light bulb that goes on in their head. Because when you think about it, now I'm not a financial advisor. Right? I don't do the kind of the full analysis and I don't do investments and stuff like that. But I do work with those that do. So what we try to do is tag team and utilizing those financial professionals to kind of show them that if you reallocate your money, and even come up with an additional 50 to a hundred dollars a month, look at what you can purchase. And this is what we can do with it. I like talking to families with young kids especially, right? Because one, we know that the cost of college is getting more and more expensive. Right? And so now it's a matter of, "Okay, let's put this policy into place. So when your children get to that age, you can draw from that." Right?

And utilize that towards paying for college versus having to figure out financial aid and loans and all that other stuff. So really talk about the reality of the tool around life insurance and how it plays into future expenses and protecting yourself against kind of financial holes and gaps that you might experience. But I also think people don't realize that's more life insurance, but even like personal lines and small business kind of coverages, like how valuable these coverages are to protecting them. And now I think, especially with small business owners, they can start to realize that as the entrepreneur, as the one who has becomes fully liable for stuff, there's an extra need to kind of protect assets so they can rebuild if something were to happen. So those conversations happen as well. And it's always kind of this light bulb that they're like, "Oh wow. I didn't realize that." Well, that's where I'm here. That's why I exist.

Joey Giangola: Is there maybe something else that now that you kind of in it, you're seeing those light bulbs go off, is there maybe another light bulb that you're looking to flip on that you've kind of noticed through these conversations?

Ngozi Nnaji: Well, yeah. I mean, it's the other light bulb of where I can identify them. Individuals who might consider insurance as a field. Right? I think that's another light bulb that I'm looking to establish. And so especially, again, when I talk about millennials or college students, right? Who are kind of trying to... They might think they know where they want to go, but start to talk to them about the opportunities that exist. And so again, when I tell them that you can have an engineering degree and be a risk manager for a large insurance company, they're like, "Wow, I didn't know I could do that." Or being in IT, right? And start to talk about InsureTech. Right? And what techies are doing in that field, around artificial intelligence, around the internet of things. I think it just becomes a conversation that they didn't expect to have and they really start to think about, "Well, while you're sitting here getting me life insurance, well maybe I should consider applying for some jobs in the industry too."

Joey Giangola: All right, Ngozi. I got two more questions for you. And we've kind of covered quite a bit across your sort of experience in the industry, but I'm curious, if you were to look forward to, kind of very specifically, what you might be most excited about and whether it's the type of coverage you can offer the type of people that we can bring into the industry. But if there's one thing that you could say, "Man, I am really excited about this and I can't wait for it to get to insurance." What is that thing?

Ngozi Nnaji: I think this whole diversity play. Now it's become even more than kind of being an agent. I don't know if now we're on equal playing field as far as how passionate I am about either one. I launched Ako Insurance Consulting about two months ago and it's a recruiting and retention firm, looking at black talent specifically, but also people of color and bringing them into the industry and also helping companies, like I said earlier, just understand the benefits of diversity, inclusion, equity, cultural competency on their organizations. And so I'm excited about the stirring of the pot, if you will, around diversity. And how people, companies are being more intentional. Now, granted it was for unfortunate events, right?

Based on kind of the racial injustices that happened earlier this year. But this is exciting to know that people are starting to think very differently about insurance. And I can't wait for us to get to the point as an industry, right? That we're really leveraging what diversity truly can be. Right? And not just racial diversity or cultural diversity, diversity of thought, right? So really leveraging that and kind of bolstering our industry. I mean, to be something even greater than what it already is. That's what excites me that when all this comes together, how great our industry will be and how attractive it will be to others because of that. Right?

So we're not dealing with... And I'm sure you've heard, or we've talked about, there's going to be over 400,000 baby boomers, aging out of the industry. And we don't have people coming in. So they're not attracted to this industry. So again, my excitement comes for when we make it so appealing, so sexy, that no college student can deny, no professional can deny coming into this space.

Joey Giangola: All right, Ngozi, last question. I'm going to hand you a magic wand of sorts to basically change, do a little different, something in the industry that maybe isn't... We might've just covered a little bit of it, but a slightly different tilt. But if you could have this magic wand sort of do whatever you want, again, accelerate things, where's it going? I pretty sure I know where it is, but it may be slightly different. Where's it going? What's it doing? And how's it going to create that impact?

Ngozi Nnaji: My magic wand. Oh wow. I think what I'd love to see happen is there to be an insurance program on every campus, including the historically black colleges and universities. That's what I'd love to see. If I could put it an insurance program on every campus, that'd be dope. That'd be so cool. Right? Exposing kids. And maybe that's not what you're looking for, but for me, I want it to stand up. Just like there's a business school on every campus. There needs to be an insurance school on every campus. I think that's how integral insurance is to our economy as a society. And we have to recognize it for what it is. So whether it's a certificate program or four year degree, I don't care. I think everyone needs to be exposed to it.

Joey Giangola: Ngozi, this has been fantastic. I'm going to leave right there. And we're done.

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