Igniting Next Gen: Women in Insurance - Career Insights for Young Insurance Professionals
Karen Caterino, Alliant Public Entity, explores the diverse and exciting career opportunities within insurance with industry leaders Shanna Sweeney and Danielle Thorsteinson. The group shares their personal experiences and career journeys along with challenges, rewards and advice for young professionals. The conversation highlights the importance of mentorship, ethical conduct, and the various pathways available in the field of insurance.
You are 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 (00:17):
Welcome to the Igniting NextGen podcast. I'm your host, Karen Caterino, Senior Vice President with Alliant Insurance Services. And our guests today are Shanna Sweeney, Senior Vice President with Upland Capital Group and the President and Co-Founder of Women of Wholesale. And Danielle Thorsteinson, divisional director at Pantheon Specialty, a London-based wholesaler. Danielle and Shanna will be discussing their views on reinsurance career opportunities. Welcome to the show, ladies.
Danielle Thorsteinson (00:45):
Shanna Sweeney (00:46):
Thanks for having us.
Karen Caterino (00:47):
I have to start with a quick story on how I met you both and what a small friendly world of insurance that we get to work in. Danielle and her husband were on a ski chairlift talking with my husband who happened to mention that his wife is in insurance. Danielle, I think your ears perked up; you said we should meet. Two days later, I'm having lunch with you and Shanna, along with my daughter who is interested in insurance. The rest, as they say, is history. Just love the lifelong connections in friendships that are made in insurance. Would you both agree? It's one of the cool facets of our business that makes it so fun to be a part of.
Danielle Thorsteinson (01:20):
Yeah, I mean that was a really cool way that we met you and it was really my husband talking to your husband and it's turned into business that we've done and you meeting Shannon and all of us being friends and this podcast, that's a real microcosm of how insurance is in general. Like just goofy situations where you bump into people, make new friends, turns into business and that's actually our job and we get paid for this. It's the coolest.
Shanna Sweeney (01:45):
Oh, totally. I've met people in this industry that have now become like family. It's the one unanticipated part of this industry. And just my idea of my career in general, never did I put I want to make a bunch of friends on the list. I put money, I put success, I put all those other things and the friendships, that was the happy surprise.
Danielle Thorsteinson (02:09):
Shanna is my sister's boss; we work together even though we're across the world from each other, that's how much our circle has shrunk within each other.
Shanna Sweeney (02:17):
Karen Caterino (02:19):
Indeed. And I agree, it is just a wonderful facet of the business that we get to work in every day. So tell us about yourselves. What do you do and how did you get started in insurance? And Danielle, maybe let's just start with you and how you landed on a career in London.
Danielle Thorsteinson (02:33):
I, as you can probably hear, am American. I started insurance in Los Angeles and like most people in insurance or a lot of people in insurance, I had an uncle that did it. And so, I didn't know what I was going to do when I was graduating college. And he said here are some people you might be able to work for. So, he placed me in an interview process with a wholesaler and then went through the process and I was tending to work there for maybe a year while I go through the law school process. And it just didn't end up happening. I ended up loving the job and really getting absorbed in it. And so, I did wholesale in Los Angeles for four years and the market softened, which means that insurance became easier to obtain. There was a lot of competition and so I felt it would be a better opportunity for me to move to New York.
So when my firm at the time acquired a firm in New York, they didn't have anybody who did what I did. I was single and young and said, let's do this, and packed up and moved to New York and I lived there for five years and that was an incredible opportunity. And I would still be there, loved it, if it wasn't for about five years in, a firm came to me in London and said we need somebody who is good at construction, which is what I specialize in, and knows both the west coast and the east coast. Would you ever move to Europe? And again, still single, and I said, sure, okay, let's try this. And it was supposed to be for four months, and it was going to be extended to a year and that was nine years ago and I'm still here. And so actually the majority of my career I can now say has been on the London side. I only work with American clients on American business. So, it's still all interrelated, but the majority of my career has now been in London.
Karen Caterino (04:16):
Well, that's really cool. And single no more, I might add.
