275 See It to Be It : Insurance Regulator (w/ Sha’Ron James)

On the nineteenth entry of our See It to Be It podcast series, Amy C. Waninger speaks with Sha’Ron James, an insurance professional with nearly two decades of experience providing forward thinking, strategic and regulatory advice to clients on a number of business and economic development matters. Sha’Ron talks a bit about her unique role as an insurance regulator, her career journey up to this point, and offers some advice for people who are interested in making the jump into the insurance industry.

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TRANSCRIPT

Amy: Sha’Ron, thank you so much for joining me today. How are you?

Sha’Ron: I’m great. Thank you for having me.

Amy: I am so excited to talk to you today because you have a job that most people don’t even know exists. So just, yeah, tell us about what it is, your role in the insurance industry.

Sha’Ron: Well, Amy, my role in the insurance industry I think is somewhat unique in that I spent the past decade or so as an insurance regulator. And so as an insurance regulator, I was responsible for ensuring that insurance companies maintain the promise that they make to policy holders. And I did that in two different roles that I can share a little bit more about. But just again, in its most basic form as a regulator, I was responsible for ensuring that insurance companies maintain their promise to policy holders.

Amy: And that means a couple of different things, right? Because it means on the one hand that they’re not denying claims that they should be paying. Absolutely. But on the other hand, it also means that you have a hand in making thing, making sure that these companies are holding enough money back in reserve so that they’re going to be around long enough to pay the claims. So can you talk a little bit about what that means?

Sha’Ron: Yes. So during my time in state government in the state of Florida was with the Department of Financial Services. In other parts of the country it’s different offices of insurance regulation. So I held two roles. Both of them were somewhat unique, but played a really important role in ensuring, again, that that promise was kept. So I spent about six years as the director of the division of rehabilitation and liquidation, which is the division within state government that takes over insurance companies that become financially insolvent. So when our insurance commissioner determines that an insurance company doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to pay the claims as they become due, that referral was then made to my division, and I led a team of about 120 people that would oversee the takeover of an insurance carrier. We would run off the claims and transition policy holders to more vibrant financially solvent insurance companies. And then we would also sue to recover assets so that those claims could be paid. That was a pretty fascinating role. Really exciting at times, but also somewhat disheartening because there are times when insurance companies aren’t able to make good on their promise, and so policy holders are sometimes left holding the bag with unpaid claims and unfulfilled promises. And so it was a very delicate balance to be able to take care of the policy holder while at the same time essentially shut down an active insurance company.

Amy: And so for people not in the industry, not in the insurance industry, I think it’s important to understand, you know, the, the, the insurance companies make a promise to pay at some point in the future, but they take your premiums up front, right? So you are paying for that promise and it’s up to regulators like yourself to make sure that, you know, if you have a long-tail policy, like I think, you know, probably the most common example is, you know, asbestos claims, right? This right, we have people going into buildings, you know, tearing down buildings. We have policies around, you know, their health and safety working for us. And 20 years from now those employees develop lung cancer because they were working with asbestos. Those employees then go to the insurer to collect for medical bills, for pain and suffering. And it’s not just that the employer needs to be there to help handle that, but their insurance company is really the backstop for those lawsuits. So if they’ve invested with an insurance company that’s not around 20 years down the road, these folks, these workers then have, are going to struggle to pay their hospital bills. They’re going to struggle to be compensated for the damage that their employers caused them. Is that a good summary?

Sha’Ron: That’s a great summary. And another example that we have run into is in long-term care insurance where again as you mentioned, policyholders are paying premiums for years. And even in the basic, you know, life context, you’re paying policy premiums for years in the hope that when there’s a trigger, when something happens in life, the life context, if you pass away or are in a long-term care situation, if you have you know, something, a health episode that triggered you using your long-term care insurance, the hope is that that carrier is going to be there and will make good on that. There’s also a hope that over time your premiums will not significantly swing, meaning that you may be paying $20 a month and you’re told you’ll be paying $20 a month for, you know, the next 20 years. But then 10 years in you find out, “Oh, the insurance company needs more money.” Now you have to pay $120. And so in other role as a regulator I served as the state insurance consumer advocate. And Florida has a pretty unique position in that–and other states don’t have this, but the state insurance consumer advocate represents the insurance buying public in rate cases and in rate hearings. So if a company is looking to increase their rates or introduce new products into the marketplace, I was responsible for weighing in on whether or not that was a good product or a good rate for consumers. And so again, that also was a really interesting perspective given the landscape of the industry, which you and I know, Amy, is really vast and really complex, and so I was grateful to be able to see the industry from both contexts.

