Industry the October 2020 issue

It’s Never Overt

A conversation with ABD vice president Ivoree Reinaldo about what it’s like to be black in insurance and how to be intentional in combatting systemic racism.
By Sandy Laycox, Brianne Spellane Posted on September 30, 2020
Tell us how you landed at ABD.

Long story short…when I was a senior in high school, I had a work experience teacher who introduced me to a little insurance agency that was hiring, so I literally got started in insurance when I was 17.

I grew up in the business going to different firms and…put myself through college. I worked really hard, and I got every certification under the sun for insurance. Ultimately, what attracted me to ABD was hearing about their culture. I knew I was going to be their first black property and casualty insurance broker. Many firms in our industry have no black representation. ABD certainly does but not specifically in my role. I met Kurt [de Grosz, president and co-chairman of ABD] when I was interviewing, and what stood out to me when talking to him was that, when I asked him about what ABD is doing about diversity, he just hit it straight on. He said, “You know, we’re not as diverse as we need to be.” But he laid out a set of initiatives that they were working on and ideas, so the fact that he was just so real and authentic about it and faced it head on and kind of embraced me, that’s what attracted me to ABD. Fast-forward a few years later, I really see our firm as a leader in the space with these diversity, equity, and inclusion issues.

So many firms are looking to us for guidance; our clients are looking to us for guidance. And ultimately it was through the support of Kurt and ABD senior leadership that I also felt comfortable bringing on my clients at the time, Black Lives Matter. And this is before they had the very national presence that they have now, when they were actually on the other end of the media, which was not very favorable by most.

ABD’s support really showed me that I’d landed in a good place where I could hang my hat and really live out a career of not just working on insurance and transacting insurance but being in a position to have influence and impact and reach, and that opportunity and support brought me all the way to Washington, D.C., in January of 2020, to testify on issues of insurance, diversity issues, and insurance and discriminatory practices in our own industry.

I realized very young that that environment, long-term, was not going to lead me to a good life. I didn’t have a sense for what a good life meant. I just knew that gang violence and kids that were my age who were dying [at] 13, 14, 15 years old, the drug environment, and the lack of education and investment that teachers had in schools, I knew all of that was not the norm.

And I was realizing my mom was becoming more absent at the time. She was a single mom with six children. And so there was a lot of need for us. I didn’t know that she was getting into an addiction. But now that I look back and all those nights she was away from home and who she was hanging out with, she had become addicted to crack cocaine, which is very prominent in the South Central Los Angeles area. And so between that and not being in good schools and being around violence…I’ve heard living in those environments being compared to what you hear of people who go to war—it’s like post-traumatic stress.

I mean, can you imagine waking up every day and going out in the world not knowing if this is a day I might see someone killed or I might be hit by a stray bullet? You wake up on edge like that. Oh, tonight is a night where we’re going to hear helicopters all night. And we’re going to hear them looking for somebody, or tomorrow’s the day that I find out one of my friends died when I go to school. It was constantly like that.

So what I decided to do at 16—when I just felt like my life was in danger and there was no other choice—I called my aunt and asked her if I could visit her in Sacramento. And at the time, I just said, I’ll come visit for a week. But when I came up to the Sacramento area, I went outside each night, and the whole neighborhood was sleeping. People weren’t in the street, people were going to bed. It was like a culture shock that the world wasn’t up 24/7 and there weren’t drug dealers on the corners.

My aunt took me around to visit other relatives, and she took me to the high school to visit the campus. And kids were going to class like normal. I didn’t see a bunch of gangs and graffiti, and the bell rang and everybody was in their classrooms.

I just knew at the time that I wanted to live like that. So I decided that I was basically going to abandon my mom and my siblings and everything I knew, and I asked my aunt if I could stay with her until I was 18. I credit her and my uncle for saving my life and changing the trajectory of my life.

Not everyone has an aunt that’s out of town. Not everyone has that opportunity. So there is never a day in my life where I don’t have moments of just what if my aunt didn’t answer the phone that night? Or her husband said, “No, we’re not taking this teenager out of South Central Los Angeles.” Not everyone has that opportunity, right? So I’m always recognizing that most people who’ve had a bad way in life, it’s not because they want to live that way. It’s just that’s the only environment they know. And there’s not always an opportunity for resources, mentorships, someone who’s going to step in and have that intervention.

From the get-go, it seemed like you liked insurance. What was it that you liked about it?

At the time when I was a senior in high school getting into insurance, all my friends were getting jobs at places like In and Out Burger and fast food joints, and I was getting paid more to do what I would call less intensive work than being on your feet all day flipping burgers. I liked the quiet, silent environment of insurance. Someone told me a long time ago, you get paid more money to work with your mind than you do with your hand. That always stuck with me. I realized that being in the insurance industry, I had an opportunity to be compensated to work with my mind, as opposed to physical labor. I liked that aspect of it. And I liked the educational piece of being able to take classes and learn about it. It’s truly a profession.

