Igniting Next Gen: The Benefits of Embracing a Culture of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Karen Caterino, Alliant, sat down with Lilian A. Vanvieldt, Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Aaisha Hamid, Assistant Vice President and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Manager, to discuss the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace and how to promote a company culture that gives every individual the tools they need to succeed.
You're listening to a special episode of In the Public Eye podcast, Igniting NextGen for careers and risk management, where we explore all the exciting career opportunities and possibilities within the insurance industry. Here is your host, Karen Caterino.
Karen Caterino (00:19):
Welcome to Igniting NextGen, for careers in risk management and insurance. Our podcast series focuses on enlightening students and young professionals about all the exciting career possibilities in the insurance industry. I'm your host, Karen Caterino, Senior Vice President with Alliant Insurance Services, and our guests today are Lilian Vanvieldt and Aaisha Hamid to discuss the benefits of embracing a culture of diversity, equity and inclusivity. Welcome, Lilian and Aaisha. Thanks for being on the show. So Lilian, let's start with you. Tell us a little bit about your background, your current role, and certainly why is this subject so important to you?
Lilian Vanvieldt (00:58):
Well, thank you for having me, Karen. Good morning, everyone. I was born in what would be referred to as a developing country in Guyana South America, and the way the culture is, is that education is viewed as a means to escape or improve your circumstances. And while my parents were fortunate to be able to have positions of authority and they were doing well in the country, it was still a very depressed economy and opportunities were limited. And my parents saw an opportunity to immigrate to the United States, to give myself a better opportunity and a brighter future. The subject of DEI is important because of the impact it had on my life. I guess it starts probably when I went to UCLA, I was going to high school. I couldn't decide if I was going to go to college. I kind of knew I was going to go to college. Sort of, always thought that because my parents came to the US with that absolute, you're going to go to college. You know, you're going to do this, but I didn't know what it would take to get into a college because I didn't have a college counselor that invested in me to do that. And so I was in some honor classes and they got a chance to go on a field trip and I got there and there were some young students talking to us about, you know, we were the minority students coming in and I was fascinated and I was like, oh, I'm going, I'm coming to school here. And then someone said, oh, you, you know, make sure you have the A through F requirements and was like, well, what are those? I don't know what that is. And I discovered very quickly that I didn't have what I needed to have in order to be able to get into the university. Even though I went, I was taking honor courses. I then went back and did what I needed to do, and got myself on the right path. And I did, you know, really, I went and enrolled in a community college, my last year of high school to catch up and to take the classes I needed to take. And again, I say, even though I was taking honor courses and my chemistry teacher pulled me aside and counseled me and told me that I really should go into a trade. After I got into UCLA, he pulled me aside and said, you know, I think you should go to a trade school and learn a trade rather than, you know, going in to go to college. LA community college district had a really great trade. They still do have a great trade school and it's not lost on me now that I am their broker. I'm very proud of that. And I think it's a great organization, a great institution, but my chemistry didn't want me to go to a four-year institution cause he was saving me for myself. And, you know, I would fail. That really was the thing that got me. When I got to college, I realized the only reason I was there was because some students took the time to tell me about what I needed to have. And so I started working with a program called student educational exposure project and going into the inner city and telling them about here's what you need to do in order to go to college. And here's what you have to have and you can do it, and being a motivator. And in a lot of cases, it was the first time anyone had ever talked to about going to college. And we were talking to honor students, regular students, but at the end of the exercise, the large and vast majority of them never had hope because no one had ever given them hope. I wanted to be able to do that then, and I want to be able to do that. Now my role now, as a DEI officer gives me an opportunity to give back. I really want to be able to help people both in the organization, be able to realize their potential, and to be able to realize what they want to do in their dreams. And also to be able to open up this industry, which is a white male-dominated industry, and open it up to women, to people of color, to indigenous communities, individuals with disabilities, the LGBTQ and make it something that is diverse and equitable and inclusive.
Karen Caterino (04:12):
What a great story, Lilian, really. And the fact that you, in your career now, are representing the institution that helps support to where you are today, I think is pretty amazing. Aaisha, how about you welcome to the show. How did you get your start in insurance and certainly what inspires you in your role today?