Danielle Thorsteinson (04:19):
After dating a bunch of frogs for a long time, I met my husband 30 seconds after I moved to London, which is not what I was planning, but it ended up working out that way. And so I'm here, I now have an English child and about to get my English passport. But what's really cool about insurance is I still specialize in only U.S. clients. And so typically when there's certain kinds of business which we can get into, why something would come to London and not to the U.S. or why it would need additional support from London. I'm still getting the work with the same clients and why, you know, Karen, you and I have a relationship even though I'm over here, it's still the same thing, it's just utilizing different capacity in a different market. But I still get to go home once every eight weeks, which is incredible. So, I make sure my son gets to see his grandparents and I make sure I don't get too homesick. I'm coming home to see everyone. I keep my network intact, I get to live in Europe. It’s great.
Karen Caterino (05:13):
That is great. Thank you. Shanna, what about you? What drew you to insurance?
Shanna Sweeney (05:17):
It chose me. I was not one of those people that had a relative in insurance. I'm the first one and since then I have brought in four family members, so doing my part for the next generation. In college, I was one of those, I'm just going to be frank, super overachievers, I had four internships. I knew I wanted to be a CEO at the time, I was five years old. So it was always my goal to major in business and I figured I would be in some sort of revenue generation role, like sales of some sorts in the beginning part of my career. One of my internships was with Enterprise Rent-A-Car. And that was a phenomenal place to train because you learn customer service, you're working 50 hours a week and you are getting paid. So, while I was working that internship, I picked up a gentleman probably four or five times over a summer and he happened to work in reinsurance, and at the end of the summer he asked, do you want an internship next year?
And I said, absolutely, not even knowing what it was. And then the next year upon graduation, I then joined a global training program that was called the CDP program. And I got to live in nine different cities, including London over an 18-month period and traveled the world of reinsurance. And at the end of it, I got to pick where I ended up. And so, for the first five years of my career I was in casualty facultative underwriting. After my company was bought out, I took it as my sign from God to move to California and pursue excess and surplus lines wholesale business. And I've been on that side of the fence for the better part of almost 10 years.
Karen Caterino (07:00):
Well, you both have really incredible backgrounds. What is it you each like most about your job?
Shanna Sweeney (07:06):
Easily, there's really no ceiling. It's a meritocracy type of business. So as hard as I work, I really see the fruits of my labor and in a really meaningful way to me. I like not having to spend all day in an office. I like flexibility, I like travel, I like all of those things and I get all of those things with this career.
Danielle Thorsteinson (07:31):
I would say that this industry allows you and facilitates you to make your strange connections. Like Karen, our husbands meeting on a ski lift or maybe I can connect this person with this thing and maybe I could learn about this and then find that person insurance. Because we're not selling a physical product, we're selling contracts or an idea. You can make whatever it is that you need to connect your client with your underwriter. It really allows you. So, if you're the kind of somebody who would get bored sitting in an office all day and you want to make connections, you want to travel. My mentor once said to me, insurance is a vehicle with which you can lead a really interesting life. And that is exactly what it's been for I think all of us.
Shanna Sweeney (08:14):
I couldn't agree more. I've been able to live across the entire country. I grew up in a really small town in Illinois and I'm one of four siblings. I'm the only one that went to college. I'm the only one that moved away and I've been able to live in New Jersey, Atlanta, San Francisco, and now I live in Tahoe. And that's actually how I ended up meeting Danielle as well.
Danielle Thorsteinson (08:37):
And I grew up in a really small town in the middle of northern California. And I went to school at a state school in Los Angeles. But I look back at my insurance career, one time I lived in Santa Monica by myself in an apartment that I was able to afford from doing insurance. And then one time I lived on Central Park West in Manhattan and then another time I lived in London. And all of that has been facilitated by insurance and just being able to be creative and adventurous and bold. It's not even like my story's extraordinary. This is what this industry allows you to do if you want it and you're willing to go after it.
Karen Caterino (09:13):
Well, I do think both of you are pretty extraordinary in what you've achieved in both of your lives. Have you had any challenges when you were getting started in insurance?
Shanna Sweeney (09:23):
I would say finding consistent resources, whether it was for learning about the CGL policy or having a community of mentors, it was somewhat of a challenge to find that, especially because I was moving across the country all the time. So it's kind of something that led to the creation of women of wholesale on the west coast. There were finally a lot of women, but not a lot of resources for those women, whether it was personal, professional or other.
Karen Caterino (09:57):
How about you Danielle?
Danielle Thorsteinson (09:59):
I had a really consistent old-school mentor who had mentored many in the industry before and took me on. And so, I actually had a very consistent person who taught me how to behave in the industry and how he handled business. And I had another sub-mentor who taught me the coverage stuff. So on that end, it's funny, that part was consistent for me. It was the transition from being a student and just figuring it out, because when you're a student you have time, you're like oh I'll do this next year, I'll do this next year. Till all of a sudden, you're getting up early in the morning and you're going to work nine to five and the first two years in the insurance industry are the hardest because it can launch you into a full existential crisis.