I found I was compensated well, and I found that I could really support myself, which is very important. And that there was so much opportunity because of the events, the conferences, you could travel. I mean, these are all things that, when I think about being a little South Central girl from Los Angeles, I would never ever have had an opportunity to do, so I like the gateway of opportunity that it created for me to meet people, expand my network, and ultimately lead me to the successes I’ve had at ABD.

I think about how different my life could have been. I had a best friend, someone who I normally hung out with most every day. It was maybe a few weeks after I left for Sacramento, I called to check in on her and see how she was doing, and I found out that she had gone to jail for what was—now fast forward through her trial and everything—15 years in prison because she and some other people I would normally be hanging out with had followed a woman home and decided to rob her. And my best friend was responsible for keeping an eye on her while she was tied up. But they did not know she had triggered the silent alarm on her home security system. And so cops came guns blazing, and she’s still not out. She’s [been in] at least 15 years and still is waiting to be paroled to this day.

I look back on that time, and my best friend has spent her entire life in prison because of that one decision. And that could have very easily been a day that I was there and didn’t have guidance.

Can you talk about the experience of working with Black Lives Matter, in terms of what it’s been like with the struggles that you’ve had professionally because of it, and what it felt like to hide that from your colleagues and then finally reveal it?

My experience with BLM number one, when I brought them on to ABD as a client, I did it in a very confidential matter. I let my boss at the time know and one or two other people who were aware that they were our customer. I brought them in at a time where we were not even a year removed from the height of the Colin Kaepernick controversy and then a series of events that were happening in our country with police brutality and the deaths of black people. And very sensitive high-profile cases.

What I always remind people is BLM’s message is not a message of exclusion, but inclusion. And I try to clarify that as many as times as possible. When we think of Black Lives Matter, it is a function of just stating that, how is it that all lives matter until black lives matter also? But this was very controversial at the time. And there was not this national stage that we’re seeing in 2020, where there’s a tremendous amount of support. And being that I am a black person and in my industry where we are few and far between, and being at a new firm, there was no way I felt like I could expressly let all of ABD know that this was the client we were representing. I say “we” because ABD is 100% employee owned. When we bring on a client, it is representative of all of us. And so I spent a few years keeping that from my team and just relegated to a couple of folks who needed to help me support them from an insurance perspective.

And, unfortunately, me doing that was not just because it was in my head. I did so also because the insurance industry, our insurance carrier partners that we work with, who I was trying to get insurance from for them at the time, also showed me that it was not a cause that was widely supported.

I approached over 100 insurance companies who all refused to, in many cases, even look at their application. As soon as their name came across the screen or was said on the phone, the answer was no. Without any sort of other additional underwriting qualifying questions. Me being a black person, and then also representing BLM, it felt so discriminatory. It felt terrible, it felt bad. It felt like I was watching the industry I’ve grown up in shun a cause that is trying to protect people who look like me and trying to give voice to people who look like me and my family members. On one hand, I was worried about how this is going to look within my own firm, but on the other side of it, my feelings were being validated by our industry as a whole and by many, many, many people along the way.

So long story short, it wasn’t until this most recent series of events—Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, which kind of was the catalyst—that I was sharing with our D&I counselor serving ABD’s diversity, equity and inclusion council and mentioned just for the first time in front of about 10 or 12 of us who serve on that council about who my client is and what my experience has been like and who BLM really is. And the story was so impactful to all of them who didn’t know, that they invited me that following week, to mention my experience and tell our entire company who I represent.

Our town hall ended up being that following Wednesday, and I’d only had a few days to really digest everything going on. But I just felt a sense of responsibility to come forward within my own team and really help them understand who BLM was and why, what they watched on TV, a live murder, before all of our eyes, why this cause is so important and why we can’t continue to sit and be quiet and why we can’t be on what I call the wrong side of history, which is not supporting these causes in what I would say is a public health crisis and a social justice crisis of our time.

So I did go ahead and share my story with all my peers that following week after the George Floyd murder, and I was very emotional, but I felt like for the first time I was able to show up to my own company and to my own peers and just be like, yeah, my name is Ivoree and I’m black and we represent BLM and here’s the story. I was able to truly be my authentic self that day.

I have an uncle that gave me a quote when I was kind of reflecting on my life, and he said, “Keep going, keep fighting, keep trying striving to be successful. And only look back when you need to remember where you come from.” I think about that quote all the time. It’s a very sobering reminder of all of my experiences.

What can the insurance community do to both better support and engage the current black members of our community and then also work toward a community that is much more diverse and get farther along that path?

You have to be very intentional. You have to do the outreach. I think, first of all, we have to have representation as an industry; we need to have a specific, measurable plan to recruit, mentor, invest in members of the black community in our industry. But vastly, the black community is underrepresented by a large margin. So there has to be an effort within DE&I to address specifically the disparities of the black community. And that takes work. It takes money, it takes investing, it takes time, it takes a plan, it takes outside resources. And you have to literally hire for it and be committed to it.

