The fear of not wanting to do the wrong thing often gets in the way of doing anything.

The truth is you can, and most likely will make mistakes expanding your efforts.

The only thing that matters is owning mistakes when you make them and effectively communicate what went wrong.

Vanessa Sims, Wholesale & Specialty Insurance Association (WSIA) director of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), talks about what can be done to get the industry more comfortable with that idea.

Joey Giangola: Vanessa Sims, how are you doing today?

Vanessa Sims: I am doing fantastic, Joey. How are you?

Joey Giangola: Vanessa, I'm doing okay, I'm doing right. I want to know this first, and I'm kind of curious about the answer. Is there a piece of technology or any type of technology that for whatever reason you understand it, you just don't like it and you're not sort of comfortable with it, regardless of sort of maybe the adoption level that has achieved around it?

Vanessa Sims: Well, I'll say self-driving cars. I don't have one, or self-parking cars, and I haven't tried it. It just seems kind of out there, unusual, no control, because many of us like to have control over things, and especially a car, but that one I have not yet embraced yet. I might have to think about that a while.

Joey Giangola: That's certainly very practical and definitely anything that involves your life being entrusted to other non-like things. For me, Vanessa, it's very simple. I still have yet to be fully comfortable with texting. I feel like there's an intimacy level there that I don't particularly like to text with... I feel like I'm my parents at this point or my grandparents, take your pick, but I don't want my mechanic texting me. Just like, "Dude, give me a phone call." I don't need this. My words are sacred to me, but I don't know.

Vanessa Sims: You kind of miss some things with texting.

Joey Giangola: I need a little baseline before we start just throwing words back and forth at each other and I don't know, but I guess the question that I really wanted to really move over to now is, where do you think the world of diversity in insurance and the comfort level that agencies have with it... Because I think that there's that underlying comfort that is maybe missing in some aspects of it. What do you think maybe agencies struggle with to sort of involve themselves in participating in the conversation or where do you think just the overall comfort level is in the industry?

Vanessa Sims: Well, I guess I would say the thing that people seem to struggle with the most, whether it's something that they should be doing is, how do I do it? People have very good intentions, they have some sense of not just that everybody is doing it, everybody has some type of a DEI plan or person leading their strategy, but how do I do it without messing up? How do I do that? How do I get into DE&I, and make it a part of our everyday culture, make it something that is real and sustainable without stubbing my toe? And, the reality is we're going to stub our toe, it's going to happen, and when it happens, the key is learning from stubbing our toe or saying the wrong thing, apologizing, correcting it, and taking steps to make sure it doesn't happen again in the future, but we are going to stub our toe along this journey.

Joey Giangola: That's a fantastic point. What does that look like maybe for an agency? What are some missteps that you maybe see that are common where they might be afraid to put themselves out there in a certain way and is there anything that you could sort of give maybe guidance to in terms of how they can at least maybe ease that stubbing process?

Vanessa Sims: Sure, I guess one example might be we're two weekends away from an event that happened in Buffalo, New York, a shooting, and sometimes people... Not sometimes, oftentimes when those type of events happen in our society, we might expect as an employer that our employees won't bring that to work, that it doesn't affect them, that when they come to work or they either physically come into the office or virtually come into the office that they checked in at the door. That doesn't always happen, and you don't know what to say. You don't know what to do. Should I do or say anything as an employer? That's not my role. Well, in reality what we need to understand is people are human, and the main thing we need to do is be human ourselves. We need to show empathy.

We need to show compassion. We need to understand that maybe somebody on a Monday morning or whatever the day or two after one of those events, they need someone either to just listen to them or they may just need a break. They may need some time to decompress, process, those kind of things. So as an employer, don't shy away when those kind of things happen or even something not as major as that, it could be anything. When someone comes to us, our managers, or leaders and the employee comes to us and says, "Hey, I'm not feeling it today. I need a break," listen to them and give them that opportunity to... They might need, what we say, a brain break. They might need some time, so be compassionate, show empathy.

Joey Giangola: And, I think the interesting thing that I'm kind of curious about for you is, what made you feel comfortable to sort of step out and sort of embrace the diversity role sort of full time? From what I understand coming from a related industry in financial services, but to say I want to come over to insurance and really focus on diversity, what brought your comfort level to that, to say I feel good, this is something I need to do?

Vanessa Sims: Well, that's an interesting question because it's not necessarily that I was comfortable. It was an opportunity for me to have greater impact rather than a single organization or volunteering with a single non-profit. This was an opportunity to have greater impact, and it wasn't like I said, "Oh, when I grow up, I want to be in insurance. I want to be a DE&I professional," but it was an opportunity for me to have greater impact, and it is scary to go into an organization that has at least 16,000 employees that we can impact as DEI professionals and leaders in our organizations, as opposed to organizations that I had personally only 3,500 people that I might be able to impact. So, it's not that it was necessarily I was comfortable because I'm always learning something new in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space, and that's exciting to me.

