To honor Black History Month & Insurance Careers Month, Berkley Select had a chat with our Vice President of Human Resources, Donald Avery.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve seen such awareness and openness to understand. The platform has really been opened and people’s hearts have really been open to hear the message.”
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Black History month means so much to me, as well as all the ethnic groups who make up America. I reflect on how far we have come as a whole, due to the sacrifice of so many people. It is hard to imagine that not long ago, people of color could not vote nor use a water fountain unless it was marked “colored.” I aspire to Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violent protest and appeal to the human spirit of human beings. In his non-violent protest, Dr. King demonstrated so much power in how he carried the torch for so many disenfranchised people. As my Mom and Dad raised my older brother, younger sister, and me they always told us that we could do anything and become anything that we wanted to be. The encouragement always focused on our God-given talents – not the color of our skin.
What challenges did you face when you started your career in the insurance industry? Do you feel as though race has ever played a factor in those challenges? How do you think that compares to today’s climate?
My career was always one where both people of color and Caucasians encouraged me in special programs. As for difficulties, I was very fortunate to have my parents teach me to be a hard worker – sometimes harder than many others in my profession. This work ethic allowed me to be recognized and provided opportunities during my career. I moved to New York after college for a job opportunity and I asked some fellow trainees who were East coast natives where people of color are not allowed to go. Growing up, Chicago was a very segregated city in the north and many of people of color knew that you did not venture over to Bridgeport or behind White Sox Park. That settled in my mind when I left the city.
As for now, things have improved quite a bit since I was growing up, however, there are times where people feel that racism is not an issue anymore or the sins of the past are just that – of the past. One tends to forget that there are still prejudices out there, as evident in the past few months with the Washington riots as well as the lack of diversity in the insurance industry. I continue to be a proponent of programs like INROADS and Howard University Risk Management School. Over the past 30 years, I have been fortunate to mentor and open the doors for men and women of color into our industry. It is gratifying to see many of these professionals at various insurance companies across the country! With the overall shrinkage in the labor force due to retirements, smart companies should make a great effort to bring more people of color into the industry.
With the current climate of race relations, from your perspective, have we moved forward?
Yes, because 20 years ago you wouldn’t see someone like me in a seat like this. It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve come a long way. There are still gaps though. Some of these gaps are socio-economic that take place because of economic situations and earnings that people of color don’t have or don’t make. When you look at the opportunities that have been provided, I’m from the generation that benefited from the BEOG and SEOG grants. There were some things that we benefited from, but from the other side there’s still a long way to go overall. This is the first time in my life that I’ve seen such awareness and openness to understand. The platform has really been opened and people’s hearts have really been open to hear the message. Do we have a long way to go? Yes, we do. Will we get there? I would say yes. Throughout my career I’ve had to be really diplomatic and finesse situations extremely well in order for my voice to be heard. I knew that if I got angry based on some of the ignorant things I’ve seen in my lifetime/career that people wouldn’t listen. Now people are really listening loud and clear. They didn’t know the magnitude of this and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
You have been in the insurance industry for awhile. What changes seem to stand out? What would you fix?
Technology obviously is huge right now. Now, our business is so complex that it is based upon relationships – it’s a relationship-driven business. However, due to the market changes it is important to understand data to make decisions and recognize shifts. Automation is going to continue to play a key role in our overall success. Predictive analytics is the future and we will need to embrace it. We try to bring in box underwriting for our smaller and less complex accounts and renewals that help cut expenses. Those are some of the things that stand out within the industry.
The fix is obvious. We need to tap into the pool of talent that is not homogeneous. A lot of people are retiring and now there is the opportunity to tap into other pools of talent, which our industry overall should have done in the early 2000’s.
Looking towards the future, what can we do as a company to improve diversity among insurance careers?
I would say that I am a living witness to someone of color making it to where I am in the business. People are more inclined to talk about issues as opposed to being quiet, as the race issue can be very delicate. I see such sincerity from people who feel comfortable enough to come and ask me questions or just pour out their hearts to me. People feel more comfortable than in the past to ask questions and provide their opinion. There is a genuine commitment from many who see the benefit in diversity in our industry. Our customers are diverse and with that said, it makes good business sense to provide “equal opportunity” to all and not just some. Companies that want to be leading edge or are leading edge are diverse when it comes to people of color and women in their workforce.
We are going to work with the INROADS program and Howard University when it comes to diversifying our candidate pool, however, once we have people in the door it is critically important to embrace them and mentor them to be successful.
Overall I see a great future for us and the industry. The unfortunate incidents that took place last year, fortunately changed hearts and awareness.