The Young Pro-Files
A CAREER BY CHANCE
Encounter at college job fair leads to the insurance industry
By Christopher W. Cook
In the insurance industry, certain dedicated young professionals stand out among their peers and are members of an elite squad of individuals. These are their stories. “Dun dun.”
Some young insurance professionals (YIP) are born into the business. Maybe one of their parents ran an agency, and from the day they were born they were destined to take over. But several YIPs fall into insurance careers by chance.
For Owie Agbontaen, assistant vice president, regional underwriting, executive and business development for the Midwest for Sompo Global Risk Solutions (GRS), a division of Sompo International, he lands in the latter batch, with an interesting story about how that chance revealed itself.
Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Agbontaen studied communications and marketing with a minor in African American diaspora studies at Boston College, having a different game plan in mind regarding a career.
“I went to high school in Rhode Island and did radio, so I actually interned for a pop radio station; I thought that was an avenue I wanted to go down,” he says. “But then I was thinking more corporate communications. When it came to marketing, I was thinking advertisements or sales.”
Agbontaen completed an internship in the marketing field the summer before his senior year, but his career path would be rerouted the day he attended a career fair that fall.
“I had a lot of older friends come back with the companies that they represented, and they were giving out swag,” he recalls. “I had like two handfuls of things I’m carrying around and CNA Insurance, based out of Chicago, had bags [at their booth]. I walked to the table, and said, ‘Hey, can I get a bag for all this stuff?’ I’m pretty much on my way out. The CNA underwriter at the booth was like ‘before I give you a bag, how about a quick conversation? You know anything about insurance?’
“We start talking, I give him my résumé, and then two weeks later I get a call about coming in for an interview,” he continues. “I was kind of caught off guard by how interested I was from the start. And then two weeks after that I had another interview, and then I had a job offer before Thanksgiving my senior year.”
During his undergrad years, Agbontaen kept busy with sports and extra curriculars and attributes his discipline to balance all his activities as a key part of his work ethic. Running on the track team his freshman through junior years, working an on-campus job and dancing on an all-male step team “allowed me to understand my capabilities within certain periods of time because of the workloads,” he says.
He even managed to find time for his entrepreneurial side when he started Mile 21 Tank Tops with his roommate. “Mile 21 is the mile of the Boston Marathon that Boston College (BC) is in,” he says. “So you run up Heartbreak Hill and you’re greeted by a bunch of BC people lining the streets. There’s always BC swag on campus, so in 2014 (the year after the Boston Marathon bombing), my roommate and I decided to make tank tops. We actually sold them to about a ninth of the undergrad class. We did it for the next two years after that. We donated a percentage of the gross profit to the Red Bandana Foundation and the Boston Marathon Foundation.”
The insurance career
Even though it was time to walk away from the tank top business in 2016,Agbontaen was all set to start his insurance career after graduating that May. “I was in CNA’s training program based out of New York for about a year, and then I joined their Boston middle market team for two years,” he says.
While completing his training, Agbontaen also earned his Commercial Lines Coverage Specialist (CLCS) designation. While he was at CNA, two team members served as his mentors. “They helped me understand the insurance world and what the industry is about,” he recalls.
During his time at CNA, Agbontaen would meet his biggest mentor while attending the National African American Insurance Association’s (NAAIA) Tri State Conference in New York. “I’m half black and half Asian, and there aren’t too many people who look like me in the insurance industry as a whole, let alone at the C-suite or the executive level,” he says. “Michael Chang, the CEO of Sompo GRS, was giving a talk at the conference and I was like ‘one day I want to work for him.’ He was the first African American or minority CEO of a group that I had met at the time.
“I spoke with him, and we both grew up in New York, we both ran track, he’s also half black and half Asian; we had a lot of similarities. A couple months later a recruiter reached out about joining Sompo. I was like ‘sign me up’ because I could see that career path. Before that, it didn’t necessarily seem as clear, because I didn’t have many people [like me] in those roles telling me or showing me that it was possible. That representation was extremely important.”
