On the fifteenth entry of our See It to Be It podcast series, Amy C. Waninger speaks with Rose Zilinskas, a results-generating personal lines underwriting professional with experience in positions of increasing levels of responsibility. They talk about her introduction to the insurance industry, what kind of degree is best suited for pursuing a career in underwriting, and the importance of self-advocacy at work. Check the links in the show notes to connect with Rose!
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Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate. Now, look, every now and then we try to mix it up for y’all. So look, dependency and consistency is really important, but even within those lanes of consistency, you gotta have a little bit of variety, you know what I mean? You don’t come home and just eat the same thing every day, or even if you do–you know, you got a meal prep thing–maybe sometimes you put a little red sauce. Maybe sometimes you put a little green sauce. You know, you gotta just, you know, mix it up from time to time. Maybe sometimes you grill it. Maybe sometimes you saute. Maybe sometimes you rotisserie. You gotta just–am I hungry? Yes, I’m hungry, y’all. My bad. Listen, check it out. We have another entry for y’all from our See It to Be It series. Amy C. Waninger, CEO of Lead at Any Level as well as the author of Network Beyond Bias, she’s actually been a member of the team for a while now, so shout-out to you, Amy. Yes, thank you very much for all of your work here. And part of her work has been in driving this series called See It to Be It, and the purpose of the series is to actually highlight black and brown professionals in these prestigious roles, like, within industries that maybe we–and when I say we I mean black and brown folks, I see y’all–may not even know exist or envision ourselves in, hence the name of the series, right? So check this out. We’re gonna go ahead and transition from here. The next thing you’re gonna hear is an interview with Amy C. Waninger and a super dope professional. I know y’all are gonna love it. Catch y’all next time. Peace.
Amy: Rosie Zalinskas, thank you so much for joining me today. How are you?
Rosie: I am doing well, Amy. How are you?
Amy: Great. It is so good to have you on the show today, and I was wondering, could you tell our listeners a little bit about what it is that you do?
Rosie: Yeah. So first of all thank you very much for having me on the podcast. I really appreciate it. It’s very exciting. So what it is that I do, I am, by trade, an insurance underwriter. So I work with AIG, which is a property and casualty insurance company, and an underwriter actually makes a decision whether we’re going to sell coverage to an insurer. So that’s kind of, like, the basis of what an underwriter does. Not a lot of people really know what an underwriter is because we’re behind the scenes, so when you go to your insurance broker the broker says, “What kind of insurance do you need?” The insurer says, “Well, I need auto or home owner’s insurance,” and they just–they know that they’re applying for something and they have the broker to have the conversation with, but behind the scenes the broker sends the application to the insurance company, the underwriter reviews the application, and then we analyze everything and we say, “Yes, we’re going to take a chance and we’re going to sell you insurance.” So people don’t really know that from an underwriting perspective we do that behind the scenes. Now, my role right now is a home office role, so it’s a little bit more country-wide, but by trade that’s what an underwriter does.
Amy: So people can think of an underwriter in insurance kind of like a loan officer at a bank, is that correct? So you’re not selling a policy. You’re deciding whether someone is a good risk for your company for that type of policy.
Rosie: Correct. And some people may say that we’re a little bit of inside sales because we do have conversations with brokers, we vet the risks, and then we kind of figure out how we can customize our product to sell that coverage to the insured.
Amy: Okay, excellent. And I know some underwriters specialize in a particular line of business. Some underwriters do only, let’s say, fire risk for manufacturing facilities for example, something very specific. Do you underwrite a lot of different lines of business or are you specific to one type of risk or one type of industry?
Rosie: Well, we’re actually a niche company as far as high net worth property and casualty, so it actually ends up being your standard home collections, excess liability, auto of course, but because we’re in the high net worth echelon we’re a niche product,
Amy: Okay, excellent. So someday I aspire to have you underwriting my policy is what I’m hearing. [both laugh]
Rosie: Me too. Mine too. [both laugh]
Amy: Perfect. So this is not–as you said, this is not, like, a high-profile position that you read about on the news a lot or you see, you know, celebrity bake-offs to try to get your job. So how did you learn that this job existed, and how did you land in this role?
Rosie: So the way that I learned about this job was through school. When I was at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, we actually had an entire department for actuaries. I actually went to school to become an actuary. I decided that I did not want to be an actuary when I graduated from school because I didn’t want to study for all the tests and go down that path. It just wasn’t for me. So through the university, Prudential Property and Casualty came and did some interviews, and that’s how I learned about the underwriting position. It was a perfect fit for me. So I started in the underwriting position straight out of college. So that was kind of the genesis of the start of my career, but as far as how I ended up in my role now, it’s just been a progression of various different positions and obviously experience and moving up the ladder, and then just the bigger thing is being proactive, you know? Being proactive about what it is that you want, what it is as far as your career, you know, really figuring out where you want to go. So there’s been a lot of that for me. Every three or four years I feel like, “Okay, what’s next?” And then that’s kind of when I start looking for the next position.