Aaisha Hamid (04:30):
Thanks Karen. I actually found myself in the insurance industry by coincidence. I never thought I would go into it, but before we get into the insurance industry, I had my background in diversity, equity and inclusion starting in the academic space, and then in the corporate legal space. So I started that work pretty early on at my campus university. Growing up as a Pakistani American Muslim woman in Kentucky, I found myself often in spaces where I stood out or where I was the only, or the other. And so that was what gave me the desire to do more. That started on the campus where I started our first international women's day cultural awareness event, thinking about intersectionality. So some of these concepts, they came to me really early on because I was living them. I was dealing with them. And so that was an area which I knew I've always wanted to do more work in. And then when I went into the corporate legal space, I realized it was something that could actually be a career because I also grew up with immigrant parents. And I didn't realize that there were fields outside of medicine, law, and engineering that you could pursue. And so it was a whole new world for me. And that's how I got started in the corporate space. I went to a Baptist Christian elementary school, an Islamic middle school, and then I went to an all-girl Catholic high school where I was the only brown and Muslim woman. And that was where I really hyper-analyzed my identities, and eventually really impacted the kind of work that I want to do. So that all kind of tells you a little bit about why this particular space.
Karen Caterino (06:07):
Well, thank you for that perspective, Aaisha, and you know, I think it, it really leads into my next question from a chief diversity officer perspective. Lilian has just, you know, really helped to create a culture throughout our organization, really focused on DEI. And it shows we have a, you know, very, I think diverse group of people that work here certainly still work that always can be done. And so Lilian, you know, what do you see as the biggest challenge for companies that aren't heavily focused or investing in DEI initiatives?
Lilian Vanvieldt (06:40):
Yeah, that's a good question. If I were to say the challenges and I were to list about it would think employee engagement or disengagement employee retention has to be the top of the list. DEI is now just part of the lexicon. It's part of the fabric of an organization. It has to be. And that's something that really took hold in the last 24 months. I would say, probably the biggest emphasis being the George Floyd verdict and the trial. But the thing that I think for an organization to recognize is that you have to have a place for everyone to have a space and everyone to have a voice and seat at the table. I, now, speak to potential employees who are considering joining Alliant to learn more about what we're doing, what our mission is, what our footprint is in the industry, what we're doing for our staff and for our individuals. It is part of the conversation. And as you start to try to attract more seasoned and stronger talent, they're asking those very important questions about how you're going to support them and how you support others and what you're doing within the industry. So it's just part of the process now. So, if you don't have this platform, if you don't have a DEI space and you don't have a true direction for DEI, I think you're missing out on quite a few things. You know, again, you're missing out an opportunity to do what's right, but moreover, you're also taking away from your employees benefit and from them being able to grow. And you're also reducing, I think your profitability long term.
Karen Caterino (08:08):
Very, very good point as part of that, you know, Aaisha, you had mentioned earlier, and I think like many of us that are in this industry tend to say, we sort of found it or fell into it. There wasn't maybe potentially an intention to become a broker or an insurance professional. So what are your thoughts maybe on when you went through that process and not becoming a doctor or a lawyer, but all of a sudden, now you're an insurance. You know, how can we do a better job to develop and really further the careers of a more diverse population of up and coming professionals, but even, you know, kind of that next gen excitement about what we do.
Aaisha Hamid (08:48):
That's a really great question to address the first piece of, you know, how do we develop and further the careers of a diverse population of up-and-coming professionals. Internally, I think it's definitely about strategically investing in them. So providing meaningful development opportunities and by meaningful development opportunities, I mean, mentorships, sponsorships, speaking engagements, when we're talking about the broker side, allowing underrepresented brokers, the chance to take on more meaningful client roles or showing them, you know, what they need to do in order to be successful in front of clients, because, they may not have started out in that area. And kind of what we're talking about, a lot of underrepresented people don't go into this industry intentionally, including myself. And that's partially because insurance is an industry that tends to move across family generations. And so there is a lot of nepotism, and those people that are passing it on from families, they come with an advantage, right? They have family members, they have a support system already built in. That's showing them the ropes. In some cases, they're coming in with a book of business already planned. And so providing underrepresented people who may not have all of those resources, who may not come in in that same kind of way, with some kind of program or some kind of, you know, beginning where they have those resources already or the organization is investing in them, it puts them at the same level. So really shifting our focus from equality to equity in the organization and realizing that that's a central piece into making sure that we are furthering the careers of people inside. It's about community, like going into the community, going to colleges and broadening the access by talking more about it. And that's something that we did through our Alliant fellows and our Alliant scholars program, which is we offered students an opportunity to rotate across our different business groups and different departments. And so I think providing more opportunities like that, if all of our insurance brokerage firms did that, we would have a lot more students that would be exposed to this earlier on one, but also they would have the opportunity to consider it as a potential career.
