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Women Insurance Leaders: Sarah Black and Jessica Black

"I'm seeing more and more women out there [in the insurance industry], just in our own little city alone," says Sarah Black, co-owner of her independent agency with daughter Jessica Black. "When I first came here over 20 years ago, this was a man's job. And now here we are."
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Women Insurance Leaders: Sarah Black and Jessica BlackSarah Black and Jessica Black

S & J Insurance Group Inc.

Stuart, Florida

Favorite TV Show?

Sarah (pictured left): “Gilmore Girls." I like it because it's about a single mom raising her daughter, and she does have parents who could help her, but she chose to do it on her own. I was in the same boat, raising Jessica and her brother, Anthony. Her and her daughter were best friends, and I can relate with having a similar relationship with my kids.

Jessica (pictured right): I like the show “Heartland," which is about a girl who was raised on a farm and is basically an animal whisperer. The fact that the show also revolved around family was what made it even more relatable to my life. I love my animals. Insurance was a plan B for me—my plan A was to be a veterinarian. Now, animals are a hobby for me. I have two dairy cows, a pig and two dogs.

If you could write a book that was guaranteed to be a best seller, what would you write about?

Jessica: I would write a book about having the superpower of empathy and being able to read people's and animals' minds in order to help them each and every day.

Sarah: I'm a history buff. We did a family tree, and we can trace our family background all the way to the Spanish when they came to Florida. So, I would write about my family history.

What drew you to the insurance industry? 

Sarah: I was a single mom working in a bank. A State Farm agent had just arrived in town and needed help. He told me, “I like your work ethic. Do you want to work for me?" I was scared to death because I knew nothing about insurance. But he taught me a lot. I was with him for 7 years. Unfortunately, after we had back-to-back storms here in Florida (2004), he had to shut his office down and let everyone go.

I ended up working for an independent agent. I learned a lot there too—when I was on the captive side, I had to write just their products but coming over to the independent side I was in a world where we could check all these companies in a much faster-paced environment. This was a huge benefit for me in being able to help my clients.

Jessica: I was born around the insurance industry, raised in it and heard my mom talk about it all the time.

Sarah: I never thought she'd want to go into insurance! She worked for us at the independent agency in high school and college, sending postcards and scanning documents. After coming home from college, she received her 4-40 license and became a producer, and everything started there.

Jessica: As a kid, I couldn't wait to get out into the world and figure out who I was. I knew I wanted to do something with animals, but college debt was not something I wanted to tackle. I'm a big family person. Knowing I couldn't go to vet school in Florida was a huge hindrance for me—if I wanted to be a veterinarian, I would have had to head up to Washington state.

Sarah: She'd have to get a whole new wardrobe! We wear flipflops down here, but you can't do that year-round in Washington.

Jessica: Even though I couldn't help animals, I found that I could help people through insurance. When I'm seeing smiling faces and being able to take care of them, rather than just seeing them as a number, that's the biggest thing that has kept me in the industry.

Why start your own agency?

Jessica: I pushed her. It was getting crowded in the agency she'd been working at—too many clients and not enough staff. I was like, “Mom, we could do so much better than this." And knowing I was going to stick with the insurance industry was definitely a big push as well.

Sarah: When I worked at the previous agency, all the clients were asking me, “How come you don't have your own office?" And I had to answer, “No, I'm just the little worker bee." I'd been there for so long people just called me every day—I didn't need to cold call anyone. Referrals were my strong suite. I've been doing this for 21 years now. With starting our own agency, we knew we wanted to revolve around service. Become that “purple cow" and stand out amongst the locals in our state.

Jessica: We opened our doors in January 2020—right before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S.

What is the biggest lesson you've learned during the COVID-19 era?

Sarah: Even though we had pressures, we still made our numbers. We built upon our strengths, and as the coronavirus pandemic continued to develop, we reassessed the goals we had initially set to be more realistic. And we not only met those goals, but we also surpassed them in our first year of operation. The biggest lesson learned from this was no matter what challenges you face; you can achieve your goals when you focus, work hard, and set your mind to it.

Jessica: Another thing that came out during all this has been the deeper meaning in our work. People are out there struggling and can't find insurance carriers because some Florida carriers are struggling too. Being an independent agent and seeing that we have access to more than one carrier, we can help people find solutions. We helped someone avoid losing their house because we found them better coverage for less than half the price they had been paying. That is what has kept me in this industry.

What's it like working as a mother-daughter team?

Sarah: It's wonderful to work together. Her weaknesses are my strengths, and my weaknesses are her strengths. We are the perfect pair. We make an unstoppable mother-daughter powerhouse.

Jessica: She has much more experience on the management side while I've been taking ownership of the social media and the tech side. I think having that mother-daughter touch within “family owned" makes a huge difference when it comes to how the public sees our agency. Our motto is “We treat you like family, because we are family". This captures who we are as mother and daughter and as an agency and what we stand for when it comes to protecting and educating the public with insurance. Our carriers we chose to represent today stand for some of the same traits we do.

Sarah: With the pandemic, I've been working from the office and she's been working from home. We FaceTime constantly with each other with different questions.

Jessica: I'm so thankful for our relationship. We can separate having that mother-daughter bond and the business perspective. It has taken years to accomplish, but with our complementary strengths, we've created that difference and that ability to talk shop, “Okay, we're not mother and daughter right now, we're partners." We do have a business coach, Jeff Earlywine, who has been a tremendous help.

What progress have you seen in gender equity in the insurance industry?

Sarah: I've seen it grow. More and more women are becoming agents. It used to be only men, with women just working in the office. When I first moved to Stuart, all the agents were men. I didn't know a single woman agent. And now there are so many.

Jessica: I would definitely like to see more women in leadership roles. But as other industries are changing—for instance, the first female president of the New York Stock Exchange a couple years ago—seeing that and knowing we can achieve that will, I hope, encourage other women to step up as well. But being an owner of an agency with my mom has opened a whole new world in terms of other women leaders. We're part of a Facebook group for women agency owners across the U.S., and it's such an incredible community that empowers each other and builds each other up.

If you could change one thing for women in the industry, what would it be?

Jessica: To change the mindset that women can't be as successful or can't do as much as men, especially in this industry. Women can do a lot more than what some people think, and I can see some men in the industry who may be scared by that. Of course, there are also men who are all for it and open to talent and skill; we need to build on that. That hindered mindset needs to go for sure.

Sarah: I'm seeing more and more women out there, just in our own little city alone. I hadn't thought about it in a while, but I remember when I first came here over 20 years ago, this was a man's job. And now here we are. Seeing more women leaders in the insurance industry I feel will grow our industry even more and in ways we would not have thought possible.

AnneMarie McPherson is IA news editor. 

Friday, April 30, 2021
Diversity & Inclusion