I'm doing these tasks all day; I don't understand what this means. I've got to log into this thing. Everyone's throwing stuff on my desk. It's very ominous. And I remember feeling like I was drowning, and the emotional part of it I had to fight to stay motivated when the work felt so unmotivating and then something clicks about a year or two into it where you actually realize the reason behind why you're doing something. Why are you issuing a cert? Why are you sending this submission out? Why is it important? How does it contribute to the revenue your firm is generating? And then once I started to piece it together and understand what the coverage meant and why this client was asking this and actually pick up parts where someone else didn't know something and I could answer the question for them, then it totally lit a fire.
So, the biggest challenge was the first two years where I didn't know where the road was, let alone where it was leading. And then once I knew what I was doing, then I could forge my own path and then at that point anytime something came about that I didn't like, because you know you get bad bosses and you get bad departments and bad years and it makes it easy to just step aside and shift your way out of that and move to something different because you have expertise in what you're doing and you can forge your own path.
Shanna Sweeney (11:50):
Danielle, I couldn't agree more with you. I remember that first six to eight months post-college having to work that eight to five schedule. I remember being wildly over-caffeinated every day just to try to get it through. And I think the one part, once you get that two and three-year mark, you finally get to start winning. And for me what changed my attitude was when I got to win on something I worked on, and I got the credit for.
Danielle Thorsteinson (12:18):
Shanna Sweeney (12:19):
Then the next level to that is binding an account with your friend. I didn't realize how fun that was going to be.
Danielle Thorsteinson (12:25):
Oh yeah, that's a good one. So, every time I get someone that talks to me, you know, younger guys that talk to me about how they're just struggling, I don't know if this industry is for me, you've been doing it for 10 minutes and your instinct is going to be, I'm just going to go back to school and get my master's degree. I'm going to go back to school and get my law degree. And not that that's a bad thing, more education's always great, but if you're doing it just to buy yourself some time because you're panicking at work, also don't do that because the first two years really is a bit of a sludge and absolutely everybody goes through it and it does click, it clicks for everyone.
Karen Caterino (12:58):
I'm glad you highlight that Danielle too, because I think you both have pointed out a couple of good items. One being mentorship, being important to set expectations and to help guide early career professionals through the process. And Shanna, I couldn't agree more in terms of your comment about information and how we get that information. Those are two things perhaps that students or people considering careers in insurance have a good expectation of, it's going to take time, number one and you will get the information. But more importantly, number two is maybe to seek out mentorship and guidance too as an important facet of pursuing a career in insurance. Danielle, can you tell our audience what's a typical day like for you?
Danielle Thorsteinson (13:41):
A typical day I go into the office. In London, it's much more of a face-to-face market. So, a lot of us are in the office working three to five days a week. And it's funny because I do mostly American business, so I have this time in the morning to prepare whatever it was that came in the night before because the Americans won't come in the office for anywhere from five to eight hours after me. So, I typically take a look at what needs to be done most urgently and try to put together a list of what I need to do and then package that up onto my iPad and I take it into Lloyd’s, or I take it to different underwriters. It might be something I do at my desk; it might be something I take to Lloyd's.
The thing with the London insurance market historically has been that the broker will physically walk the account over to Lloyd's of London. And Lloyd's is, think of it like a fish market. All the different underwriters will sit at different desks and you will go up to them and say, I have this account, this is what I need. Will you write a primary? Will you write excess, etc.? And you know which underwriters to go to and you do it in person. The states is the same, it's just done largely over email and phone conversations. But it's the same process. And so, I may go to Lloyd's, I may not, and then you go back to your desk. The main difference between what London and the U.S. does other than the face-to-face is that the brokers put together the quote document.
So, we are the ones creating the contracts and then we bring it back to the market and say, are you okay with this contract? Will you sign it? And that's a pretty wild thing because in the state carriers are going to have their own forms, they're going to have their own contracts and they can shape them however they want, but it's still this base thing that belongs to them. Whereas brokers in London, they can put together a contract any way they see fit and they can slip anything in there that should or shouldn't be there. So, it's kind of a wild west in terms of how you're putting the contracts together. But it's actually a pretty cool way to do insurance. So, at the end of the day, you're putting together quotes or binders or whatever you did and then you send them out. Pretty much after that, it's the same as in the U.S. where you're just kind of in a sludge of paperwork. Now from there, you may go to the pub with your colleagues or with your underwriters and you may go to a dinner if a client is in town. And if a client comes to town that's a three to five-day affair because they've come all the way over there. If they're not, you go home to your family and then you wake up in the morning and do it again.