The reality is, one of the reasons why I feel I was able to get an insurance company to insure BLM, for example, is because one of the most senior people at that insurance company is a black man. And he was able to understand and bridge the gap and make exceptions and all those kinds of things. Being a black person, he could empathize. That’s what happens when you have representation. We need much more of that in our industry as a whole to really make change, because having people in those positions is what’s going to make the difference.

At ABD, we put together a council, we’re doing the work, we have a black employee research group, which is going to be instrumental in trying to change it within our own company, but also we’re going to have a plan to take some of this framework and make sure we’re having an impact within our industry broadly. So we’re doing what we can do, and it’s going to take all the firms in our industry to be committed to doing something similar.

We’re in California, in the Bay Area, but our industry is everywhere, all over the United States. And I think it’s going to take a concerted effort from all communities, many of which are not nearly as progressive as California or the Bay Area. So I would just challenge—especially those with the most influence, with the deepest pockets, with the biggest books of business, those who have the resources—if they all come together, I do believe they can make change.

I want our industry to recognize where they are contributing to systemic racism. You are contributing to systemic racism by not having a concerted effort to be more diverse. You are contributing to systemic racism by not having a plan particularly to help hire and recruit from the black community specifically. You are contributing to systemic racism by having your underwriting guidelines shun those who are being advocates for anybody else. The reason why there is advocacy is because there are communities that are marginalized and underrepresented and discriminated against.

BLM is just one organization. There are other organizations that do similar work that may be misconstrued as controversial. Because the reality is, while you see their presence, many times they are, from a risk perspective, a good risk, they don’t have claims, they are managed well.

These organizations are not the ones who are running up the claims. The folks running up claims are your everyday kind of risks who are not having nearly the impact. And so what I want the industry to do is to recognize their role in systemic racism and understand that, if I’m an underwriter and I don’t go outside of the box I was given or if I’m an executive at an insurance company and I don’t allow my underwriters to go out of this box, what is it that we’re really doing? When you can’t get insurance or when you’re being systematically shunned from getting insurance, you can’t lease space for an office, you can’t get grants in many cases, people don’t want to join your board if you don’t have proper D&O insurance, you can’t get certain contracts. Insurance is a huge inhibitor to doing business.

There’s a call to action for our industry to recognize our role as insurance professionals in systemic racism. And I say “our role”—I’m a black person speaking out, doing what I can, and even I need to do things within my own self to stand up for things that are right. It’s going to take all of us taking that stance. The best thing the industry can do is first acknowledge there’s an issue and then figure out their call to action and what they can do in their own sphere of influence to resolve it.

The majority of the industry is male, white, older men—when they get up in the morning, they just have to decide if they’re wearing a suit or not, if they’re wearing a tie or not. For me, when I get dressed, yes, I’m picking out my clothing and my business attire. But there’s one thing I can’t change and that’s the skin that I’m in. And that’s something I don’t get to forget. And that’s something I can’t un-wear. I have to take it out with me.

And so over the years, being a client-facing consultant, I’m asking the CEOs and CFOs of companies, some valued in the billions of dollars, to respect my knowledge, my experience, and to hire me, effectively. Yes, hiring my firm or my team, but ultimately me, being the spokesperson. Being black and female, based on recent studies, I think I make up approximately a percent or less of folks in my role. So when I’m going out there and I’m having to convince them to buy from me, chances are 99 other people they’ve seen come through the door are not going to be reflective of who I am. So I would be dishonest to say there’s times when I’ve not been hired and not felt that it was because of something else, because I know how qualified I am. I know how deep ABD’s bench is, how big our ambassador resources are.

When I think about people being discriminatory or even racist or prejudiced or whatever word you want to insert, it’s never overt. You’re never going to get, “I’m not hiring you because you’re black.” You know, “I’m not hiring you because you’re black and female.” It’s something like, “Oh, we decided to go with another firm,” or “I decided to work with a friend of mine,” or it’s a reason that doesn’t make any sense or a reason that we actually addressed throughout our process. And then I’ve even had feedback where we were in a meeting answering questions for a buyer. I was with several other colleagues who were all white. And even though I was leading the meeting, he would only acknowledge my white peers in the room. I was the only one who could answer questions specifically related to my expertise, and I answered in two or three different ways, but it wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear. But again, I’m hired to give advice. And so his feedback was, “Oh, I didn’t hire your team, because I felt like your responses were too aggressive.” Aggressive. So I can’t help but wonder, well, if I wasn’t black, if I wasn’t female, would it have been the same feedback given to a white, male counterpart?

Sandy Laycox Editor in Chief Read More
Brianne Spellane Director of Membership, The Council Read More

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