Amy: Thank you for that. I want to go back to–you said, “I looked at this and I thought, “This is the perfect position for me.”” What is it about the role, but also about your strengths or your particular characteristics, that made underwriting a good match for you?
Rosie: So an underwriter has to be very analytical. We have to make a lot of decisions. We make decisions all day long, so you’re always analyzing the risk, looking at a bunch of different tools that you have to figure out if this is something that you want to approve or decline. So it was a good fit for me because I was able to work with brokers, I was able to work with a team, and that’s a little bit different from an actuary because the actuary is literally behind the scenes. They’re creating all the rates. They’re doing, you know, crunching numbers all day long, and to me this was a good mix because although it’s very analytical, you still have a lot of interaction with the brokers, and you’re making decisions and you’re impacting people’s lives. So to me it was just a better fit than, you know, number crunching all day long.
Amy: Thank you for explaining that, because I think outside of the insurance industry a lot of folks see actuaries and underwriters as sort of the same thing, don’t really understand the difference, but I think it’s difficult when you’re young, you’re in college or you’re early in your career, and people are throwing around these terms, and you don’t really understand, like, “These are the things about me that I want to use,” right? Like you said, “I want to be analytical, but I don’t want to be locked in a closet.” [both laugh] And so I think it’s important to draw those things out and say, “Okay, if you’re analytical but you can stand to talk to people all day, this is a great fit because it’s sort of the bridge between the salespeople side, right, that’s all sales and all people, and the actuarial side that’s all analytical and not at all people.” Excellent. So now that you’ve been in the industry a little while, what has surprised you the most about it?
Rosie: What surprised me the most is that the majority of the time when people ask me, “Hey, Rosie, what do you do?” And I say, “Well, I’m an insurance underwriter,” and they’re like, “What’s an underwriter?” You know? So as I continue on my career that kind of still surprises me today because I think the underwriting field is much more common than it was when I started way back when 27 years ago, but I think that’s the biggest thing that surprises me. And even, like, today, when my children, who are 18 and 21, when they’re asked, “What does your mom do?” They’re like, “I don’t know. Something in insurance.” You know? It’s like, “After all these years?” So in my family it’s the same thing. So that’s what surprises me, that people still really don’t know what an underwriter does.
Amy: Yep, I would agree with that, and I’ve seen that myself. And it’s frustrating, right? Because you think, “Wow, I’m out here saving the world, like, literally protecting people from loss of life and property, and nobody even knows who I am or what I do.” [both laugh] So let me ask you this, ’cause I know when I approached you about doing this interview you said, and I hope I’m quoting you accurately, “I’m 100% Mexican, and I’m an underwriter, and there aren’t that many of us.” Am I getting it about right?
Rosie: That’s correct, yes.
Amy: Okay, so can you tell me, in this environment–because, you know, I think a lot of people have an image, and it’s probably not completely unfounded, that the insurance industry is comprised almost exclusively of old white dudes, you know, sitting around a table in their suits harumphing and then they get up and they, you know, go to the next thing, right? Whatever that is, their golf outing or whatever. And so can you tell me, how do you find community in your work? Either with your employer or within your industry. Because I would imagine it’s pretty lonely being an only.
Rosie: Yeah, so, you know, it’s interesting, because one of the things that I get all of the time is because I’m light complected. You know, the biggest thing I get when I say I’m 100% Mexican is like, “Oh, really? You don’t look Mexican.” And I’m like, “Well, yeah, I know, but–” So to me, you know, community is just being with my coworkers, you know? I’m very fortunate in the fact that the majority of my coworkers are–well, you know, we’re all kind of spread all over the country, but the majority of the people that I work with, you know, we don’t even think about ethnicity, you know? We just are coworkers, and we all work really hard, and we want to do our jobs, and we want to do the best that we can, so to be honest with you, I commune with the people around me. I don’t even necessarily think that I’m, you know, the only Hispanic person in my department. And, you know, there’s a few other Hispanics around, you know, the country, but in my company there’s very few Hispanic women specifically. So I just try to find community with the people around me. That’s pretty much what I do.
Amy: That is great. So if somebody’s not in the industry today–because the audience for this show is younger professionals or aspiring professionals–if someone’s not in the insurance industry or they’ve never really considered this as an opportunity, maybe because they dismissed it out of, you know, a misunderstanding of what the role is or they just didn’t know about it, what would you tell them about how to get more information and how to get started learning if this underwriting role would be a good fit for them?