Karen Caterino (16:01):
Shanna. How about you? What’s a day in the life of Shanna?
Shanna Sweeney (16:04):
Alright, I don't want this to sound scary because it's not scary for me. This is how I love my life to be structured. So, my first meetings usually start around 6:30 to 7:00 AM. In my role, I am no longer in a revenue generation role. I manage the U.S. and I'm managing a bunch of underwriters who are generating revenue. So, sometimes my time is pulled towards projects and business development things. And right now I'm in the midst of building a policy administration system with a vendor that happens to be in India. So some of these meetings can happen at 6:00 AM some of them can happen at 9:00 PM but it is a limited time where I have to spend my time like that. But as of right now, it's kind of like 6:30 AM the ball gets rolling, and by eight to nine, I'm in the thick of it with the underwriters helping them bring deals across the finish line. And then my weeks are also filled with quite a bit of travel. So for example, Thursday morning I am headed to New Orleans for an industry event. And then right after that, I head to Boston for APCIA, which is basically the reinsurance WSIA, and then headed back home. What I like mostly about my days is, other than these structured meetings with our vendor overseas, my day looks different every day. And that's something that brings me a lot of fulfillment.
Karen Caterino (17:29):
Would you both say that there are certain qualities that one should possess to be working in insurance? And if so, what comes to mind? My first thought is curiosity. What would you two say?
Shanna Sweeney (17:42):
It's funny, the first thing that really popped into my head, other than of course, work ethic and personality and all these things, it's ethics. We are binding million-dollar contracts on a daily basis with people who can be fallible.
Danielle Thorsteinson (18:01):
Yeah, you can't lie as a broker, and Shanna’s an underwriter. So, my job would be in this situation to take a piece of business to her and try to get her to write it. It's too easy to just lie to her like nothing. There's lies I could tell her that she probably would never find out. But you do get caught and you will get caught. And if you're desperate or if you're concealing things, it comes crashing down. And so, really with insurance, you need to be honest with yourself, with your client, with the business that you're doing. And that's a big one is you have to have a moral compass and you have to have some ethics and you need to surround yourself with people who are like-minded because when you're younger in this industry, you're tempted to kind of go for the most powerful person in the room.
Really by the time you're 30, you're like, in order to survive this, I need to surround myself with a crew of people who are like-minded, who are good people, who I genuinely want to succeed. You know, if Shannon does a really good thing or gets a good deal and sends me a text about it, I'm so happy for her because she's genuinely a friend. And if you don't surround yourself with people like that, it just becomes very soul-sucking. So, you need to be able to kind of know who your people are. There's the us and then there's the them. Find your other us.
Karen Caterino (19:16):
Good advice from both of you. Shanna, I would love to hear more about the organization you founded, Women in Wholesale, and can students get involved with that as well?
Shanna Sweeney (19:26):
I'll give you the reader's digest. About six years ago now, I was at a wine bar with a very powerful woman who had avoided meeting with me for around 16 months. I was told how great she was. She was the Chief Operating Officer of a small wholesale boutique brokerage firm who has since sold to RT. But I was basically told, go meet with this woman, she's amazing, you need to know her. So the first time I set up a meeting with her in her office, she sends someone else. Second time she sends a second someone else. By the third time, I had gotten the hint and so I just called the lady and said, look, if you don't want to meet with me, fine, but I was just told you were amazing and I need support in this town, can you help me?
And she says, do you like wine? Well, of course, I was 25, 26, I love wine. So she said, meet me at this wine bar in 40 minutes and I'll be there. Well an hour and 10 minutes later she finally showed up and her and I have since then started a nonprofit together called Women of Wholesale. And we have three goals. One is to make a difference in the industry, make a difference in ourselves. And while we're doing that, make a difference in our local communities. So how do we do that? We get support by our wholesale and carrier participants. We've received donations from the likes of RT, Amwins, Arch, Navigators, quite a few people. We use that money to help support women by way of professional development courses. For example, last year we did a three-part series of executive sales coaching with a wonderful woman, Amy Rezak, who is often a keynote speaker at our SLA and WSAA events.