Amy: And I think that’s an interesting perspective too because there’s a balancing act there for people who are unfamiliar with this is you want the insurers to get enough of a rate, right? Enough premium to remain solvent, to pay all of their claims to do all of the work that they need to do. Right? So they have to have enough money coming in, but on the flip of that coin, you don’t want them to have rates that are so high that they’re gouging their policyholders.

Sha’Ron: Absolutely. Rates cannot be excessive. And they have to be justified and they can’t be discriminatory. And so those terms to a lay person seem pretty simple, excessive, you know, fair. Non-discriminatory, but all of those terms that make up how a regulator evaluates a rate- in reality, it’s really complicated. And again, there are a lot of people, in terms of the team, that really participate in that analysis. So you have an actuary, you have lawyers, you have analysts. And there are so many factors that go into whether or not the rate can be justified. And so again, like you said, you want to make sure that the rate is adequate so that insurance companies have enough money to pay the claims, but you want to make sure that policy holders aren’t being treated unfairly, being charged too much, or, in the context of issues about discriminatory rates, you want to make sure that insurance companies aren’t taking certain risk factors and kind of extrapolating that risk factor across a broad swath of people. So when you look at zip coding, you look at, you know, race, ethnicity, geography, age, you want to make sure again, that large groups of policy holders aren’t being treated unfairly based upon certain certain rating factors, 

Amy: Right. Because insurance is all about discrimination, right? In the purest sense of the word, right? Higher risk individuals, companies should pay higher premiums because they’re more likely to have a claim or to cause a claim. But then, you know, again, there’s this balancing act, because in the United States we know that, you know, you can pretty much use zip code as a proxy for race. So, you know, when an insurer says, “Where’s the zip code where your car is parked at night,” right? You have to make sure that that’s really relevant to the property risk of the car and not “We’re charging black customers more.”

Sha’Ron: Absolutely. Absolutely, and similar conversations take place around data and insurance companies’ use of, you know, what we call big data and how they capture data and use data for policy holders. So again, all of this is just really to me, very fascinating and very impactful. So again, as you look at the broadness of the industry, the role of a regulator is very important, and it’s sometimes often missed when we talk about insurance professionals. 

Amy: Absolutely. And so that leads me to my next question, which is how did you get into this role? Because I’m guessing this wasn’t something that you thought about, you know, when you were in high school or college and said, “Oh, someday I’m going to regulate insurance in Florida,” which might be the most complicated job in the world by the way, because Florida has the most regulations of any state.

Sha’Ron: Absolutely, and the most risk.

Amy: How did you find yourself in that role?

Sha’Ron: It was an interesting path, and I think, like most of my fellow insurance professionals that I have relationships with and I’ve talked with, it wasn’t a direct path. It wasn’t something that I dreamed about. So I am a lawyer by trade and training, and so I was practicing law with a firm and my practice was primarily–it started as primarily a real estate transactional practice during the height of the real estate market. So I was doing real estate closings and litigation, and my practice shifted away from real estate transactional practice to more of a bankruptcy practice. Because a lot of developers, contractors, banks were–people, you know, just in general were being hit hard when the bubble burst. So my practice in law shifted to bankruptcy, and an opportunity became available in state government to become a part of the division I mentioned, the division of rehab and liquidation, which really is akin to bankruptcy. Essentially it is placing an insurance company into quote-unquote bankruptcy, and because of how companies are regulated–they’re regulated at the state level versus the federal level, and so the state oversees that, the takedown, and the unwinding of an insurance company. So my bankruptcy background and my legal background I think was very important in me landing this new role. And also, you know, frankly it was good for me in terms of work-life balance because at that time I had a new child. My daughter’s 12 now. It was a good fit to move from the pressure cooker environment of being in litigation to what I consider a more balanced environment for my family.