Every single day, even about my own personal diversity, I'm learning something new about my culture and my background and how I think and operate, but it's also exciting to me to help other people kind of come to those realizations and learn those things as well, so they can be better leaders, better contributors, and make our industry better, and part of being uncomfortable is that growth. I like to work out every day, well, maybe five to six days a week, but part of that growth, and when you build your muscle, it causes you to have to hurt a little bit and we don't want to hurt. We don't want to get uncomfortable, but part of that muscle growth is tearing that muscle and then allowing it to build on itself. So when it tears and heals, it gets bigger, it gets stronger. So, I think I applaud that same type of concept and example to this space as well.

Joey Giangola: So, you talked about just the overall level of impact that's available. So, I'm assuming that came with ideas of opportunity and things that you thought could be achievable. What are some of those things that started to get you excited as you thought about, like you said, just the sheer range of impact that was sort of at your disposal?

Vanessa Sims: Well, I would say education, providing education to individuals, to teams, to leaders, to organizations about things they don't know, they don't really understand that well. Like I said, it's okay not to know, it's learning and capturing that new knowledge and applying that new knowledge to our everyday interactions, to our inclusive cultures that we're trying to build, that excites me, seeing the light bulb come on, when I'm talking with someone or listening to what they are experiencing or what they're trying to do in their organization. So, the opportunity to have that greater impact through education and through introducing new strategies and helping people develop their strategies to impact diversity, equity, and inclusion, not only within their firms, but within the industry because that's where the greater impact is going to come.

Joey Giangola: So Vanessa, you said you never dreamed of being in insurance when you grew up. How dare you, first of all, come on now, but second, I love asking this question as somebody that has kind of come in with a fresh set of eyes. What did you think, being on the outside, looking at it to say, maybe this is something worthwhile, but then too, once you've gotten here, how would you maybe benchmark sort of where we're at and where we need to go maybe?

Vanessa Sims: Well, I would say that this space, diversity, equity, and inclusion in the insurance industry is not too much different from other financial service related spaces and banking is where I came from, or even outside of banking. I don't think that it's that much different. I think we have a sense of urgency around... At least what I've been able to see, greater sense of urgency around, okay, we've got a lot of people that are planning on retiring here in the next few years.

We have a generation that is going to hold us accountable, and I think that's one of the things that we're becoming more cognizant of in this space is as we bring in new talent, we need to make sure that we are listening, that we are paying attention because they're going to check us. They are wise beyond their years in terms of what's important to them and what they're expecting. I think that's something that we need to really focus on, but I don't think that's truly that much different from any other industry that is coming to the realization of the power and the value and the benefit of DE&I.

Joey Giangola: What do you think is on that expectation checklist of that next generation?

Vanessa Sims So, I think one of the things that would be on that checklist is, so I see you have a diversity statement, I see you have this on your website. Now I'm going to go check and see if people who post comments about you on LinkedIn or other social media outlets, or even my friends that I might know that work in your firm, I'm going to check with them to see is what that diversity statement is saying or what those goals that are posted on your website say, does that match to what you're experiencing inside the workplace? So, it's not only what you say, it's what you do, and if it's something that's more than a...

So, second thing is checking the box are things that we as employers and leaders are saying and doing, is it just to check the box activity or is it something that is long-term, sustainable that will impact culture for the long haul? So, those are just a couple of things. Where are you investing? Where are you contributing your dollars in philanthropy or non-profit organizations and are those organizations ones that I value? The purpose that they exist, is that something that I value as well? So, they're going to be checking those things.

Joey Giangola: You mentioned sort of the excitement around watching the light bulb come on. Can you take me inside that conversation with... I would assume it's an agency owner, but maybe that's, again, a wrong assumption on my part, and also who you're talking to in the agency levels, what light bulbs are coming on at what different, I guess, positions in the agency? And if somebody were to want to reach out and sort of engage in these conversations, I guess, make them a little more comfortable as to the dialogue that might be happening, what is sort of... Take me inside that if you could.

Vanessa Sims: Well, one of the things that is happening where I'm seeing the light bulb come on is helping people understand... Now, the Diversity Foundation that was established through WSIA back in 2020 has recently... This was our first year of the new internship. One of the things that we have done is partnered with an organization called INROADS. INROADS, they've been around since the 70s, but their purpose is to equip and empower students of color to be able to be prepared to enter the workforce, match those students based upon their interest with employers who meet the skills they offer and the ability that they have to bring talent into the organization. Being able to introduce such an organization for our purpose of increasing diversity of talent in our industry has been a wonderful match, to be able to see our resource partners within the industry, HR folks, DE&I folks to say, "Wow, this is really awesome and we want to be a part of advancing DE&I in our organization."

And, the partnership through INROADS helps us to be able to do that. That's one thing, and another one that I will briefly mention is around CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion. I'm not sure many have heard of this initiative. It started back in 2015. There is a four part pledge that goes with CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, and that pledge, which by the way, is not just within the insurance industry, but when we talk about the pledge, which crosses a multitude of industries, and we talk about what that pledge means, which is one, that CEOs and their organizations will begin or enhance their training on unconscious bias. Two, they will share best or worst practices that they have initiated within their organizations for learning and sharing, and because we're trying to be all in this together.

