Attending industry events where he was often the only African American in the room was "what started me on the road to building NAAIA," says Jerald Tillman, founder of the National African American Insurance Association. "I didn't know exactly how I was going to do it; I just knew I had to start."
Jerald Tillman graduated from college in 1974 and joined Aetna. Tillman's mentor, who hired him out of college, encouraged him to join a professional association. However, after attending meetings and conventions where he was one of the only people of color, he set out on a mission to diversify the insurance industry.
In 1997, Tillman founded the National African American Insurance Association (NAAIA)—a labor of love that took more than 20 years of non-stop networking with fellow Black insurance professionals to build.
Today, the group is home to 17 chapters with more on the way. Amid an environment of increasing social conscience, NAAIA continues to promote and enhance professionalism in a manner that leads to industry recognition and career opportunities for its members.
In recognition of Black History Month, Independent Agent magazine interviewed Tillman to reflect on NAAIA's successes and where the association is heading in the future, as well as some of the many challenges that remain for Black insurance professionals.
Q: What inspired you to start NAAIA?
A: I joined the local insurance association in Dayton, Ohio, and got involved on the state level and regional level where I learned a lot. I rubbed elbows with people who were smarter than me and gave me good ideas on how to succeed. But I was always concerned about the lack of diversity that was in these groups. Many times I was the only African American in the group.
Those experiences are what started me on the road to building NAAIA. I didn't know exactly how I was going to do it; I just knew I had to start. I said to myself, “I am going to diversify the insurance industry—that's going to be my contribution to the industry."
Q: What are the challenges for minority owned insurance agencies?
A: The challenges really haven't changed that much since the 70s and 80s. First, it's hard to find the capital and equity to start the agency and get appointment opportunities. Running an independent agency is no different from running any small business. Whether it's a restaurant or a tire shop, you've got to have some wealth or equity to carry you through the hard times, such as at the beginning.
When you look at the wealth gap in America, people of color, specifically African Americans, often don't have the wealth to get started and to help overcome those financial challenges those first few years.
Captive insurers have been able to make tremendous progress in hiring minority agency owners because they aggressively recruited and provide financial backing. The minority independent agency owner needs a similar system to increase our numbers nationwide, along with the commitment of Big “I" state associations and carriers working hand in hand.
What are some of NAAIA's biggest victories?
When I started NAAIA, we recruited a great board, many of whom were from the Big “I." But our biggest victory has been membership growth and revenue. Both have grown tremendously for an organization that started with nothing apart from the willpower to achieve.
Another victory is the special unity within our organization where a group of people came together to help each other and get more African Americans involved in the insurance industry from an independent agent and corporate professional perspective. Some of the brightest, most intelligent people in the industry are a part of our association.
We are also proud of the many collaborations and partnerships we have made over the years with many corporations and other associations—there are too many to name.
Q: What role has the Big “I" played in NAAIA's success?
A: I am very grateful for NAAIA's relationship with the Big “I." In the early years, we really needed the Big “I" to get started. NAAIA's first three national conferences were held jointly with the Big “I."
The relationship has always been there. When I first started attending Big “I" conventions and meetings, I met other agency owners and learned about agency ownership. After I got involved with the Big “I" Diversity Task Force, a lot of those people were on NAAIA's first national board.
Another example of how the Big “I" backed NAAIA is the NAAIA JL Tillman Endowed Scholarship Fund. When we started that, we went straight to the Big “I" and the Invest program because we knew they have so many relationships with colleges across the country.
Q: What's next for NAAIA?
A: We're going to be international in 2021. We're working with a group in Toronto, Canada at this time. We have made connections with a similar group in England. They're not affiliated with us yet, but they attended several of our conferences and decided to set up a similar association to ours.
In the next few years, I see our chapters in the U.S. growing. Right now we have 17 chapters—in the next 10 years, I expect NAAIA will have close to 30 chapters across the country as we continue to be an integral part of this great industry.
Will Jones is IA editor-in-chief.