Amy: I think that’s such a great story. And you know, like you said, so many people end up in the insurance industry just by happenstance. What surprised you about the industry or about the role that you were in that you did not expect coming into it? 

Sha’Ron: I really didn’t expect to fall in love with insurance like I have. 

Amy: I understand. [laughs]

Sha’Ron: You know, it’s kinda like, I just didn’t know enough about it and what I knew about it just didn’t seem or sound as we say it, you know, it didn’t sound sexy. It didn’t sound like something that I would want to be involved in for ever. So I was really surprised by that, and once I got involved–and one of the reasons why I didn’t think I would enjoy it as much is I really didn’t understand the fact that insurance as an industry is a people-oriented industry. It touches people. And so one of the things outside of, you know, my practice of law is that I’m really passionate about being impactful, really passionate about people, and so I always thought that I can only impact people in the social kind of policy context. So education, criminal justice, you know, I had no idea that this industry was out here that is regulated business, but also impactful towards people. So that’s surprised me. And once I really realized and found my niche it’s been, you know, me in the industry ever since and I’m really committed to making it the best possible industry it can be, not just for policyholders but for insurance professionals as well.

Amy: And you raise such an awesome point, because so many people have this call, right? They want to follow their heart and do something good for their communities, good for the world, and they think in their minds–and I know I felt like this too–that to do something good for the world you have to live on, you know, a very paltry salary. You have to have very little means, right? You know, I know so many people that go into social work because that’s where their heart is, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that, but by the time you’ve got a master’s degree and now you’re making just above minimum wage, right, and you’re paying off student loan debt, like, that’s a big financial hit. I think it’s so important for people to realize you can do a lot of good in the insurance industry but also have a middle class income that’s sustainable for your entire career.

Sha’Ron: Absolutely. And I’ll give you an example, and it really kind of I think illustrates–as you mentioned earlier, the role that Florida plays in insurance, Florida is a high-risk state because of our prevalence for catastrophic hurricanes. And so a couple of years ago in my role as insurance consumer advocate, I had the opportunity unfortunately to be involved in the post-hurricane climate that we were in as a state. And so one day I got a call from a woman who said that her parents who were in their 90s were in their home when one of the hurricanes came through and a tree fell on their house. The great thing was they were not harmed, but the insurance company did not want to total loss the home, although the house had actually moved. And you know, this can get real technical and geeky, but the point is that, you know, I was able to weigh in in my role as insurance consumer advocate and assist them and kind of mediate between them and then the insurance company, educate the policy holder on, you know, things in their policy, but at the same time weigh in with the carrier that, you know, these folks are in their 90s. These are factors that aren’t in the policy. They’re in their 90s, and, you know, they’re good people and it will be a great thing to do. And so I was able to help. And so that’s an example of, because of my knowledge of insurance, my knowledge of insurance policies, my relationships in the industry, how something–what I thought was technical and boring term turned into an opportunity to help and to serve. And I think that’s really important.

Amy: Absolutely. So I’m guessing–correct me if I’m wrong–that there’s not a critical mass of Black insurance regulators in the state of Florida.

Sha’Ron: No, there’s not a critical mass of Black insurance regulators in Florida or in the country. [laughs]

Amy: Okay, so my assumption is correct. [laughs] So with that being said, where do you go for community? How do you handle or balance or counteract the feeling of being the only in your work?