Agbontaen joined Sompo GRS in 2018, two years after the division was established. He was brought on board to help develop the company’s middle market group and to grow its Chicago office and Sompo’s presence in the Midwest region.
“Starting that middle market group from essentially zero to now about $12 million in new business has been a great experience,” he says. “I’m focused on growing the book of business at a higher level, between middle-market large and small commercial, as well as our other verticals like environmental and parametric products.”
Involvement and advice
Making a name for himself in the industry has led to other opportunities. In 2020, Agbontaen gave talks for the Dive-in Festival and the Women in Insurance Conference. He also is a member of both the Boston and Chicago chapters of NAAIA.
“I was a founding member of the Boston NAAIA chapter, which formed in 2019,” he says. “In 2020, I moved to Chicago and joined its NAAIA chapter. Because I joined during quarantine, and obviously with not many in-person events or meetings, I’ve only taken a part in the webinars that they’ve done, but am looking forward to doing more when things are opened back up.”
After relocating to Chicago, Agbontaen also started volunteering with HFS Chicago Scholars, a nonprofit that mentors students through high school. “While I was in Boston, I was a part of the Steppingstone Foundation, which is extremely similar to HFS Chicago. They do programs to help scholars from underserved communities grow in the academic world and help them go through high school into college.
“I was a part of the board of young professionals [in Boston], where we developed the mentorship program for that organization as well as hosted events for young professionals to help donate to the nonprofit. I still touch base with them every now and then.”
With his industry and community involvement and his hard work ethic, Agbontaen’s key advice for young professionals entering the industry is to, “make your own path. There are so many different outlets in the insurance industry that you don’t have to stick to just one. If you started as an actuary, you don’t have to end your career as an actuary; if you start in claims, you don’t have to end your career in claims.
“Starting in one place doesn’t mean that that’s what you have to be to fit the mold of everyone who’s in that division. Find what you’re good at and then expand upon it. You can do a lot of different things and all of the experience is only going to help you be better.”
The personal life
While adjusting to the “new normal” during the COVID-19 pandemic has been rough for many, Agbontaen has found pros and cons with the situation, especially regarding his family, which includes his daughter who was born in the summer of 2020.
“It’s tough because I don’t get to see as much family, but currently that’s allowed me to focus on family and realize how much I haven’t seen them,” he says. “My mom lives in California, and I really only see her about two or three times a year, but because everything was shut down, I was able to work from California for two separate months and bring my family. My wife was there, my daughter got to spend time with her grandmother, and that was incredible. I would have never had that opportunity because I would have either been in the office or I would have been traveling weekly.
“It’s just an amazing time to watch my daughter grow. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be [at home] as much as I am now. But seeing those milestones as small or big as they are, it’s nice. There have been a lot of tough situations during this pandemic, but a lot of silver linings as well.”
For other extracurricular activities (some now on hold), Agbontaen enjoys traveling, particularly his guys’ trips that he would go on with his college buddies once every two months. He also loves checking out speakeasies and breweries in the Chicago area with his wife.
“Chicago is a great place to do that when things are fully open,” he says. “We weren’t able to do it once we moved, but when things opened up, we kind of got our fair share.”
Agbontaen also enjoys bowling, playing on intramural softball teams with his wife and attending Chicago Cubs games. “We live right by Wrigley Field, so we go see a couple of games every now and then and sometimes our daughter comes, as well. My wife is a Cubs fan, so it’s more for her, but I love the atmosphere.
“We just try to fill the days and weekends with activities, because I always thought in college that you were kind of on 24/7 and always doing something. So, to go into the ‘real world’ of working and having a career, sometimes you lose sight of those extracurricular things,” he concludes.
Agbontaen’s introduction to the insurance industry came on the day he asked a career fair vendor for a bag. One of my first thoughts when I hear the word bag is the dancing plastic bag scene from American Beauty. If the wind catches it just right, it could travel toward the clouds, in which I would remind my readers to “keep watching the skies.”