Change of Face

On a mission to remake the image of the State Farm agent

Lillian Holt was used to making other people look good.

After all, the Virginia native had spent 17 years as administrative assistant for the president and board of Gallaudet University, a college for the deaf in Washington, DC. But one day, a neighbor convinced her to make a career change and become an insurance agent.

“Someone was offering me a chance to look good while helping someone else, and at the same time be rewarded for all that hard work,” she says.

These days, Holt is focusing her attention on helping State Farm look even better in the diversity realm. As both an agency field executive and State Farm’s director of multicultural business development for the mid-Atlantic zone, she is working to recruit more female and multicultural agents to State Farm.

There’s definitely room to grow. According to one study, women make up just 20 percent of agents in insurance and financial services.

While State Farm has gotten accolades for its efforts—it was named one of the 2011 Top Companies for Executive Women by the National Association of Female Executives and one of the Best Companies for Multicultural Women by Working Mother magazine—Holt wants to see even more progress.

Diversity Woman talked to her about how the insurance giant has made inroads in new communities and how, along the way, it may be gradually rebuilding the image of insurance agents everywhere.

DW: Insurance has long been a male-dominated profession. How is that changing?

LH: Most insurance companies have come to understand that women control 94 percent of the dollars spent in households today—and women like buying from other women. So, more companies are hiring female agents.Similarly, women have skills that allow us to be very sensitive when communicating with clients. But we also have business acumen—women understand a dollar and how to get the most value out of it—and sometimes those qualities are overlooked. So when that maternal side is combined with the business side, women make great agents and leaders in an agency.

DW: Why did you get into insurance?

LH: I had a neighbor who was an agency manager with State Farm. She had previously been a successful agent and then became an agency manager recruiting people to become agents. We talked often about the agency opportunity, but I thought, “Nah, not for me.” Then one day we had lunch, and she explained to me what an agent really does, and it was so far from I thought it was.

DW: And what was that?

LH: As an agent, you help people maintain a quality of life. You’re there at important times in people’s lives—buying a house, having a baby, getting married, and retiring. And you are there when uncontrollable events occur, such as a house fire, a car accident, or when someone dies.

What I learned was that the responsibilities of an agent go past taking care of the present. As an agent, you help others realize their dreams for the future, such as retirement, or saving for their children’s or grandchildren’s education. It’s such a great feeling to be involved in helping people make the right decisions for their life.

DW: How has State Farm gone about recruiting more women, and agents with multicultural backgrounds?

LH: We make ourselves available at events and meetings to share the story of becoming a State Farm agent. Most recently, we hosted the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit—Black Enterprise is the producer, and we’re the host sponsor. Arlivia Gamble, who heads recruiting for the enterprise, spoke with great passion about our zeal to bring the best and brightest to State Farm as agents. Also, our agency leaders and recruiters attend a host of activities and multicultural events, encouraging people to take a look at this career opportunity. We believe in State Farm so strongly that we share the story every chance we get.

DW: How does State Farm make the case to college students or other recruits about going into insurance?

LH: In college, most of the reference to insurance is done from an actuarial standpoint, but I like to talk to students more about the agency part of it—being your own boss, being an entrepreneur, or running your own agency.

When I meet with potential recruits, I share that when I started out, I hired my own employees, provided in-house training, conducted my own meetings, set my own goals, and worked with people, helping protect their property and their future.

State Farm is a Fortune 30 company, but when you look at it from an agency standpoint, it has a small-operation feel, where relationships with clients are established and you become a part of your community.

DW: How has the economy been treating the insurance industry?

LH: We realize that some communities have been impacted more than others. However, everyone who owns a car must have car insurance, and most people need homeowner’s insurance as well. We also have several different ways that people can pay for their insurance, and we offer various discounts.

DW: Are discounts still crucial these days?

LH: Discounts are more important than ever! Almost anywhere you shop these days, you can find a coupon. I was recently behind a woman at the supermarket, and I thought, “If she pulls out another coupon, I will simply pass out.” But then I stopped and thought, “There’s a smart woman who understands the value of a discount.” So I asked her, “Who do you have your insurance with?” Turns out, she was already with State Farm. DW

Katrina Brown Hunt, based in San Diego, has written for Fortune Small Business, Smart Money, and the Seattle Times.

SIDEBAR

That Was Then

A handful of enterprising women were selling insurance at the turn of the 20th century—but the landscape was quite different then.

As one former schoolteacher who became an insurance agent explained to The New York Times in 1901, “We work entirely among members of our own sex. In all the time I have been in business, I have never written the policies of men, with the exception of my old high school boys. Here in New York, we have our pleasant little rooms, not even in the building with the company. Frequently men come in, seeing the sign on the doors, but we always send them to the regular office.”

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