Karen Caterino (10:56):
Oh, those are great talking points that Aaisha thanks for really touching on each of them. They're all important. Lillian, you know, to kind of wrap up the show. I know Alliance's taken a major step forward in promoting a more diverse, more equitable insurance industry with the launch of the Alliant Insurance foundation. So please tell us a little bit more about the cause and how the foundation is expanding access to career growth.
Lilian Vanvieldt (11:20):
The Alliant charitable foundation was formed in 2021, and we became approved by the IRS in 2022 June. So we're a little over a month into our official launch. And we want to be able to open our doors and expand opportunity for everyone and creating a place for them to be able to have opportunities that will really be meaningful and impactful. One of the things that is not lost on me is that there are a lot of women in the insurance industry, and there are actually a lot of people of color in the insurance industry. They just tend to be, be in low paying jobs. They tend to be in claims departments or in clerical or the file room, the mail room. And they don't really have lots of opportunity for growth. Oftentimes it's tied to degrees and certifications that they can't afford. It's a limit, and limitations. And so even though you have an organization that may be more than 50% represented by women, it is still not one where when you get to the higher levels of management and you start to see who is in the C-suites, they all tend to look very much alike. So we talk about, well, how do you promote and what are you doing as an organization to do something different? And we thought, okay, we'll start two places. One is we're going to go into the communities that we are serving and try to find ways to broaden that tent. That is one that is over a period of time. So it's a three year scholarship. As individuals are coming through the organization. The first year, they get to rotate through many of our departments to learn a little bit about the entire industry. And then year two, they then pick a department. They like, and then they have an opportunity to learn and grow within that department. And then the third year we continue that with a higher rate again, and then bringing them back into the department with an opportunity for them to really at this point, have a job opportunity to come into Alliant, but having had multiple years working within the industry, understanding the department they're coming into and having it, having a chance to pick one that they like, whether it be IT, marketing, sales, brokerage, the thing that the foundation is done a little differently is to say, okay, well, that's great. But a lot of young students, these internships really don't work for them because they can't afford to live in these other cities. So our internship comes with a housing stipend to allow student to be able to come into a major city, but allowing them to be able to live. And so we partnered with Southern university, we created the Alliant fellows program to do that. And then within the Alliant's portion of it is we're looking now at recruitment and how we're recruit and where we recruit and what we're focusing on and creating scholarships for individuals to be able to take some of the certifications they need. So then when they come and apply for a job they're able to apply to higher positions and the foundation's goal and focus is primarily on bringing people into the industry, but also being able to make the industry, the individuals that are here, giving them a space to thrive.
Karen Caterino (14:00):
Okay, great. In closing, I would love to just hear from both of you, what do you think is your best advice on pursuing careers in the industry and what are the opportunities that perhaps we hadn't touched on quite yet for working in the industry?
Aaisha Hamid (14:15):
I think there is a lot of opportunities. There's a variety of different departments. So if there are students that are interested in the insurance industry, my recommendation is to get started as soon as possible, do an internship, do a fellowship. There's so many opportunities available. And there's so many people within the insurance industry that are looking to mentor and sponsor students.
Lilian Vanvieldt (14:39):
And for me, I think the best advice, I would say for anyone who's considering what resources are available and how to further the culture of DEI, I think is to step back, and there's a great picture I love, and I would love to have this just kind of walk around. I have it on my t-shirt or something, is everyone's standing at the fence and there are three individuals standing at the fence. The first one is tall enough to look over the fence. The second one is not as tall, and they need a platform to be able to have equal view over the fence. And the third one is much shorter, and they need a bigger platform. The point being is that sometimes what you have to do to get everyone to the same space, be able to have the same opportunity to see the same things and get the same perspective. You may have to give them some type of platform to be able to help them do that for me, the best advice. And the best thing to do is to either create a resource group or join one and be a part of it and learn leadership skills there, because that's how you're going to move forward. And it also allows you to get your organization to walk in lockstep with what you're trying to do as an individual.
Karen Caterino (15:36):
Well, great advice from both of you. And I just want to say it's really been a pleasure hearing your perspectives and certainly talking with you both. Thank you for your time today. And thanks for being on the show.
Thank you for listening. And for more information, go to www.alliant.com.
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