Three is to have courageous conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion. And, then the fourth is to include your board of directors or your highest levels in your organization as a part of that diversity planning strategy, so that there's that accountability. And so, when people hear about that and they hear about this collaboration, they're like, "This is something that interests me, those four principles or those four parts to that pledge are really meaningful," but I believe that collaboration is something that is really interesting to people and we're seeing some interest grow in that space as well.

Joey Giangola: Is there any sort of, I guess, tips that you would have, and I guess I'm thinking through a scenario where an agency... When a position becomes available, it's sort of like a fire drill. They're just looking to kind of fill it as quick as possible. Is there lack of maybe preparation around being ready to sort of find the resources to bring in talented is not going to necessarily walk through the door, just again, you're going to put the ad out or whatever, you're going to put in the recruiting... Is there something around that that maybe is sort of a stumbling block for people to just not necessarily think about filling positions a little bit ahead of time versus just sort of being more reactionary to it?

Vanessa Sims: So, let me clarify what I think I heard, are you referring to the environment that people are coming into? Are you referring to how we recommend people source to bring that talent in to the organization?

Joey Giangola: I mean more of the second, I think, being proactive and recommending better sources because just agencies have sort of a rhythm of things, a position opens up, they just do their normal, natural sort of thing of like, "Oh, we got to get somebody in." They don't necessarily take the time to think about improving that process. I just wonder how much of that is sort of holding things up a little bit of just not thinking about it six months, a year in advance. If we need somebody, maybe these are the protocols we're going to take this time.

Vanessa Sims:I love that question because that's something that I would recommend and I've seen needs to be done more, not just thinking about, okay, we have an opening today and oh, let's go find some diverse talent to interview, to bring into the organization. It's something that needs to be happening all the time. We need to constantly be working to expand our network, cast the net more broadly, working with organizations who do support underrepresented or an emerging talent out there that we want to build those relationships with those organizations, so they can constantly...

We can have that relationship, and again, that's one of those, are you checking the box or are you actually doing something that's sustainable and long-term? So looking outside our normal resources, our sources for talent, and broadening, like I mentioned, INROADS, HBCU IMPACT, even in our local communities, what organizations or the urban league of whatever location that you happen to be in, or what city you happen to be in, those different types of organizations, even fraternities, sororities that we might want to build relationships with year round as opposed to, okay, we've got this opening.

Well, we have the opening. We should be able to say, "All right, we've had this relationship for some time now and we have a partnership, let's reach out." Let's always be having that kind of conversation and partnership with those organizations. I would also say, Joey, that we should be looking inside of our organizations to groom, to develop, to ask talent, what is it that you're interested in? What are your career goals? Do you have a mentor? Are you interested in having a mentor? Look also not just outside, but look inside the walls of the organization because we have a tremendous talent pool right there in front of us. What are we doing to help grow and retain that talent as well?

Joey Giangola: Vanessa, do you have one thing that maybe you think makes the biggest impact or just something small that you could sort of give to anybody in the agency up and down that sort of you might think might make a big difference? Is there one thing that stands out to you, just sort of to move things along that's important to you?

Vanessa Sims: I would just say be intentional and purposeful. Take a step to positively impact your culture. No matter the size of your firm, no matter your role in the firm, no matter where you are in the diversity, equity, and inclusion journey, do something, take a step, read a book, watch a video, or through a source that you don't normally go to, to broaden your thinking and become more aware of what is important to your talent, what's important to your customers, what is important to the community? DE&I are not just buzzwords. They should not be buzzwords. So, I would encourage everyone just to take one step. There's many things you can do. WSIA and the Diversity Foundation offer a plethora of resources on our website, whether it's education, the CEO Action pledge, internships, and other educational resources that we have available, our website and social media also offer the opportunities for people to learn, listen, and do.

Joey Giangola: Vanessa, I got three more questions for you, and the first one, very simply, what's one thing you hope you never forget?

Vanessa Sims: One thing I hope I never forget is to love people and to show love by listening, being compassionate, being humble, being caring. That's one thing I hope I never forget is to love and what it's like to be loved.

Joey Giangola: Now on the other side of that, what's one thing you still have yet to learn?

Vanessa Sims: One thing I have yet to learn is to take one day at a time, one step at a time, and not try to bite off more than I can chew because it winds up being exhausting, so taking one thing at a time and doing that well.

Joey Giangola: All right, Vanessa, the last question to you, if I were to hand you a magic wand of sorts to reshape, change, alter, speed up really any part of insurance, what is that thing, where is it going, and what's it doing?

Vanessa Sims: I might have to think about that, Joey, but I would tie it back to DE&I for now, since that's where I'm spending most of my time and energy, is to help the light bulb come on for every single leader that is out there, and leader can be defined not just by title, it can be defined by who you are. Each of us as a leader in our own, so I would wave that wand with the outcome of every one of us, regardless of who we are, being human, being kind, human and kind.

Joey Giangola: Vanessa, it's been fantastic. I'm going to leave you right there.

Vanessa Sims: All right. Thank you, Joey.