Jerald L. Tillman (pictured) didn’t know a lot about the insurance industry before he joined up in 1974 as a new graduate of Miami University. The future founder of the National African American Insurance Association (NAAIA) had only been exposed to insurance by ways of the agent that came to his family’s house collecting money every week for life insurance, and specifically burial policies that were historically marketed to African Americans.
It makes sense then that going into college, he never considered a career in insurance, which Tillman, who is also the owner of J.L. Tillman Insurance Agency, said he believes is “true for most African Americans who are currently in the industry – that most of us just happened to go into the business.”
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After four years getting his business degree and playing football, Tillman was almost ready to graduate when his head coach told him that a representative from Aetna was visiting the campus and had asked him to recommend a few people for a position at the company. Tillman’s response was less than enthusiastic.
“I immediately responded to the coach [that] I did not go to school for four years to be in the insurance business and he’s wasting his time … The coach said to keep an open mind,” remembered Tillman.
During a meeting with the Aetna representative, he learned about the opportunities to grow your own business within insurance, which particularly appealed to him, and that he would get to be his own boss and set his own schedule, as well as the role that insurance played in protecting even the university he was at and its faculty. After several interviews, Tillman was picked as the best candidate and entered the insurance industry at the age of 22.
As Tillman gained experience at Aetna, he also joined professional insurance associations and started attending conferences, where he was frequently one of the only African Americans in the room. He struggled to understand why this was the case since the industry had so many opportunities and determined to change the industry from the inside out by bringing in more diverse individuals. This was the seed for NAAIA, which eventually grew from a local chapter to a national organization with members across 25 states.
Today, NAAIA has a list of corporate sponsors that reads like the who’s who of the insurance industry and a board that is stacked with leaders from across some of the biggest insurance organizations.
“I tell everyone that we have the most talented, gifted African American professionals and entrepreneurs in the industry as part of our association,” said Tillman. “We still have a lot of work to do with the current climate, and we’re right there in a great position to keep it going and keep the ship afloat.”
Where Tillman has seen progress in the insurance industry has been in diversity among corporate leadership, but on the agency development side, there’s still a lot of work to do to attract talented African American individuals.
“It’s pitiful in terms of the agency development side,” said Tillman. “The industry has a long, long ways to go in reference to that and I think the industry has to confront that challenge.”
The key issues, he says, lie in recruiting, where those representing companies out in the field look for agents that have million-dollar books of business, which most new agents don’t have. Moreover, many of the people who are recruiting prospects for independent agencies are Caucasian and thus reach out to white neighborhoods and their own communities. Tillman has seen the barriers to entry first-hand.
“Even as a sales manager for a major insurance corporation, I was told that I had too many African American prospects in my recruiting file,” he explained. “I basically responded, ‘Why is that a problem? I don’t understand.’ I said, ‘My white counterpart doesn’t have to worry about his prospects for agencies being all white.’”
He argued that as long as an individual meets the requirements that a company is looking for, the color of their skin shouldn’t matter. “Needless to say, I knew that my days in sales were limited,” added Tillman.
Oftentimes, the challenge is in people’s mindsets, he continued. Tillman pointed to the Black Lives Matter slogan, which some misconstrue as meaning that ‘Only Black Lives Matter.’ “We understand that all lives matter, there’s no problem with it, but the focus right now is the injustices and the inequality that has existed – and we see it today – that we as African Americans face,” he said.
NAAIA continues to lead these important conversations in insurance and will be celebrating its 23rd birthday this September, though because of COVID-19, its annual conference will be moved to 2021. Tillman attributes the association’s success partly to its leadership, which rotates every two years.
“That is probably the main ingredient for why we have survived all these years – because of a constant influx of new leadership, a constant stream of the best talent in the industry,” he said. “It’s just a tremendous thing – I’m not saying this because I’m the founder, I really feel it in my heart. [NAAIA] is my love, it’s the best of the best, and our intention is still to do what we can to diversify this industry.”