Sha’Ron: That’s a great question, and so for me I found that community within NAAIA, the National African-American Insurance Association, and my entry point into the organization started when I became an insurance consumer advocate for the state of Florida. I knew that a part of my role was to outreach, so I immediately wanted to connect with folks that looked like me that had an understanding of insurance to kind of help me get my message out to the rest of the state, and so I did a Google search and I looked for African-American insurance professionals Florida, and it took me to the NAAIA website. Went there, scrolled through, and found that NAAIA did not have a chapter in Florida, which was somewhat surprising because of the role that Florida plays in the insurance landscape across the country. To make a long story short, I started emailing people, anyone who had, like, an email address on the website to find out if this was some oversight or if there was anything I could do, and about 2 years later we chartered a chapter in Florida, a state-wide chapter, and so we created the community. So the greater community was there. I went to the national conference, got connected with some great people across the country that are equally committed to the industry and diversity and inclusion, and we started kind of our road show in the state of Florida, and we now have a chapter with over 50 members. So that’s where I go, and sometimes you have to create a community where one doesn’t exist.

Amy: Excellent point. I think that once you’ve created that space, right, once you’ve blazed that trail, it becomes so much easier for other people to walk that path and find you. So what are the membership requirements for joining NAAIA at a chapter and national level so that people understand?

Sha’Ron: The requirements are pretty broad. One, the hope is that you would be involved in the insurance industry, you would be an insurance professional, but that’s not a hard and fast requirement. We have student members who aspire to be in the insurance industry. You could also be just an associate of the industry. So if you have an interest in insurance, the national organization chapters are really open. It’s also a misnomer by the name that you have to be African-American. We have members that are all races and support the mission of the organization, which is to diversify the insurance industry. So if you have an interest in insurance and you have a commitment to diversity and inclusion, then NAAIA membership is open, and we welcome you with open arms.

Amy: You know what’s so funny? I interviewed yesterday, Omari Aarons, who is the inaugural president of the Boston chapter, and he and I worked together at Liberty Mutual for a while, and as I’m talking to him I’m wondering to myself, “Why am I not a member of NAAIA?” That makes so much sense. So for 24 hours I’ve been marinating on this, like, “Why am I not?” And so that’s why my next step after this call is to go apply to be a member of NAAIA because of course I am an insurance professional who is committed to this work, and I’m embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to figure out, you know, after interviewing six people who are on national leadership roles with NAAIA, that it didn’t occur to me to go and sign up. 

Sha’Ron: Well, we would love to have you.

Amy: Now you’re stuck with me, Sha’Ron. [laughs] So what would you tell somebody–like, if somebody’s thinking about “Ooh, this sounds interesting. I like super complicated work, and I want to help people, and I’ve got a huge brain, and I can process all of this information,” what would you tell them about how to get started?

Sha’Ron: It depends on where they are in the process. I would definitely say if you’re an existing college student and you’re not in a major that you think will guide you into insurance that you’re probably wrong, in that you can enter into the insurance industry from any major, really any major. So if you’re on the business side or communications with marketing and PR, if you’re in math and you want to be an actuary, or if you’re just liberal arts and you’re not sure, the skills that are needed in insurance are wide. So your ability to communicate, written and verbally, is important. Your ability to build relationships. So it just really doesn’t matter, and so I think that just start seeking out mentors and opportunities to engage with insurance professionals. You would be surprised at the doors that will open for you.

Amy: I have found the industry to be so welcoming of people at the personal level, right? If you reach out to somebody and say, “Hey, I want to learn about your job,” people are more than happy to share, but also the industry as a whole–there is such a need for talent, because the stereotypical insurance persona of “old white dude” is not too far off in terms of where the concentration of people is, and so we’re looking at an industry that half of the workforce is poised to retire and, you know, there’s just a loto f shoes to fill, and without broadening that search into different communities, different schools, different talent profiles, you know, different demographics, different educational backgrounds, you name it, it’s an industry that, I fear, will struggle to remain relevant and solvent, and we know from talking to you and talking to others that if the insurance industry isn’t there, you know, it’s gonna be harder to buy homes, to buy cars, to start businesses. I mean, we really need to keep this industry going for the good of our economy and for the good of society, so thank you so much for the outreach that you’re doing. I know that NAAIA is doing a lot of work to reach out to HBCUs and students there. I know you’re doing a lot of work in your community to engage and retain the talent that we’ve already got in the industry, and so Sha’Ron James, thank you so much for your time today, for enlightening our listeners and for sharing your journey. I really appreciate it.

Sha’Ron: Well, thank you for the invitation. I appreciate you.

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