Rosie: I would say start researching. You know, as always, the internet is the first place to start, you know? Start looking at insurance companies. And like you mentioned earlier, there’s all kinds of insurance companies. So I’ve been in property and casualty my entire career, but there’s life insurance, like you said there’s mortgage underwriting. The commercial world has so many different specialty products like, you know, boiler warranty, whatever the situation is. There’s just so many types of risks. I think what you really want to look at is what are your skills? What are you good at? Because that’s kind of where you have to start with to kind of figure out where you’re gonna go. So if you like to analyze things and you like to investigate things a little bit, then underwriting might be the right role for you. But there’s also marketing roles, and if you like to really be on and interact with people continually, then a marketing role is gonna be for you. If you’re a number cruncher, then that’s gonna be an actuary role or even a product manager. A product manager position is another bridge between underwriting and the actuarial team. The actuarial team, they do literally all based on the rates. They, you know, research, where as the product manager, they create the product along with the actuary and then they help the underwriting team execute it. So there’s just so many different positions within the insurance field, and again, it’s just what are your skills, what are your strengths, what are you looking to do. But it’s a great job. Being in the insurance world is a great job. You know, we do a lot of really good things. We obviously help people, and to us it’s just we work really hard and we want to do a good job and we want to serve our clients.
Amy: And so can you tell me a little bit about what you see in the talent space for your industry? I have heard from a number of different sources that the industry is facing a talent crisis, that there are a lot of folks who are close to retirement age and not a lot of new folks coming into the industry, largely because they don’t know about it, but what do you see in future trends? What jobs do you see available? What skills do you think are needed?
Rosie: See, I don’t actually see that. Yes, we do have people retiring, but we do have a lot of new talent coming in. So the company that I work for, AIG specifically, we do a great job in seeking out new talent. So I personally onboard between six and twelve new hires every August, and these are college graduates that we are now onboarding as full-time employees. So these are young talent that are coming in. They’re eager to learn. They want to be there. And the training program that we have is phenomenal because it’s between six and twelve months depending on the position that you’re applying for, but I would dispute that a little bit because it might depend on the company. Again, we do a great job, and when I say six to twelve new hires that’s just for my niche of AIG. Typically we have between two and three hundred worldwide that we employ, and these are graduates that are coming out or that have been in the industry for maybe one to two years. So I think, again, it’s just getting the message out there that the insurance industry does have a lot of opportunity, and specifically with the high net worth niche, there is so much talent in our organization [than?] even, like, other companies that do the same thing. We have a tremendous amount of talent in our organization.
Amy: You mentioned that you do a lot of college recruiting and a lot of new college hires. Fewer colleges have risk management and insurance majors than did 30, 40 years ago. What kinds of majors are you looking for, or do you even know, when they go out to do college recruiting?
Rosie: Yeah. No, pretty much I think for an underwriting position a business major would be perfectly fine, you know? So any kind of even degree, because we’ve had people that have had psychology degrees, teaching degrees, and they just–you know, insurance is one of those things that we say, you know, people fall into insurance. It’s kind of, “Oh, my mom knew this, or my dad worked there, my uncle, whatever,” so very few people find insurance on their own. So it’s kind of by word of mouth. So for underwriting there isn’t, like, one type of underwriting degree that they need or anything like that. As long as they have a bachelor’s in something and they have some kind of analytical skills and they have, you know, the people skills, you know, being able to talk to people, that kind of thing, communication skills. Now, for something like an actuary, then yeah, you would have to have an actuarial degree. So it just depends, but for the most part just a bachelor’s is something that is adequate enough to get started in the industry.
Amy: Okay. And so, you know, it’s interesting to me because there are so many transferable skills from industry to industry, and what I’m hearing from you is the particular major isn’t nearly as important as the right mix of skills and interests, and so if somebody’s maybe started down a career path in consulting or, you know, finance or something like that and they’re not really happy with their prospects, this might be a good alternative to consider because a lot of those same skills would transfer over and they could still be successful without having lost too much ground in their careers. Is that correct?
Rosie: Absolutely. And, you know, to go back to me, I graduated with an actuarial degree, and I was like, “I don’t want to do this.” So it was great that I was able to get into the underwriting field.
Amy: Yeah. A lot of first-generation students, and myself included, you know, when I went to school I had no idea what to do with my degree, so I didn’t know what to study, and I ended up having to go back and get a second degree because my first one basically got me a job working at the mall. [laughs] So, you know, I think for a lot of people just knowing, like, “You don’t have to go back and start over like I did,” you know, sometimes it’s just a matter of knowing how to sell your skill set in a new environment.
Rosie: And I agree, Amy, because I too am a first-generation, you know, college attendee, and my parents knew nothing about college. You know, I had to figure it all out, and as a matter of fact I moved from Mexico City to the United States several times. So I had a very difficult time. Like, for example, when I started my freshman year in high school, I had been in the United States through third grade, and then we moved from fourth through eighth grade, so I started high school with a third grade vocabulary. So I had to–I mean, it literally took me three hours to read a history chapter because I had to look up all the words, and then I had to understand and link them all together to figure out what it is that they were talking about. So it was definitely challenging. So when I started college in the United States, I didn’t even know what a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior was, you know? So I kind of struggled figuring out what I wanted to do as well, and I started thinking that I was gonna go into accounting, and I was like, “Oh, no, I don’t like that,” and then I thought I was gonna go into engineering, but then I’m like, “Oh, man, physics is just not for me,” so then I ended up deciding to go into actuarial science, and I did graduate with, you know, my actuarial degree, but that’s ultimately not what I ended up doing just because I found, you know, the insurance world, so.