How can college kids get involved in that? We actually take interns. So, what's cool is I've had two interns for Women of Wholesale and they are now both in the wholesale and reinsurance world. So, it is a unique way to help a nonprofit and also get your foot in the door to a really amazing industry. The fun part about Women of Wholesale and when it started, why it started, it was during the whole Me Too movement when it started to come out and I had asked Pam, how did you get where you are to Chief Operating Officer in an industry that at the time she started didn't necessarily favor women and it's just because she fought it tooth and nail. Now, believe it or not, women are actually the majority of participants in the insurance industry. We are over 50% of the insurance world, yet less than 4% make it to CEOs.
Remember at the earlier part of the conversation when I said I've always known I wanted to be a CEO? I need a community and I need resources. So, Women of Wholesale was created also selfishly to help myself. I'll finish on, it's actually a really great time for women in the industry right now. When I joined a little under 15 years ago, I was actually told we picked you because we needed a woman on the team. So, I've always kind of been on the beginning end of that advantage of needing to be picked because they needed to kind of correct some things and balance some things out. So, I would say to women entering the industry, the time is good.
Danielle Thorsteinson (22:54):
Yeah, I joined it as similar. I don't think I was hired because I was a woman, but I do think that there are a lot of comments like, there's not a lot of women who do this niche kind of insurance that I do; you'll do well because you're a woman. Those sorts of comments. And it's been challenging at times. But actually, I can pretty much say that in all the jobs I've had since then, I've never felt like I got it or didn't get it or that my gender was even a factor at all. The industry was very rewarding of me because I knew what I was doing and it rewarded my accomplishments accordingly. And it was a meritocracy in that way. That doesn't mean there's not the odd boss or the odd situation that's not a challenge and that will be the topic of a totally different podcast. But actually this has been, as I said earlier, an industry that's totally favored boldness for me. The doors wide open. There's plenty of room to come on in.
Shanna Sweeney (23:51):
I couldn't agree more. Especially now, I know that if I'm put in a room, it's because I'm qualified to be in that room, not just because they need to fill it.
Karen Caterino (24:02):
In closing, what is your best advice for students considering a career working in insurance, and do you want to share any opportunities your respective firms may be offering?
Shanna Sweeney (24:14):
Do more than consider it. Come join us. The quicker the better. And if pursuing your master's is important to you, there are companies that help pay for you to get that. It's something I've done during my working career is work on my MBA. So, don't think that just because you're leaving school to enter insurance means that your educational career stops because it doesn't, and if anything, you'd have some support in it. I can't stress enough that this is an opportunity to be seized and it's an industry and a career path that provides you wild amounts of flexibility and success depending on how much you want of either.
Danielle Thorsteinson (24:52):
I think insurance is one of those industries that's not widely considered by people who don't know somebody in it because not a lot of people even know what it is. It's a little bit finance, it's a little bit legal. No one even knows what to expect of it. So, it's really not something you go into college thinking that you want to do. But as my boss said again, it's a vehicle that leads to an interesting life. It's really good money comparable, if not vastly exceeding that of a legal profession. It's not that much of a grind in that you're not going to have a nervous breakdown the first year. It is wonderfully fulfilling. And if you're someone who's got an itchy foot and likes to travel, likes to live in different cities, might want to go someplace completely new or even to a different country, this industry will allow you to do that because we're not selling a physical product. So, there is a place for you all over the world to do it or anywhere you want to be. So, I don't understand why anyone wouldn't consider it. I've never met anybody who joined this industry and did well at it and was like, oh, I don't like it I'm going to leave. It's incredible. It's just a matter of educating people on what it actually is because it's not something that you grow up knowing about.
Karen Caterino (25:56):
Well, it has certainly been a pleasure talking with you both. Thank you so much for being on our Igniting Next Gen in Careers in Risk Management and Insurance podcast.
Thank you for listening and for more information, visit us at Public Entity.
Alliant note and disclaimer: This document is designed to provide general information and guidance. Please note that prior to implementation your legal counsel should review all details or policy information. Alliant Insurance Services does not provide legal advice or legal opinions. If a legal opinion is needed, please seek the services of your own legal advisor or ask Alliant Insurance Services for a referral. This document is provided on an “as is” basis without any warranty of any kind. Alliant Insurance Services disclaims any liability for any loss or damage from reliance on this document.
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